Cornelia Rankin Groves witnessed Savannah’s preservation movement come to life and was dedicated to bringing it forward

At 91 years young, Cornelia Rankin Groves has clear memories of the beginning of the historic preservation movement in Savannah and the seven ladies responsible for it.

 

“I watched them do it,” Groves says. “They wanted to revitalize the downtown area.”

The Isaiah Davenport House was at the heart of the effort. In 1955, it was threatened with demolition to make way for a parking lot.

The seven ladies — Katherine “Kass” Judkins Clark, Elinor Adler Dillard, Anna Colquitt Hunter, Lucy Barrow McIntire, Dorothy Ripley Roebling, Nola McEvoy Roos and Jane Adair Wright — joined forces and raised money to buy the house and save it.

“Those seven ladies were there,” Groves says. “That’s when it started. They stepped up and said to the demolition crew, ‘You can’t do it,’” she says. “I was really young then, in the upper grades.”

By 1955, the house had become rundown and the once fashionable neighborhood had grown seedy. The new owners had to clean the house from top to bottom.

“The Davenport House was used as a boarding house by then,” Groves says. “It was the nastiest, smelliest place. It was awful. There were all those fancy people down there scrubbing.”

Everyone supported the effort, including city police.

“I was at the Davenport House to work and there was no parking,” Groves says. “I parked on the yellow line.

“A policeman came up and I said I was sorry, and he said, ‘That’s all right. You can park anywhere. You are saving Savannah.’ That was the beginning of the preservation movement.”

By 1963, the Davenport House was being operated as a museum.

Polly Cooper and Laura Lawton are co-authors of the book “Savannah’s Preservation Story,” for which Groves was a source.

“The whole downtown was bad by then,” Cooper says. “Nobody wanted to live down there. Everyone was moving south of town.”

“Sometimes, when they took buildings away, they put something back,” Lawton says. “Some of the things they put back were good, but some were just awful, like the Juliette Gordon Low federal buildings. The Historic Savannah Foundation has woken people up.”

While the Davenport House is essential to the preservation story, it is not the only house that was saved.

“The Owens-Thomas House was the first one saved,” Groves says. “It was still in good shape. The Trustees Garden Club planted the garden there. People had been sleeping in it. “

Lost landmarks

Newcomers to Savannah are astonished at the number of historic houses and buildings that are still standing. Natives who remember the beginning of the preservation movement bemoan the many landmarks that were lost.

Perhaps the most mourned is the City Market. The fourth City Market building in a line, it was built in 1872 and was an ornate brick structure with Romanesque arches and large circular windows.

But neither its beauty nor its history could save it. City Market was torn down in 1954 to make way for a parking garage.

“The demolition of City Market was a disaster,” Groves says. “That was the worst thing Savannah ever did.”

But Savannah being Savannah, the loss became a reason to throw a party. Many people gathered for a farewell ball the night before the demolition.

“I went to the farewell ball, but I couldn’t be seen because I was pregnant,” Groves says. “I watched everyone go in and out. I hid in the car.

“My parents-in-law took a mule and wagon,” she says. “They dressed up like gardeners, and everyone else in the wagon dressed like watermelons.”

City Market was not the only gem that was lost.

“We had to get rid of the old,” Groves says. “I think about the stores on Broughton Street that were bulldozed just because they were old, like Adler’s and Levy’s.”

Even Savannah’s iconic squares weren’t safe.

“They opened up the squares for traffic,” Groves says. “The streetcar lines went through the squares. They were going to bulldoze some of the squares for parking.”

That policy was quickly reversed.

“The Trustees Gardening Club got that stopped,” Groves says. “We had them put monuments in the squares. If there was a monument in the square, they could not tear it up.”

Groves developed her love of Savannah and its history while attending Pape School, located in a huge, elaborate, Victorian building.

“Nina Pape made us learn all the history of Savannah,” Groves says. “She made us learn the names of all the squares and recite them. She was instrumental in saving Savannah. “

“I don’t know who instigated all the tearing down,” Groves says. “The new was seen as better than the old. Look at all the schools that were torn down.”

In 1968, the elaborate DeSoto Hotel was demolished to make way for a modern structure.

“I went to the farewell party for the DeSoto Hotel,” Groves says. “The tavern they had downstairs was a jewel. They had a pool and miniature golf.

“But everything had to be new and up-to-date,” she says. “They even knocked down the Pape School.”

Cleaning Savannah

Even as buildings came down, the effort went on to save Savannah. A city beautification project began on River Street and other areas.

“We would sit on buckets and weed,” Groves says. “At noon, someone would say, ‘Cocktail time!’

“After a cocktail and a sandwich, we went back to weeding again,” she says. “We planted thousands of tulip bulbs.”

More needs to be done, Groves says.

“Look what’s been done to Victory Drive,” she says. “I grew up at the corner of Atlantic and 46th streets.

“The palm trees stretched from Ogeechee Road to Tybee and there were so many azaleas, people would stop and take pictures of them. We’ve lost a lot.

“What is going to happen in the future?” Groves says. “The demolition of Johnny Harris was awful. Look how many trees have been taken down and nobody seems to care.”

It was Cabell Stovall who started Keep Savannah Clean.

“We used to throw trash out the car windows,” author Cooper remembers. “Tybee Road was always littered. People even dumped trash at the beach so it would be carried out to the ocean.”

“Cabell Stovall put a talking trash can on Broughton Street,” Cooper says. “If someone came along and threw trash on the ground, the can would say, ‘Could you pick that up, please?’

“If someone put trash in the garbage can, it would say, ‘Thank you.’ It was actually Cabell Stovall sitting in a car with a microphone.

Groves own impact

Today Savannah is beautiful, landscaped and clean, and Groves remains as dedicated to preserving it as she has been in the past.

“She’s a leader,” says Jamie Credle, director of the Isaiah Davenport House and Museum. “She’s done a whole lot.

“She was the president of the student body at Pape School. She received an award from the Red Cross.

“During World War II, she rolled bandages and ran the canteen,” Credle says. “She raised her family, and started the Savannah Country Day School. She and her late husband, Robert W. Groves Jr., started the Highland Games at Grandfather Mountain, N.C.”

“For whatever reason, she loves the Davenport House,” Credle says. “She used to call every day. Some of it was social, but most of it was business.

“In the ’90s, the Davenport House was in need of care, and she and Clare Ellis started an endowment,” Credle says. “They met at Cordelia’s house and visited people and raised a lot of money. Their goal was $1 million.”

The two knew the money was crucial for preservation needs, so they raised an additional $280,000.

“The Davenport House was restored from 2000 to 2003,” Credle says. “I came here in 2002. There was a new air-conditioning system and they upgraded the infrastructure.

“They wanted to give the Davenport House credibility with our interpretation,” she says. “We do have a story to tell here.”

In 2003, Groves started the Friends of the Davenport House.

“She always understood the importance of raising money,” Credle says. “She has a way to find people to perpetuate her vision. She makes us feel part of all of it.

“She makes everything fun. There’s laughter involved, camaraderie, and she’s very generous.”

In 2005, the Preserve America Presidential Award for Private Preservation was given to the Davenport House by President George W. and Mrs. Laura Bush in the Rose Garden of The White House.

“Only four places in America received the award each year,” Credle says. “The Davenport House’s recognition had a lot to do with the fact that everything was accomplished through private and local commitments. It is all about individual communities, all local communities, and private preservation.”

In 2008, Groves received the Historic Savannah Foundation’s highest honor, the Davenport Award.

“She’s concerned about the Davenport House and its future,” Credle says. “If she has a concern, she works to make it better.

“There are so many things she’s worked for. The fact that the Davenport House is thriving is due to her and the work she has done.

But Groves rarely talks about her achievements.

“She doesn’t toot her own horn,” Credle says. “She stays in the background and allows other people to shine. Her joy is seeing her projects becoming successful.

“She knew the seven ladies. Savannah was able to rise like a phoenix. It’s a miracle.

“The fabulous thing is, today Savannah is a tourist destination,” Credle says. “These ladies were role models. They set a precedent. It’s pure girl power.”

Above all else, Groves is unique.

“She’s made of fairy dust,” Credle says. “They just don’t make them like that anymore.”

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