Davenport House

A good tour is a great high

Sauced10

Boy, I was buzzing for days after the tour I gave on May 10th. It's dorky to admit you love what you do unless what you do is something super cool like working for the Mythbusters, or something beyond comprehension like being Neil DeGrasse Tyson. But I'm here to tell you my name is Bonnie and I love being a tour  guide. If only there were a support group for me! But I do love it! It's not just a matter of showing off my city, either. A good tour is also a good performance, and that satisfies the actor in me. There is a reason almost every actor in this city works as a tour guide at least once in their lives, if only for a season. Not many of them make a career out of it like me, but they all get licensed and put a few tourist dollars in their pockets.

I'm running these public tours now Thursday-Sunday, which can be booked in advance on Zerve.com. I've got a morning history tour, an evening ghost tour, and I recently created a drinking tour that I am very proud of. I call it "Lightly Sauced- Raise a Glass to History". The title is pretty spiffy too, if I do say so myself. Now, I hate drunk people and I hate pub crawls. Some tour guides have a gift for conducting pub crawls and really enjoy doing them, but I am not that tour guide. "Lightly Sauced" is not a pub crawl. It is a real history tour, just with a little something extra. My idea was to do a really classy drinking tour that doesn't have the goal of getting everybody drunk. Instead of running around with a crowd of noisy inebriates, the group size is limited (all of three of the tours have limited sizes) and the ticket price covers the cost of all the drinks, food, and tips for the wait staff. As I was putting the whole thing together, I came up with the notion of featuring drinks that have some kind of historical connection to Savannah or at least the Old South.

That wasn't as easy as I thought it would be. I knew I wanted samples of Madeira wine because Madeira was a big deal here back in the 19th century. The Davenport House Museum does a special presentation every February called Potable Gold: Savannah's Madeira Tradition. Now I kinda wish I'd gone to it. Guess I'll have to wait until next year. Surprisingly, the only restaurant I could find that served Madeira was Jazz'd Tapas Bar. Good thing it's a nice place. And since small plates are what they do, it gave me the genius idea of including a snack everyone on the tour could share. The start time is 4:30 and it runs 3 hours; that's well after lunch and a little before dinner. I didn't want everyone staggering around on an empty stomach! Brian, manager of Jazz'd, was spooky like a horse about working with me. I had to reassure him I wasn't a fly-by-night tour poacher (yes, those exist), bound to screw him over either through malice or incompetence. It takes finesse to work all the numbers so the ticket price covers all the costs while also making some money for me. Then there's the logistics of making sure all the restaurateurs get paid and the servers get tipped. I simplified that by opening up a new credit card expressly for this tour so everyone gets paid as I go.

My next thought was to check out the mead bar at Savannah Bee Company. Mead doesn't necessarily have anything to do with this city's history, so that one's kind of a wild card. I just really like Savannah Bee and their manager (also a local singer), Danielle Hicks, was just so enthusiastic about participating. Plus, how often does anybody get to do a mead tasting?

Mint juleps seemed like the next logical inclusion. Ask anyone to name a Southern cocktail and 99% will say "mint julep" first. So, no connection to Savannah, exactly, but decidedly Southern. And I think Margaret Mitchell says something in Gone With the Wind about Scarlet O'Hara drinking a mint julep, and that book is set in Georgia, so that's close enough for me. I was surprised again to find that almost no one in the Historic District serves mint juleps! Some people have told me it's because they're complex and time-consuming to make, so bar tenders don't like them. Understandable, I guess, but a little disappointing. The bar at the 17Hundred90 Inn and Restaurant was my only option, so I'm lucky it's a nice place and the location fell perfectly in line with where I wanted to go.

Lastly, I knew from the beginning I had to include Chatham Artillery Punch. It's the only drink on the list that was actually invented in Savannah and it's a classic. It's also got, like, 6 different liquors in it, so a good one to end on. Wouldn't want to start off that way, right? There are at least 3 restaurants downtown serving this drink, but 2 of them are on River Street and I didn't want to veer that far off-course. It would also be mean to make people navigate the stairs after loading them up with wine, mead, and a cocktail. By process of elimination, then, the bar at The Pirates' House would have to be my final stop. (As an aside- am I a weirdo for being unduly pleased by the restaurant's bold use the plural-possessive in its name and correct placement of the attendant apostrophe? Is that just me?)

So everything worked out quite nicely! I was able to feature the drinks I wanted and all the stops lined up conveniently from west to east, starting near City Market and ending at The Pirates' House. All I had left to do was run a test to check for bugs.

That's where my May 10th tour came in. Some (delightful, wonderful, very helpful) friends joined me at 4:30 in Telfair Square. I was afraid no one would come because my invitation got basically no response, probably because all my friends are poor and I needed a little money from people to pay for the libations. But John, Brenda, Christa, and Tina came to my rescue! Hooray! We had such a great time and I got some very helpful feedback. Here are some pictures I took along the way. Sorry for the crummy iPhone camera quality:

Savannah, GA, Georgia, Lightly Sauced, Jazz'd Tapas Bar, bar, madeira, wine, friends

Raise your glasses, guys! And here's a close-up of the Madeira with Jazz'd's (oh God, too many apostrophes now) delicious Baked Cheese Terra Cotta plate:

Savannah, GA, Georgia, Lightly Sauced, Jazz'd Tapas Bar, bar, madeira, wine, baked cheese terra cotta plate

The mead at Savannah Bee was much appreciated and I found out it was the first time John and Brenda had ever been in the store. They'd been walking past it for years and just hadn't gotten around to shopping there. It is a shame not to shop at Savannah Bee!

Savannah, GA, Georgia, Lightly Sauced, Savannah Bee Company, mead bar, mead

Here is our bartender hard at work crushing the mint for the juleps at the 17Hundred90. He's told me his name on two different occasions and I am ashamed to have forgotten it both times.

Savannah, GA, Georgia, Lightly Sauced, 17Hundred90 Inn and Restaurant, bar, mint julep

I was a little nervous because John is something of a mint julep connoisseur. He makes his own each year for the Kentucky Derby. What would I do if he told me the drink was lousy? I couldn't get it anywhere else, but I wouldn't want tourists to drink crappy liquor. Happily, John informed me the mint julep met his standard. These drinks all have Bonnie's Friends Seal of Approval. That was my other motivation for the test-run: I needed people who regularly drink alcohol to vet the booze for me. I hate the taste of alcohol and I don't drink, so I have no basis for comparison. I overcame my lack of qualification for this tour by delegating the tasting responsibility to my willing guinea pigs.

Savannah, GA, Georgia, Lightly Sauced, Columbia Square, mint julep

So, last stop was The Pirates' House and that was a trip! Our bartender was the a woman named Avery, the self-appointed all-mighty Keeper of the Punch. Seriously, she will cut you if you screw with her Chatham Artillery Punch.

Piates' House, Savannah, GA, Georgia, Chatham Artillery Punch, bar, Lightly Sauced

Avery likes her job. She likes her job a lot. And by the time John, Brenda, Christa, and Tina got to the bar, they liked her job a lot too. I checked in with the group and they all assured me they were not drunk (isn't that what drunk people always say?), but very pleasantly buzzed. I hung around for a while until I had to get set for a ghost tour and polled everyone for feedback about their experience. The one significant change I made, at my friends' insistence, was increasing the duration from 2 1/2 to 3 hours. I agreed with them it would set a better pace. If you do the tour and you think it's too long, you can blame my buddies. It's their fault. They really lobbied hard for the longer run time.

So if you want to have as much fun as John, Brenda, Christa, and Tina while staying mostly (or moderately) sober and learning some stuff about Savannah, or if you want to impress your friends and family by scheduling a really special experience for them, come with me and get "lightly sauced"!

Bonnie Terrell, Savannah, GA, Georgia, Chatham Artillery Punch, Pirates' House, Lightly Sauced

And then they came for my house museums....

The neighbors are at it again. Tour guides and tour company owners like myself have already spent more than a year dodging the choler lobbed at us by Historic District residents. Looks like the house museums are up next. Guess it's their turn. I don't mind the reprieve, frankly. I'm being a little unfair, I know. The downtown residents are often my ideological allies, such as when they furiously defended their turf against the encroachment of double-decker tour buses. That prevented a massively stupid development, utterly inappropriate to this setting, while also eliminating another potential competitor for me. Denizens of downtown also vocally opposed the possibility of a cruise ship terminal along our waterfront, which probably would have been no less disastrous for us than it has been for Charleston. I do think City Council would have reached that conclusion on their own, but it's still nice to know someone's got an eye on them. I love Savannah too and find comfort knowing it is inhabited by these legionnaires of legality who will leap to the city's defense at the tiniest provocation and save me the trouble of rattling my own saber. (I don't have one.)

Sometimes my allies become my enemies, though, as a result of our differing requirements: I use the Historic District to earn a living and they use it to live in. While tour operators sometimes make the mistake of dismissing residents' needs or simply having no manners while on the job, downtown residents sometimes make the mistake of being peevishly possessive and misdirected in their ire, which has led to the present kerfuffle with the house museums.

The Savannah Morning News ran this article, "Issues arise with historic home," on July 17. The follow-up ran in Sunday's paper: "Museum operators wary of potential ordinance change". Basically, it's been all party-party at the Harper-Fowlkes House over on Orleans Square for two years and the people who live nearby are "fed up" (as the two articles repeatedly state). They got the City onto it and the Harper-Fowlkes House Trustees were cited for breaking the Savannah Zoning Ordinance. As it turns out, it is illegal for the museums to lease themselves out for private events because they do not count as "assembly halls" under the definition spelled out in the ordinance, which dates from 1960. The first article cites Metropolitan Planning Commission staffers calling it an "error... of omission". It also says that nobody ever enforced the prohibition except when there were complaints.

Ok, let's deal with the legal issues on this one first, then I'll get into the financial problems. The people living near the Harper-Fowlkes House or any other museum have every right to be annoyed when that venue hosts disruptive events. However, I think the neighbors on Orleans Square are mistaken in coming down so hard on the Harper-Fowlkes House Trustees, which were guilty only of rudeness and amended their booking practices in February. The real problems here are 1) the City's failure to update a 53 year old ordinance that was written at a time when no sane person would want to have a wedding or party of any sort in downtown Savannah and 2) the City's failure to enforce it's own crap rules until somebody compels them to do so. Lackadaisical enforcement of existing ordinances is also a problem in the tourism industry. Along that line, Adam Van Brimmer (the columnist) pointed out in Sunday's article that use of the Charles Morris Center in Trustees Garden for special events is also illegal under the current rules. Charles Morris developed that area expressly for the purpose of hosting special events! Did no one review the paperwork when he was building it? I mean, there is a ton of permitting and bureaucratic hoop-jumping involved in restoration and new construction and nobody at the City realized, "Hey wait a minute- this compound's very reason for existing is illegal"? Seriously? And house museums all over the Historic District have been hosting weddings and receptions with no complaints for years. I don't think any of the curators even knew it was illegal (or at least none are copping to it), and who can blame them if the City has never enforced this law before? So, neighbors of the Harper-Fowlkes House, while it was wrong of the museum to ignore your initial complaints, the real problem here is that we are all saddled with a dumb and outdated ordinance and the City has no desire to enforce it anyway.

Your grievances having been acknowledged, what is it you want, downtown neighbors? The Harper-Fowlkes House made the initial mistake of setting few restrictions on event hours and noise, probably because they lacked experience handling that kind of thing. The proposed amendment to the ordinance which is under consideration now would set hours for music, delivery and breakdown of equipment, and require each historic property to petition the Zoning Board of Appeals for every event. That sounds alright to me, but the attorney representing the spurned inhabitants of Perry Street is quoted as saying it "doesn't protect the neighbors" without any elaboration. That was in the first article, but the second one provides no further clarification. What is that supposed to mean? And is the lawyer actually being vague or is this just a case of bad reporting? Because I really have no idea what the problem is and it makes the people involved seem vindictive and childish.

I have no doubt some of the aggrieved individuals are making their gripe without having a proper idea of how the museums function and what they require in order to keep functioning. Tour guides have encountered the same problem- people making counter productive proposals because they don't know how the industry works. One of the neighbor ladies is quoted as saying, about the Harper-Fowlkes House, "The house that once had been a hallowed hall became a setting for loud, even raucous parties in the courtyard." First of all, I hate when I hear tired old phrases like "hallowed hall." Almost nothing we now think of as a "hallowed hall" ever actually was, much less a building that used to be somebody's house. People lived in there. And let me tell you, no one knows how to party like 19th-century high-society! The underwear was crotchless and all the drugs were legal, so you just work that equation out on your own. But that misperception is a minor personal peeve and has nothing to do with this legal conflict, really.

Time to talk about money. The perilous thing about this quarrel is it endangers a vital revenue stream for local museums. Where do people think the money comes from to maintain these houses? The people who own historic property downtown must have an idea how much their homes cost them. I would expect them to have more sympathy for curators who have to magic up the money to maintain large houses and gardens while also minimizing the compounding damage from thousands of visitors tramping through every year. I'll bet you a dollar at least some of the angry neighbors who started this legal action assume museums are able to cover their costs with only admission fees and the money they get from hosting weddings and stuff is just "extra". Luckily, the article from August 4th cited some real numbers to combat that impression: the Harper-Fowlkes House made $90,000 off rentals last year, but still faces a $70,000 shortfall this year; rentals make up 5% of the Davenport House's revenue; and the Telfair Museum stages 50 external events a year that subsidize 150 educational programs it presents all year long. Several other museums in town are considering renting themselves out for special occasions because they need the money, so a lot of people have their eye on how City Council updates the ordinance.

So, I hope City Council comes through on this one (they get things right sometimes) and works up a satisfactory amendment. They've already gotten off to a blazing start by... postponing action for another six weeks. Well... the slower they move, the easier it is to catch them before they do something stupid.