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City Talk: Take closer look at Savannah’s historic pavement

“We’re so used to streets dominated by asphalt and concrete that we’ve become blind to the earlier historic pavements that survive in cities across the country,” Robin Williams said near the beginning of his recent TEDxSavannah talk, “and we’ve utterly forgotten the critical role they played in helping modernize and make our cities livable.”

“For decades, people fought to save historic buildings as a vital part of our heritage, but they made no effort to do the same for street pavement,” Williams added.

“We’ve all been so busy looking up at the vertical expressions of our past that we have become blind to the remarkable heritage that exists in plain view under our feet.”

So what stories can we uncover by looking more intently at the vitrified brick on Jones, 31st, 36th and other downtown streets? Or the Belgian blocks on River Street? Or the cobblestones on the River Street ramps? Or the concrete streets flanking Franklin Square?

Williams is an architectural history professor at the Savannah College of Art & Design and was lead author of the book “Buildings of Savannah,” which was published in 2016 by the University of Virginia Press. On a recent afternoon, Williams and I met at Gallery Espresso for a few hours to talk about historic pavement.

Williams turned his academic eye to pavement after beginning to question the reason for a triangular design in the asphalt blocks in front of Pepe Hall, where he had worked for years.

He wondered at first if the triangle could be a yield sign, but he eventually discovered that the design allowed for the best dispersal of the weight of wheels as vehicles made the turn around Chatham Square.

Soon after, Williams proposed a paper on street pavement to an academic conference. The paper received encouraging feedback from Williams’ colleagues, and that started him on a path of inquiry that seems likely to continue for many years.

“I’ve yet to find a city with the extreme diversity of Savannah,” Williams told me during our conversation about pavement. By combing through many municipal reports, Williams has discovered that city officials experimented over the decades with a wide range of materials, including with asphalt as early as 1881.

The “pavement problem,” as Williams describes it, was an intensely local one. What resources were available? How much did the materials cost? What surfaces worked best for our climate? What did nearby property owners want?

The close examination of the history of Savannah’s “pavement identity” has led Williams to some practical and immediate questions for the city.

We have various protections for historic buildings, but should we protect our historic pavement?

For Williams, the answer is unequivocally yes, and he is encouraged that city officials are engaging in a conversation about a potential new ordinance modeled after those in cities like Wilmington, N.C., St. Petersburg, Fla. and Columbus, Ohio.

Williams argues convincingly that preserving historic pavement is important if we want to protect our heritage and civic identity, but he also cites practical reasons for basic protections.

Consider Jones Street, for example. The vitrified brick and asphalt blocks might need maintenance, but the street hasn’t required an expensive repaving in over a century. The seams in the historic pavement allow for some drainage, and the irregular surface calms traffic.

And there is another advantage to having streets paved with historic materials like brick and block. “Most people would say they’re prettier,” Williams noted.

Williams’ research extends to other street and sidewalk features, including embedded signs and manhole covers, and he has documented how easily historic elements can be lost.

For example, an embedded Depression-era sign for Dixie Pawn Shop was removed when city crews made improvements to the sidewalk on East Broughton Street.

One of the 19th century cobblestones on the Whitaker Street ramp to River Street was identified as a tombstone from China that dated to 1798. Fortunately, that unique stone was preserved by city officials, but there was no review process before the ramp was repaved a few years ago with stamped concrete.

If you’re interested in Williams’ work with historic pavement, there are several ways to learn more.

Williams runs the website Historic Pavement (http://www.historicpavement.com), which has a companion page on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/historicpavement). He has also created a Facebook group, Friends of Historic Pavement.

On the city of Savannah’s website you can also find a report (http://www.savannahga.gov/DocumentCenter/View/10017) that Williams prepared for City Manager Rob Hernandez. In addition to making a strong case for better protections, the document includes a color-coded 1906 map showing 10 different kinds of pavement on Savannah’s streets.

You can also view Williams’ recent TedxSavannah talk on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OHaYaa5Zc1Y&feature=share).

City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, Ga. 31401.

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