June 2, 2015

Saving Savannah: The Preservation Legacy of Anna Colquitt Hunter

  • By: Sophia Dembling

By Sophia Dembling

The proposed demolition of the Isaiah Davenport House was the catalyst that spurred Anna Colquitt Hunter to fight to preserve Savannah's historic relics.

Savannah is so closely identified with its gracious architecture and elegant squares, it's hard to believe that at one time, all that was at risk. If it weren't for the energy and savvy of Anna Colquitt Hunter, who set preservation in motion in Savannah, the city today might have a lot less charm and a lot more parking lots.

Born in 1892, Hunter was a proper young lady from an old Georgia family.

"I think of the family as the landed gentry without any money," says Henrietta Jardine, Hunter's granddaughter, who now lives in Macon. "They had the habits and the culture of more well-off southern families, without the money."

Hunter attended college but dropped out to marry. In 1936, her husband died, leaving her a widow in her 40s with three children to support.

Following in her sister Henrietta's footsteps, Hunter started writing for the Savannah Morning News and Savannah Evening Press. As was typical for women journalists at that time, she was assigned the society beat. Although she eventually branched out to writing book reviews, editorials, and art, this connection to Savannah society was later central to her efforts to save Savannah's history.

(Left) Anna Colquitt Hunter; (Right) "The Seven Ladies," seated first row left to right: Lucy Barrow McIntire, Elinor Grunsfeld Adler Dillard, Anna Colquitt Hunter. Standing, second row left to right: Nola McEvoy Roos, Jane Adair Wright, Katherine Judkins Clark. Not pictured: Dorothy Ripley Roebling.

Eccentric and bohemian, Hunter loved cocktail parties -- and cocktails, recalls Savannah historian Hugh Golson, who knew her. In her later years, she loved having young men to dance with and squire her around. Jardine, who grew up in Colorado, remembers that when "GrandAnna" came to visit, she wore ballet flats in exotically patterned velvet everywhere. "Nobody in Colorado dressed like that," Jardine says.

At the same time, Hunter was a Southern lady. "There was a gentility thing that she was expected to adhere to," says Golson. "Things like always carry white gloves in your glove box, in case you had to stop at a department store."

When World War II started, Hunter joined the Red Cross and was a field director in the thick of things, tending to GIs coming out of combat. Back in Savannah after the war, she decided to take up painting and moved into a warehouse on Bay Street, where she would put her easel by a balcony to paint.

"In the days when we were going to visit her, the area was run down and decrepit," says Jardine. "It was really an industrial section. There were these great big old flats; we would call them lofts today. They had balconies over the river and walkways over the ballast stone pathways. You had to walk across this little bridge to get to her front door. She lived in one room with tall, tall ceilings, and she divided it up with accordion shades. We all lived in houses with walls so it was fun to visit her."

The Davenport House pre-restoration, circa 1934.

The balconies along Bay Street initially inspired Hunter's interest in preservation, says Jardine. "She said to her friends, ‘We need to get some of these wealthy bachelors to help us save the balconies.’"

However, those balconies were not the only architecture at risk in Savannah at that time. The entire old section of the city was decrepit and at risk of being demolished; nearly 50 percent of the old buildings were gone, says Golson, "mostly to accommodate automobiles."

Locals were particularly alarmed when the old City Market, which dated to the late 1800s, was torn down for a garage in 1954. The following year, when the 1820 Isaiah Davenport House was slated for demolition for a funeral home parking lot in the following year, Hunter took action.

Although she was living hand-to-mouth, Hunter was well-connected through her years of covering the society scene. And she was strategic about assembling a group of women -- they came to be known as "The Seven Ladies" -- to persuade bankers and businessmen that Savannah's historic structures could be a financial asset to the city.

"What she put together was a politically correct cast of characters who would have great direct and indirect leverage," says Golson. "She had people like Lucy McIntire, a big Democrat mover and shaker, friend of Roosevelt, supervisor for the WPA. She had Elinor Adler Dillard because she was Jewish. She had an alderman's wife, a banker's wife. She put together a group that would have some say-so."

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The front entrance of the Davenport House pre-restoration, circa 1934 (left), and the interior stairway of the Davenport House pre-restoration, 1934 (right).

(Interesting note: One of the ladies, Dorothy Ripley Roebling, was married to the great-grandson of John Roebling, designer of the Brooklyn Bridge and father-in-law to Emily Roebling, a key player in the bridge’s construction.)

Facing such formidable opposition, the owners of the funeral home backed off from their plans. The Historic Savannah Foundation incorporated on July 6, 1955, and immediately took out a note to buy the Davenport House. ("Remember, one of the women was married to a banker," says Golson. "And of course, who signed the note? Husbands.")

"They started an organization that had two prongs" says Golson. "Not only would it go about trying to save buildings and try to find other uses for them, but it would encourage tourism."

Mission accomplished. Today, the Historic Savannah Foundation still owns the Davenport House, which is a house museum. Savannah has a billion-dollar tourist industry. And the rotating fund established by The Seven Ladies is still used to buy old buildings, which are then sold with the stipulation that the new owners start a proper restoration within six months. The fund has helped preserve more than 350 buildings.

Hunter, who stepped away from the foundation once it was running, lived on Bay Street until her death in 1985. Today, her paintings are still bought and sold. But perhaps her greatest legacy is lovely old Savannah, a place that almost wasn't.

Sophia Dembling is the author of "100 Places in the USA Every Woman Should Go."

Dallas, Texas-based writer Sophia Dembling is author of "100 Places in the USA Every Woman Should Go," "The Yankee Chick’s Survival Guide to Texas," and other books. Her articles and essays have appeared in The Dallas Morning News, Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur, Texas Journey, and many other newspapers, magazines, and websites.


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