Berrien the past

When I got back into town from Florida on September 9th, I was thrilled to read this column by Bill Dawers in the Savannah Morning News: Important unrestored Savannah building finds perfect buyer. It's about the Berrien house, which has sat crumbling on the corner of Broughton and Habersham for years and years and years. Seriously, the last tenant in there was Pete's Shoe Repair on the ground floor and that closed up over two decades ago. The Berriens were a very prominent local family in the 18th and 19th centuries. John Berrien was a great patriot and served under George Washington. Andrew Jackson appointed his son, John Macpherson Berrien, Attorney General. I've seen their gravestones in Colonial Park Cemetery. The house was probably under construction in the 1790s and George Washington himself may have taken a gander at the site while he was in town in 1791. I picture these two southern gentlemen standing placidly next to the foundation and framing, beers in hand à la King of the Hill, and pontificating thusly: "Sure is a nice house you're building there, John."

"Thanks, George."

"Yep," as Washington takes a sip of his beer.


What John Berrien could never know is that 221 years later, the blighted husk of his once glamorous home would be rescued from decay by his own descendent, Andrew Berrien Jones of New York. Andrew Jones is also a scion of the even more locally resplendent Jones family. We should all be impressed as hell by that pedigree, but this isn't Charleston, so probably no one will care. According to Bill Dawers, Jones is an artist and businessman whose family visited Savannah regularly throughout his life. He didn't know about the old homestead, though, until about 10 years ago. I guess all the grandparents and stuff had forgotten they used to own it. So, I imagine the wheels have been turning in Jones' head for the last decade. Has he spent all this time marshaling his resources until he had enough to buy the place? Artists are famous for not having money, so where did he get his? What type of business does he run? Business better be good because it's going to take obscene amounts of money to spiff that place up. I've been telling my tourists for years if they knew any eccentric millionaires who needed a project, they should send them our way and point them toward that house.

I do not have a photo of the house, but you can take a look at this other article from 2008 to get an idea what kind of shape it's in. Scroll down to the bottom and there's even a video walk-through of the place. I have often used the Berrien on my tours to show people what the Historic District used to look like decades ago. For someone who has never been to Savannah or who didn't grow up here, they simply cannot conceive what a wreck the place was throughout most of the 20th century. It's so good-looking now. I'm pretty sure the dilapidated state of that particular house drives it home. The Berrien has been insensitively altered, it's wooden siding stuccoed over (honestly, who does that?), it's ground floor raised, its levels cut up into tenements. For years it has loomed on that corner, looking as if someone cleaned up a crime scene in a splendid home, put everything back in perfect order, then simply left the brutalized corpse lying in the front parlor.

The house is one of few surviving artifacts connected to Savannah's late 18th and early 19th century history. For that, it needs to be saved and fully restored and I am very glad it will be. But the Berrien house is also an artifact and survivor of Savannah's uglier days, it's decades of decline and neglect and crime. Nothing is for free and the restoration of yet another old building sanitizes our history just a little bit more and costs us a tiny amount of truth. Progress doesn't mean anything if you don't know how far you've come. How will I ever be able to show people what made Downtown "the bad part of town" for an entire generation? I'm losing a little connection even to my own personal history. The Historic District was still "the bad part of town" when I was a kid and I know people who are still afraid to go there, especially after dark. I will no longer be able to share that experience with my clients as fully as I've been able to the past few years. For that, I am a little bit sad. But only a little bit.