Buildings and cities as living organisms

“Buildings are three-dimensional history books that reflect the comings and goings, successes and failures, aspirations and follies of real people.” – Mills Lane in the foreword to Architecture of the Old South: Georgia.

We come to everything with our own experiences in tow, so when I attended Christian Sottile’s recent lecture at the Massie Heritage Center, I was looking for connections with what Sottile had to say about “A New Humanism” in architecture and what I had learned about Mills Lane IV’s observations as he studied, wrote and created.

 Sottile, who has developed an international reputation in architecture and civic design, says, “Cities are people.” He talked about the importance of centering and the importance of the street that is Savannah’s center, where east and west meet: “When you walk Bull Street, you’ve found balance.”

In the 1990s, Mills had strengthened that spine, putting more than five years and $1.5 million of Lane family money into the Bull Street streetscape from Bay Street to Forsyth Park: brick sidewalks, cast-iron Bishop’s crook streetlamps, French trash receptacles, and tree lawns. He hoped to make the city stand taller with Bull Street as a model for other projects. The complementary City Sign Improvement Project created new street and square signs and traffic control sign frames. At the recent lecture, Sottile showed an image of the hodge-podge confusion that can result from uncoordinated signage efforts undermining a clear “city as information.”

The Savannah Streets and Squares Project and Landmark District Tree Fund were Lane-led extensions of the Bull Street Improvement Project working with the Historic Savannah Foundation and the city to continue to beautify the public realm. Sottile said that Savannah has been recognized as having more streets per square mile than most cities, and 40 percent of its area is used as public space where the national average is 25 percent.

Anne Lane documented family building renovations and bank celebrations for her son, Mills Lane IV, when he was away at school and in the Navy.

Mills had inherited the love of the organism that is Savannah from his family. Even when he was sailing the seas in the U.S. Navy he shared passionate letters about family restorations, especially with his mother. Anne Lane was the woman with the details. She observed and noted and kept Mills apprised of how the world was working in Atlanta and Savannah. She wrote from the vantage of a family with money, influence and historical perspective. She had married an ambitious, outwardly optimistic, iconoclastic banker, Mills Lane, Jr.

On April 12, 1968, she wrote to her Dearest IV about the spring tour that brought visitors to his 14 Price Street renovation in Savannah.

“We ended up unexpectedly in Savannah on the weekend of the Garden Tours. Momma Sue and Aunt Mary had your house fixed up in a very manly fashion – using a sparse arrangement of pear blossoms and a few camellias. I sent over the iron bench from my yard which helped fill out the bare patio. Father was so funny! As evening began to fall and as we sat in our grass garden protected from foreign eyes, the chatter and patter of passing groups of people, making their rounds from … [house to house, and he] pricked up his ears. Pretty soon he was peering through the gate grills; then, he was opening the gates; and, then, he was wandering across the street to your house giving every one the wonderful world salutation.… Your house sitters took turns having a break at our apartment. Father also discovered a few Atlantans to invite over so we had a continuous party from 6 to 10. I think it all went exceedingly well; and the Church made money! And Father had the time of his life!”

Her notes about politics and banking can seem almost contemporary, but the gender roles were much less fluid in 1968. In January, Anne had written to Mills IV:

“Father says the Copenhagen Monetary Conference scheduled for May has been called off in deference to President [Lyndon] Johnson’s plea to keep American money in America. It will be held somewhere in our part of the world – or in our country; and I don’t know whether ladies will be involved or not.”

But just a couple of months later she was on the way to the opening of the Jamaica Citizens Bank. Just as she noted the details of construction in Savannah, she recorded the oddities of the new bank and its entry into the life of Kingston.

They arrived in Jamaica on March 5 on “a short sweet flight on the Winn-Dixie Gulfstream. Kingston was cooking, not only from the natural noonday heat.” The new Citizens Bank had some fiery plans.

“The Jamaica Citizens Bank was almost – but not quite – completed.  [Atlanta] architect Dick Aeck told us that the contractor there worked hard every day, but not necessarily on the right things. For example, he knew he had planned a ladies room on the third floor. He looked and he looked but he could not find it. Finally, after inquiry, he found the room, but all doors had been sealed up. Also, he would discover a wall where no wall had been planned and the contractor would say ‘No trouble,’ and start chipping the wall down.… They were still hauling wet concrete in buckets through the main lobby, and walking up to the third floor, until Dick stopped them. He suggested they use a pulley and rope up to the windows.”

Anne vividly described the reception Mills Jr. hosted at the bank: “ The Jamaica Citizens Bank was decorated with flowers, and paintings from local artists – some very good, and all very colorful. No one had had time to sweep the floors after sweeping out the construction crew. Everyone ignored … dirty floors. Cold drinks and mixed drinks were served on trays and really quite good hot and cold hors d’oeuvres as well.… Every kind of dress you could possibly imagine came to the party. There are a number of Chinese there: the ladies came in long oriental dresses slit up to the hip bone. One … came in a cutwork … a mini dress with nothing but a bikini underneath.”

The next morning, the women shopped at the straw market and visited a restored house that reminded them of Savannah “with its high ceilings, and verandahs, doors and windows built for cross ventilation. You would have loved it. It had an old elegance.

“That afternoon, at 4:30 we were sitting on the reviewing stand waiting for the great parade. We seemed to wait eternally, but finally the parade band started down the street. This was promptly stopped by one of the Jamaican Bank Directors because the Governor General had not arrived, and nothing can start in Jamaica until the Governor General comes to de party. It seems the G.G. had been delayed by parade traffic. Meanwhile the Prime Minister arrived and was thoroughly booed by the nearby populace, which made him so mad that he extended his say-nothing speech to about ½ hour.”

Anne said the ensuing parade “gave almost everyone in town a chance to participate.”

A band set the tempo followed by Boy and Girl Guides and bank officials on floats. The banners told the stories: WE GUIDE THE BANK. The new bank personnel wore green dress uniforms, with a banner proclaiming, WE RUN THE BANK. There was a pantomime actress and farm scene: THE BANK HELPS OUR AGRICULTURE.

“Then all sorts of motley citizens [appeared with the] banner WE OWN THE BANK.” Today it would be hard to imagine so much hoopla for the opening of a bank. But there was more.

There was “a float with the Rock Steady Girls – all rocking steadily,” with a banner WE LOVE THE CITIZENS. A band on a truck advertised SWING WITH A SWINGING BANK. And bringing up the rear were “all the construction workers slinking with averted eyes with the banner WE BUILT THE BANK.”

This city’s people were flowing through the streets announcing that this new building was adding to the public body in a loud and enthusiastic way.

Anne continued: “The speeches followed. Everyone talked much too long except Father, who as you know is always short and sweet.”

“After the parade the bank’s Chairman of the Board, a very distinguished looking golden-brown man with a mustache, had an outdoor buffet supper at his home for about 600 people. It was a beautiful night; the steel band was alternately playing popular and classical music. In conversing with the Jamaicans, I mostly talked about children. They were very proud of the fine education that they had given them, even though it meant in most cases that the children would never return to Jamaica. Father and I departed before the dancing began.

“We flew back to Atlanta the next day in Lockheed’s demonstration Jet – Star. Left at 11:45 – [arriving at their home at] 2 West Muscogee at 3:15. I could hardly believe it!”

Mills IV responded from his seaside post that “the Jamaica opening sounded terrific: don’t let the Metropolitan Planning Commission bluff you at the corner of Price and Bryan; what about Jefferson Street and Troup Row: how about giving me a chance to try an ECONOMY renewal of the end house of Troup Row as a demonstration upon my return; could someone plant a big bed of mint in my 14 Price Street for summer juleps?”

Mills wanted to expand his hand with renovation and restoration when he returned to Savannah.

At the Massie Center, Sottile said, “Buildings have souls. We save what we care about.”

Mills Lane was ready to start saving souls.

 

Rexanna Keller Lester is working on a book about Mills Bee Lane IV and his preservation legacy.

For more on architecture and the history of the South, click on the “Books” tab at the top of the page.

 

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