Mills Lane IV was more than a tree hugger: he started a tree fund. He was more than an admirer of Savannah’s streets: he paid for the renovation of a main artery. He was more than patron of fine house restorations and museums; he transformed a neglected 19th-century mansion into a top-flight house and maritime museum.
Mills Lane IV poured heart, soul and inheritance into his vision and obsession with Savannah. That vision led to the complete restoration of eleven 19th century houses. He also constructed six new houses to fill “the gap-tooth lots.” He built two infill houses on his beloved Pulaski Square, one at 200 W. Harris and the other 209 W. Charlton, where he tore down what he called a “post-modern intrusion” and replaced it with a house in the style of a neighboring home.
When he returned from New York to Savannah full time in the 1990s, he spent $1.7 million of family money to recreate the Bull Street streetscape from Bay Street to Forsyth Park, complete with trash containers imported from France, cast-iron Bishop’s Crook streetlights, brick sidewalks and tree lawns. Mills IV was not pleased when store owners or the city didn’t attend to the tree lawns as he thought they should, and city officials heard from him often. His standards bumped up against city maintenance budgets, but he often paid for extras himself.
He donated a plot of land so a playground could be moved a block and an appropriate house built on a Chatham Square trust lot at 427 Barnard to complete the square. His vision expanded landscaping in the squares and established the Landmark District Tree Fund, where he matched every donated dollar to plant canopy trees.
Mills IV could fire off blistering letters when he thought squares were being abused, and he was not above chasing perceived miscreants down the street. Then he would laugh at himself the next day. His work was instrumental in the city developing a structured plan for using the squares for public events.
He also moved the Ships of the Sea Museum from the Savannah river front to the Scarbrough House that he had restored from 1994-96. The house, at 41 MLK, Jr. Blvd. had been built in 1819 for the president of the Savannah Steamship Company, William Scarbrough, an owner of the Savannah, the first steamship to cross the Atlantic. Mills IV transformed the museum from a mixed collection of maritime artifacts to a gem of maritime art and scaled ship models that tell the story of Savannah’s maritime history.
Next: The Historic Board of Review was a lively monthly meeting when Mills Lane IV joined the discussion. As a member of the board he questioned applicants and architects. He lectured. He cajoled and encouraged. He didn’t hide his sense of humor or outrage.
Rexanna first wrote parts of this essay for the Vernacular Architecture Forum Annual Meeting in March 2007.