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Wholesale Observations: Savannah, Ga.
Rafe Semmes
Rafe Semmes

A story in today’s Washington Post about a Canadian company moving a 200-year old building back 30 feet to make way for new construction – and having to use 700 bars of Ivory soap to “grease the way”-- reminded me of this historic move in downtown Savannah I was personally a witness to, and glad to have seen.

40 or so years ago (late 1970’s or early 1980’s), I spent every day on my lunch hour for a week, watching and taking pictures (with a tiny Kodak Instamatic 110 camera) of a small three-story brick building being moved around the corner and across the street, in downtown Savannah, GA. Not the same as this move, but quite impressive, nonetheless.

It was at the time the local HQ of Southern Bell Telephone Co. (the local telephone provider before the courts “deregulated” telephone service, and opened up the floodgates to every Tom, Dick & Harry). “Ma Bell” at the time decided it was no longer needed, so vacated the premises and was going to have the building demolished to make room for a newer, bigger building.

Because the building was considered by some to be “historic,” however (we in Savannah are big on maintaining our “historic” downtown district, since it draws in umpteen-tourists and their dollars each year), Southern Bell offered to donate the building (or sell it for a minimal cost, I forget which) to anyone who would take care of moving it.

My late father’s childhood friend and family lawyer, whose own father had once served as Mayor, then offered to move the building to the opposite corner across the street, and move his law firm there. His offer was accepted. His junior partner at the time was also the son of a former mayor, and still maintains that building as his office, as far as I know, although he himself is now semi-retired, and my dad’s friend has long since gone on to his own heavenly reward. (God bless him.)

The move itself was amazing to watch! The movers jacked the building up, inserted steel I-beams underneath it, then slid it forward onto the street where it was placed, as I recall, on top of something like one-foot square wooden beams, which were themselves placed on top of 6” steel rollers, which sat on the pavement. A crane behind the building attached cables to the back end, while another crane attached cables to the front end, so that it could be slowly pulled around the corner and across the street.

The cranes on both ends were to keep it stabilized during transit, so that it did not wobble too much while moving, as the three-story height of the building caused concern that moving it might cause the old mortar between the bricks to crumble during the move, potentially causing a collapse. So the move was done very slowly, some “6-12” at a time, and traffic was halted around that intersection (Oglethorpe Avenue and Barnard Street) for the week it took to make the move.

What an extraordinary sight! The new location on the opposite corner had a new foundation prepared to receive it; and when the building was finally “delivered,” it was lowered into place and bricked in from the ground up, just like it was an original building. No one looking at it today would ever suspect it had once lived across the street!

It also retains its original street number, #123. In Savannah, buildings on the north side of streets have odd numbers; those on the south side have even numbers. Following that tradition, the new number should have been #126. The Powers That Be made an exception, that time, given the historical background (1870?) of the building in question. A series of pictures, similar to mine, documenting this move, are displayed along the interior downstairs hallway of the building, attesting to its unusual historical significance.

As a side note, this building now sits across the street (east) from the old Downtowner Motel, Savannah’s original downtown multi-story motel, where my dad’s Rotary Club used to meet for lunch. It was once considered one of Savannah’s “newest and most modern” buildings when it was built (1960’s?), before a plethora of hotels came to dominate downtown It was later sold and turned into a dormitory for the Savannah College of Art and Design, which grew into prominence in the 1980’s, slowly taking over many of Savannah’s old downtown school and commercial buildings that no longer filled their original purposes. A good use for an older building.

Behind it is an older red brick building that now houses a gym facility for SCAD students, that was I believe the original home of the J.C. Lewis Motor Co., back when there were two “new car dealers” in Savannah, both downtown, the other being Dearing Chevrolet. That dealership was a block or two west, on the corner of Oglethorpe Avenue and what was then West Broad Street, now MLK Avenue. It was later torn down to make way for a Hilton hotel (or some such), one of many that have sprout up in recent years to accommodate the influx of tourists.

Dearing Chevrolet was bought out by Dan Vaden, many years ago, and relocated to Savannah’s southside, following the population growth, next door to the new home for J.C. Lewis Ford. Although business competitors, the two men became friends, and Mr. Lewis reportedly offered to sell Mr. Vaden the land adjoining his Ford dealership, on the belief that Savannah could support both. An unusual friendship, that benefited both men, and all of Savannah.

They did, and the friendship lasted until both men later passed into spirit, many years later. The dealerships survive, now run by their offspring. And both men contributed immeasurably to the welfare of Savannah. We are fortunate to have had them both as members of our community.

Rafe Semmes is a proud graduate of the “Original” Savannah High School on Washington Avenue, and UGA. He and his wife now live in eastern Liberty County with their assorted rescue cats.

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