Making a case for moving history

In the late 1990s Mills Lane IV dreamed of replicating the demolished Chatham County Courthouse that had originally been built on Wright Square. He wanted to put the new construction next to Scarbrough House and the Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum on Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard.

Georgia Historical Society

Chatham County Courthouse, built 1830-33, on Wright Square. Demolished in 1889.

Model of demolished Chatham County Courthouse submitted to the Historic District Board of Review to accompany Mills Lane’s petition to recreate it as an education hall for Ships of the Sea Museum.

He wanted MLK, the former West Broad Street, to once again be a beautiful entrance to Savannah. He even tried calling the street just King Street, but the post office wouldn’t deliver the mail so addressed. He was an enthusiastic patron of Charleston’s King Street and with head and heart attuned to the 18th and 19th centuries, his work at that point concentrated more on colonial than civil rights history.

West Broad had once been the only Savannah street paved with planks to help move crops and goods to the river. The city’s recent beautification efforts and green additions to the street’s median are again highlighting the street’s significance in multiple eras.

Mills thought the street would be perfect for a museum row even before the addition of the SCAD Museum of Art. He argued that the Jepson addition to the Telfair Museum would be more appropriate on MLK than on a square.

Mills had architect John Deering provide a model of the courthouse re-creation and with great anticipation took it to the Historic Board of Review expecting a warm welcome.

But the reception was lukewarm, with some members worried about recreating a historic building in a place other than the original location. It could muddle the town plan, some board members thought. Many buildings have been moved in the historic district to save them from destruction, but no monumental public building had been recreated from scratch in another location.

“Putting that building in a new location would lead to a strange reading of the history of Savannah,” Historic Review Board member and architect Dan Snyder noted later. “What tale are we telling?”

During the meeting Snyder also had some advice about the reading of a more practical matter. He recommended a bigger sign for the museum: “You have this great wall. You should have a substantial sign. I’m encouraging you to consider this.”

“No. No. No,” Mills responded. “It has to be the small sign.” While the buildings could be monumental, signs should be discrete. Mills wasn’t one to allow convenience to overshadow the art or authenticity. This concept carried over to other projects. He didn’t originally put indices in some of the early editions of nonfiction books he authored because he wanted readers to study the books to glean their content. The atmospheric lighting in Ships of the Sea Museum was originally set at levels whale oil lamps would have provided in William Scarbrough’s day. Though exhibit descriptions were made less scrutable, he did install state-of-the-art fiber optics to illuminate ship models he commissioned for the collection.

With the courthouse re-creation, one review board member said that Mills Lane could do the project well, but what if others less meticulous wanted to try it? Mills threw up his hands at the reaction and said that once again Savannah does not accept a beautiful gift.

Next: Mills had contemplated several scenarios for the land around the Scarbrough House. When the courthouse replication was coolly received, he put several friends to work as “the committee on taste” to come up with an idea for the area behind the Scarbrough House as an annex primarily for education.

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

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