Thursday, July 26, 2012

Savannimals, Part 1

One of the very coolest things about Savannah is its historicity. The city is old, and that fact is celebrated and embraced almost everywhere you go. Moreover, animal representations feature prominently in many of the monuments dedicated to past heroes, and symbolize everything from valor and nationalism to grief and defeat. I first noticed these representations around the time of my initial post about Forsyth Park: the fountain, in the north end of the park, depicts two herons cavorting about some cattails and marsh grasses. Since seeing them there, I can't help but pick out other, similar figures as I walk around town. Slowly, this has grown into a concerted effort to find them all, through which I've learned a little of Savannah's history, and the stories behind how these monuments came to be. So, without further ado, allow me to present to you the first installment of these wonderful Savannimals.

One of my favorite monuments downtown, right near the center of the Historic District, is the Oglethorpe Monument, dedicated to the memory of James Edward Oglethorpe, founder of the colony of Georgia. As an M.P. in Britain, Oglethorpe was a dedicated reformer, who challenged the system of debtors' prisons then in place. He saw Georgia as an opportunity for England's "worthy poor" to start anew as farmers, merchants, or in other professional class occupations. Oglethorpe also steadfastly opposed slavery in the new colony, although probably more for pragmatic reasons, that moral ones.

Oglethorpe Monument

His monument, designed by Daniel Chester French and Henry Bacon, was unveiled in Chippewa Square in 1910 (you better know Chippewa Square as the place where Forest Gump waited for the bus; you better know French as the man who who designed the iconic seated Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial). The monument features a warlike Oglethorpe in the midst of four ferocious, shield-bearing lions, each one displaying a different coat of arms on his shield: that of (1) the Colony of Georgia, (2) the State of Georgia, and (3) the City of Savannah, and (4) Oglethorpe, himself. These lions are proud defenders to Oglethorpe as he faces south, the direction of his enemies, the Spanish, who then occupied Florida as colonists. It's a stirring scene, and a perfect example of animals as representations of our traditionally more noble traits. 

Lion with Oglethorpe's coat of arms

Lion with the Seal of the Colony of Georgia

For a perfect contrast, look no farther than the Andrew Low House on Lafayette Square. Andrew Low was a wealthy Scottish merchant who made his fortune in cotton in Savannah before the Civil War. His home was built by architect John Norris and completed in 1848, eventually hosting such notable guests as General Robert E. Lee and William Makepeace Thackeray. Juliet Gordon Low, founder of the Girl Scouts, was Low's daughter-in-law, and died here in 1927. 

Andrew Low House

With such a storied history, you'd think that the entrance to the Low residence would project all of the glory and dignity of its owner and tenants. Or maybe you'd expect a couple of formidable guardians for intimidating ne'er-do-wells. What you get instead is a pair of defeated and emaciated felines who look more like rescues than noble beasts. Where they sit, eternally, outside the front door, they can hardly be said to be defending anything, too distracted to take the slightest notice of intruders. While I can't seem to find a direct explanation for why they're portrayed this way, it seems that Low's wife and son died before the house was completed. Perhaps, then, the lions are sharing Low's grief, as they collectively mourn the complete household they were never able to experience. The lions, forever mournful, evoke the same gloom today as they did then; the loss just as painful to them now as it was 160 years ago.

The saddest lions

These two examples mark opposite extremes (the highs and the lows) of the many animal representations all around the city. When done masterfully, they capture and express human emotion more eloquently than can be done even with human form. As I continue to learn more about our adopted home, expect to find similar posts here in the future, showcasing and celebrating the large variety of our Savannimals.


  1. I didn't know there were so many lions in Savannah, or even Georgia proper. I really enjoyed your insightful expose on the architecture and symbolism of the pieces. Back in college while on a drunken romp through the woods (these things happen) some chums and I discovered a stately lion statue in the manner more like Oglethorpe's companions. It was just sitting in the middle of the woods, slightly overgrown with vines and weeds. Someone must've ripped it off and deposited it there as a prank long ago. At any rate it was a very Narnian experience.

    Statue seeking does seem to have a photographic edge over bird watching, at least in terms of the success rate.

    1. Thanks, Laurence! I've been wanting to start writing these posts for a while, but I kept finding more and more monuments portraying animals in some interesting way. I initially thought I'd put all of the lions in one post, but there are just too many! I had no idea how many lions were around until I started paying attention (just like birding).

      Would be great to stumble upon a long lost lion, like the one you found. Glad you made it back out of the wardrobe.

  2. Great post Nick! Those ARE some sad looking lions.
    Can't wait to see more of the Savannimals. Thanks for the interesting read!

    1. Thanks! Soon you'll be able to see them in person

  3. Nick, this is a wonderful way to "see" Savannah, what a great idea. That little gem is one of my very favorite cities in the country, and I always take lots of architectural shots when I visit. But somehow this particular aspect never registered in my mind. I can't wait for my next visit to look at it in your way, thanks! ~Kim

    1. Thanks, Kim! There were more Savannimals than I expected to find, once I started looking. It's a great way to know the city, and I recommend initiating a search next time you make it to town. Even if you don't, it really is one of the very best cities to go exploring in, no matter what you find.