So Goes the Neighborhood

Maybe it’s the moonshine talking, but I like my Savannah overgrown and slightly dilapidated. 

I mean, it’s kind of our thing, right? It always feels like a humblebrag to talk about how British diplomat Lady Nancy Langhorne Astor once called our city “a lovely lady with a dirty face” back in 1946—because obviously, it’s far more interesting to boast a little schmutz and a few wrinkles rather than be Botoxed and zhuzhed into the same generic Real Housewives visage you can find anywhere else. 

Sure, there are those who will always keep trying to rehab Savannah as Charleston’s drunker, sluttier sister, but we know she’s got her own stories to tell (though most of them are usually drunk and definitely slutty.)

Historic preservation is an art and a necessity, and I promise I’m not kvetching about the decades-old movement that’s behind all the gorgeously restored homes on Jones Street and Victory Drive. We have to thank the original seven ladies of the Historic Savannah Foundation—and yes, SCAD, however much y’all want to complain about tax-exempt status—for spurring the resurrection of so many moldering buildings that might’ve become hideous strip malls and taco-modern stucco condos.  

Gentrification has continued its slow creep, for sure. Yet somehow, in spite of the bulldozers and bureaucrats, Savannah has managed to maintain its air of glorious decrepitude.

However, I fear the end of our contented deterioration is nigh. 

We already know that folks flush with cash from bigger cities scooped up all kinds of properties during the Great Quarantine, and it’s been a bittersweet delight to find that some have excellent taste and are making fine neighbors. Still, it stings to see dumpsters full of bricks and drywall along every lane. 

I get it, at some point a 130 year-old house is going to need new plumbing and possibly a possum exorcism. But no matter how closely things get “restored,” they’re still just a facsimile of the original footprint, the ghosts of Savannah past dispersing in the clouds of dust. 

There just aren’t that many untouched places left in Savannah, and that the biggest buying power comes from outside is just a concrete cold fact.

It’s a rarity that a disintegrating jewel like Ardsley Park’s One Lattimore Place remains in the family, so to speak. Attorney and consummate gentleman Noble Boykin—whose family dates back to the original Salzbergers—acquired this brokedown palace for $1.1M at the end of the summer, adding to a modest portfolio of local properties.

Presiding over Lattimore Park, its Viennese Secessionist façade is unchanged since it was built in 1925 by Ardsley Park developers Henry Hays Lattimore and William Lattimore as part of Savannah’s first “automobile suburb.” Three stories house six bedrooms, four-and-a-half baths, a children’s wing and a chauffeur’s cottage—perhaps the place Jay Gatsby might’ve matured into if he and Daisy had worked things out in couples’ therapy and started a family.

The most recent owners of the house were Sam Zemurray—grandson of Sam the Banana Man, the Jewish merchant from New Orleans who helped orchestrate the military coups of Honduras and Guatemala—who died in the house in 2018, and his widow, Patricia, who passed away in June. 

Under the weight of so much historical bearing and Lord knows how much asbestos, Noble did what any self-respecting Savannahian dancing on the edge of an aeon would do: He threw a grand party to end all parties, inviting his friends and fellows to wander through one of Savannah’s last fading beauties.

Naturally, the echoing halls bellowed for a haunted house setting, and Halloween weekend Noble tapped artist, metallurgist and unorthodox philanthropist Shelley Smith to transform an already gloomy place into a divinely crepuscular creepshow. 

Red lights glowed from the upper balcony over the carved stone transom, a skeletal “Lady Lattimore” greeting guests with a bony wave. Inside, Oriental rugs and antique furniture pilfered from Shelley’s storage unit and friends’ garages amassed in an air of abandoned opulence. The sunroom fountain—which had been broken for decades until Shelley applied her mechanical magic—burbled with layers of fog. On the back lawn, fire spun through the air courtesy of whirling dervish Jamie Falling and her Stardust Pixxies, and Tarot readings by Dame Darcy, twinning with her doll Isabelle in ghostly rococo glory, set a whole macabre mood. 

Fresh off her Saints & Sinners oyster shell show that showcased her favorite locals in collaboration with her mother, Martha Chapman, Shelley appeared to float on a cloud of black lace, grinning at her splendid creation with bloody fangs. Many of subjects were in attendance: Roots Up gallerist Leslie Lovell channeled a perfect Frida Kahlo, Location Gallery’s Peter Roberts presented as a priestly shark, and Alexa Frame geniusly repurposed a black laundry hamper as a human-sized speaker: “Alexa, will you get me another cocktail?” I asked her like 12 times, and she laughed every time, a credit to her sweetness. 

The multi-talented Maggie Hayes jockeyed the discs with true artistry, sending feet tapping and shoulders shimmying around the living room with its disintegrating curtains and peeling wallpaper.

“It’s all very Grey Gardens,” commented artist Stacie Jean Albano, herself dressed as Little Edie.

Somehow all rooms led to the open bar until I wandered up the grand staircase, completely disregarding the caution tape stretched across the hallway (sorry, Noble! Blame it on the moonshine!) Here I found the motherlode of shadowy shabby chic: Crumbling fireplaces, elaborately carved cornices draped in actual cobwebs, eerie Victorian admonitions like First deserve then desire and Fear nothing but sin painted in a labored script on the walls of the children’s wing.

Drowning in my cups, it made me all the more sentimental for a Savannah I’ll never know, no matter much I desire, even if I did deserve it. Though I’ve only known this maligned magnolia since the late 1990s, I am fiercely and unduly protective of my adopted home’s delicate dying elegance, probably because I grew up somewhere that was always so shiny and new, its suburbs sprawling over anything more than a few decades old. I just want our lovely lady to decompose with dignity, is that so much to ask?

Much to my own hypocritical chagrin, I feel myself becoming one of those cranky people who resists change and clings to dust. I howled in frustration last week when I saw that the city had approved multi-use development plan for the former county fairgrounds adjacent to Tatemville Park and lake. These foundering fields are on my regular dog running route, full of flocks of geese and tern poking about overgrown grasslands, and though I’m glad the plan includes affordable housing, I’m terribly sad to see one of the city’s last unspoiled urban places dissolve. Supposedly a strip of wetlands will be preserved, but paved roads and multi-story new construction are hardly a habitat for migrating flocks. 

While we’re on the topic of Old Savannah gentility, I must send wishes and prayers to legendary couturier Cate Lyon, who recently suffered terrible tragedy and health issues. Friends report that she is recovering, and her pal Jim Goodlet has set up a GoFundMe so that this indefatigable talent can carry on. Donate should you feel called, and I hope a profile of Cate and a tour of her Oglethorpe Street salon is forthcoming. 

After reveling in wisps of ancient perfume and the scent of pulchritudinous decay, my handsome date peeled me out of my dark corner and brought me back downstairs. I found myself back in the present, where Anitra Opera Diva, appearing both stately and fragile, belted Puccini to the living room’s 20-foot ceilings and beyond. 

Mingling with Savannah’s most storied characters had me wondering about the future of the integrity of the city’s caliginous aesthetic, though not everyone shared my angst.

“I think actually it’s the beginning of a new era,” mused native Joni Taylor,  spectacularly spooky in slate gray as a Bonaventure Cemetery monument. “I think the people who have these old properties are going to be inspired to share them.”

Speaking of such a devil, as I was fooling on the dance floor I bumped straight into Noble, resplendent in a top hat and tux, looking every inch the steward One Lattimore Place needs and deserves.   

“It’s probably a terrible investment,” he laughed as his wickedly attired guests spilled out into the front lawn. “Who knows, maybe I’ll end up living here...it’s going to take forever to fix up.”

Take your time, my good man, take your time. 

Keep it dirty, Savannah ~ JLL