By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Cool refuge in the North Garden

Going outside in the middle of the day right now seems like a terrible idea.

Maybe you can’t actually fry an egg on the hood of your car (nor on a piece of slate in the backyard, as artist Katherine Sandoz proved on her Twitter feed last week), but surely, it’s possible to poach one’s brain in this unabating heat.

I’ve stopped taking calls during daylight hours because I’m concerned I’ll conduct my own inadvertent science experiment about how much time it takes for an iPhone to melt into the side of a human face. Siri: Has anyone ever drowned in their own sweat?

I’m of the mind of displaced northerner Jessica Leavitt, who believes August is for Southerners to hibernate, a time to cozy up under the air–conditioning vent and subsist on cold sandwiches and Popsicles. To those among us who remember summer in Savannah before AC—and before tank tops were socially appropriate—I bow to you for simply surviving.

As I make another trip to my refrigerator ice machine, I think guiltily of Savannah’s first settlers, who must have been furious with General Oglethorpe for plunking them down in Mephistopheles’ boiler room. If generations of women in white gloves and petticoats can withstand the heat, surely I can handle wearing a cotton sundress to the midday dedication of the Ships of the Sea Museum’s new North Garden.

When I arrive at the museum’s secret garden entrance off MLK Blvd., I thank heaven I’m not a man (for the umpteenth time in my life). They have to wear suits to these types of functions. I don’t care how “breathable” seersucker is; it’s still a jacket over a shirt with a freakin’ TIE and that sounds positively asphyxiating.

Thankfully, refreshment awaits under the stunning new beamed pavilion called the Assembly Room, an outdoor ballroom built to host music concerts and workshops. Folks gather strategically near industrial fans to hear about the latest in the legacy of Mills Bee Lane IV, the benefactor who continued his father’s passion for restoration and maritime history by moving the museum to the Scarbrough House in 1997.

The stately Greek Revival manor was built in 1819 by Owen–Thomas House architect William Jay for shipping magnate William Scarbrough and spent 70 years as the West Broad School, one of the first African–American schools in the city. Now it not only houses its impressive collection of large–scale model ships (I admit I thought model ships were kind of nerdy until I actually wandered through the displays; they’re amazing), the historic property now also offers the city’s largest private garden open to the public.

“If the gate’s open, come on in,” invites linen–clad Executive Director Tony Pizzo, who worked closely with Lane until his death in 2001. Along with the SOS board, Pizzo remains committed to Lane’s vision of shared resources: “Mills was the kind of person who wanted to make life better for everyone in the community.”

Following the axis of the older brick courtyard (a venue on last March’s Savannah Stopover Festival circuit), visitors encounter a stunning assemblage of five new carefully planted green zones designed by renowned local landscape architect John McEllen, who created the museum’s original formal garden in 1997. Though he added more color to Lane’s earlier green–on–green garden scheme, McEllen kept to the primary intention of lush wildness:
“He basically wanted an environment that seemed like if you sat there too long, it might swallow you up.”

For sure, the pockets of new flora give off an impression of outstretched arms, even in their nascent stages: The “naturalistic” area of native sweetgrasses and fragrant magnolias along the Assembly Room’s back wall already wave in the welcome breeze, and it seems that the vines of wisteria, red honeysuckle and Muscadine grapes are sneaking up the 100–foot Pergola right before my eyes. Deep green podocarpus trees stretch up along both sides of the walkway, awaiting the time when their height will allow McEllen to “pleach” them into a natural arch.

The Sisters Garden echoes the original plantings of those hot weather–hardy 1734 Trustees, including mulberry trees and heirloom roses, as well as verdure favored by Scarbrough’s three daughters. Middle sister Charlotte Scarbrough Taylor, SOS curator Wendy Melton informs me, went on to become one of the world’s first and finest female entomologists. (Of course she did—what better occupation for a curious young Savannah woman without air–conditioning than studying our area’s prolific bug population?)

Also on the museum compound—which now spans an entire city block—is the exotic Citrus Garden, abundant with enough kumquat and Key Limes and blood orange trees to bowl over the senses with scent as they bloom.

Savannah will feel the true payoff in the years to come, as the North Garden entwines upon itself and anchors the upcoming MLK revitalization. From the second–story vantage point of the Belvedere balcony, one can take in a unique view of the Talmadge Bridge as well as the geometric perfection of the Trident maple grove, where Pizzo and Community Relations and Events Manager Michelle Riley hope to see locals and tourists alike lounging under the deciduous trees.
“The leaves will change in the fall,” foretells Riley, commenting that SOS’ greenspace is distinct, offering a place “more for reflection than recreation.”

(I must note that Ms. Riley and I share a certain distinction: We both occupy jobs vacated by the esteemed Patrick Rodgers. Your ears burning all the way out West, PRod? Savannah just isn’t quite as cool without y’all. Seriously. I’m blaming you for the heat.)

Free wi–fi throughout the grounds means I could maybe get some work done, but my laptop keyboard might burn off the pads of my fingers. Literally drenched in my own sudor, I instead sneak away from the program and lay down quietly panting under the maples on the soft grass.

It becomes obvious how our ancestors dealt with the heat: They planted trees and took refuge in their shade.