Preserving the Intangible

Johnson Square

Johnson Square (Image from VisitHistroricSavannah.com)

Savannah’s magnetism is undeniable. There is something that draws people to this place: its streets lined with gnarled, aged oaks; its lush squares awash with the perfume of confederate jasmine; the old buildings, unchanged for a century, the suggestion of petticoats and bustles lingering in their vestibules. The richness of Savannah’s history permeates everything here, from the hollowed ground of the city’s cemeteries to the peaks of its stunning antebellum architecture. Do we ever pause to wonder how, in 2015, Savannah still overflows with the sweet romanticism of the old South?

The answer lies with people like Sam Beetler, the Conservation Coordinator for the city of Savannah’s department of cemeteries. Beetler (with the assistance of a conservation technician) is responsible for the maintenance and preservation of Savannah’s five cemeteries, including Bonaventure Cemetery – one of the most hauntingly beautiful places in the city. (Sorry, I had to.)

Beetler works behind the scenes to preserve the integrity of headstones, mausoleums, burial markers, and monuments throughout the cemetery system, but at present can only perform conservation work on structures that qualify as “abandoned”. “For something to qualify as abandoned,” he told me, “it has to have been sitting for seventy years with no interaction between the cemetery and the family for us to go in and work on it. So anything 1945 and older we can work on, but anything newer is the family’s responsibility.” He performs a sort of triage on Savannah’s oldest relics, categorizing them to see which is the most in need of repair. Once approved, he sets to work – but it’s often slow going. He has been working on one mausoleum for about a year and a half.

Of course, in the field of historic preservation careful work takes precedence over speedy work. But with only two team members (excluding Beetler’s supervisor) assigned to an entire cemetery system – Bonaventure alone is about 103 acres – the effort can feel like walking through quicksand.

According to Beetler, there is a separate team that addresses preservation issues within the city’s parks and monuments, but the majority of the work is contracted out. This can create continuity issues, which explains the wide gulf in preservation styles throughout the city. “To keep continuity, you need a lot of oversight,” Beetler explained. And just like every other branch of the art world – preservationists often have different ways of going about things.

There are two schools of thought when it comes to conservation: the Ruskin camp and the Viollet-le-Duc camp. John Ruskin (you may know him as the 19th century’s preeminent art and pubic hair critic) was of the belief that the goal of preservation should simply be to preserve, not to interfere. He wrote in The Seven Lamps of Architecture in 1849, “…it is again no question of expediency or feeling whether we shall preserve the buildings of past times or not. We have no right whatever to touch them. They are not ours. They belong partly to those who built them, and partly to all the generations of mankind who are to follow us.”

Eugene Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, on the other hand, was more interested in “restoration” than preservation, a practice which Ruskin viewed as abhorrently destructive. Viollet-le-Duc wrote that restoration is a “means to reestablish [a building] to a finished state, which may in fact never have actually existed at any time.” He wasn’t afraid to get a little creative in his interpretations so long as his efforts resulted in a finished “restoration” that seemed cohesive with loosely defined ‘historical fact’.

Beetler (and many other present-day conservationists) fall into the Ruskin school, but aesthetic styles change, and not all conservation efforts throughout the city have been rooted in preservation over re-creation. (What tourist wants to see a broken, algae-filled fountain when they can see a clean, reproduced marble one instead?) Beetler, for his part, feels that Savannah isn’t utilizing preservation efforts to capitalize on what the city already has. “[We] aren’t capitalizing on an interpretation of past history,” he explained. “Greenwich and Bonaventure are past plantations. I think it’d be really cool to develop some type of interactive program where you could go into the cemetery and see what it used to be.”

A missed opportunity? Maybe. But this type of thinking, especially Beetler’s mention of interactivity through conservation, has broader-reaching potential.

One of the biggest revelations from our conversation was the idea that preservation isn’t just for physical things, buildings, and monuments. People like Beetler are also interested in preserving the intangible: song, dance, stories, and memories.

"The Robert Dawley House" at Harris Neck. Drawing by Sam Beetler.

“The Robert Dawley House” at Harris Neck. Drawing by Sam Beetler.

Currently Beetler is working to preserve the history of the Harris Neck Land trust, a Gullah-Geechee community located about 45 minutes south of Savannah. A community of the descendants of former slaves, Harris Neck has been embroiled in a battle with the US government ever since their land was taken during World War II to build an airfield. Despite promises made, the land was never returned to the people of Harris Neck, and was instead turned into a National Wildlife Refuge. The homes of the seventy-five families who lived there were bulldozed by the federal government.

Today, only a few of those families remain. But Beetler is working to preserve their memories of the pre-WWII Harris Neck community before they disappear forever. “I sat down with one of the elders that’s still alive and lived in the community before it was destroyed,” he said. “I talked with her and her son and they had developed a floor plan of what their house used to look like. I started making sketches and through my interactions with these people I’ve been able to visually, on paper, recreate the houses that used to be on that property. And to me that is really the best experience that I’ve had in terms of preservation because I’m preserving something that only exists inside someone’s head.”

Whether or not the land will return to the surviving Harris Neck descendants remains to be seen. Since they haven’t recovered ownership of their land, no conservation or re-creation of buildings or monuments there can take place. But Beetler has been able to offer something equally valuable: the commitment of their memories to posterity. It’s the sort of preservation we don’t always think of, but Beetler seems to have found that memories may contain the same gravitas as stone monuments.

Kayla Goggin

Author: Kayla Goggin

Kayla Goggin is the editor of the Savannah Art Informer.

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