Johnson Square was the first of the original squares and is still the largest. It was named after Governor Robert Johnson, who was the Governor of what is now South Carolina. Governor Johnson was, by all accounts, a friend and aide to Oglethorpe and the early settlers of Savannah.
Johnson Square was laid out in 1733 and was the centerpiece of the Derby Ward. This ward was named after the Honorable James, Tenth Earl of Derby, who was one of the 21 Trustees of the Georgia territory. The first 40 houses in Savannah were built in this ward.
Derby Ward was a holding place for public stores – things the community would need to maintain itself. Thus, the settlers gathered in this square to get water, see the time of day, which could be read on the sundial which was constructed there, post public notices, visit and to bake their bread. For a long time, there were not enough bricks available for each individual to have their own bread oven, so the city provided the ovens and each family used them as needed. The ovens no longer exist, but in their places in the square are two fountains. The sundial was originally dedicated to Colonel Charles Bull, of South Carolina, who was another friend of Oglethorpe and who surveyed the original city. The original was replaced in 1933 by the Society of Colonial Wars in Georgia and sits today on the south side of the square. In addition, you can find a plaque and mosaic map of the early city which was placed in Johnson Square, proclaiming it a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, by the American Society of Civil Engineers.
There is something here for almost any area of interest, even music lovers! A white marble bench in Johnson Square pays tribute to Johnny Mercer, Savannah's popular and successful songwriter. Between 1929 and 1976 Mercer wrote lyrics to more than 1,000 songs, received nineteen Academy Award nominations, wrote music for a number of Broadway shows, and cofounded Capitol Records. Perhaps best known for the 1961 Academy Award–winning song "Moon River," Mercer also took Oscars for "Days of Wine and Roses," "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening," and "On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe.
The fountains and the live oaks that shade Johnson Square cause it to be an oasis when the weather is hot and still. Due to the importance of this square and its proximity to water, it evolved to be the commercial heart of the city and today it is surrounded by Savannah’s early skyscrapers. Because of the way the lanes were laid out between the tithing lots, the modern buildings could not exceed the size of the trust lots or the tithing lots. This has been to the benefit of the city and its visitors, as the scale that makes Savannah so beguiling has been maintained.
Johnson Square contains a tall white obelisk memorializing the Revolutionary War hero Nathanael Greene, the cornerstone of which was laid by the French General Marquis de Lafayette in 1825. Greene, who was originally buried in the Colonial Park Cemetery, was re-interred under this monument in 1902.
Johnson Square was also the scene of other notable historical events – a reception for then-President Monroe in 1819, on the occasion of the launching of the SS Savannah, the first steamship to cross an ocean, for Daniel Webster in 1848 and for the announcement, in 1860, of South Carolina’s secession from the Union. At this event, the Secession flat was flown from the Green memorial. The Declaration of Independence, ironically, was neither read nor signed here, but in the Provincial Meeting House on Reynolds Square, on August 10, 1776. Thus, Georgia became the 13th colony to declare independence from England.
On the east side of Johnson Square is the Christ Church (now known as Christ Episcopal Church), called the Mother Church of Georgia. This was the first church in historic Savannah and of course, was a Church of England.
Two banks occupy two other of the trust lots. Both were built in the 20th century. 22 Bull Street contains what was originally Citizens and Southern National Bank, built in 1907. 2-6 East Bryan Street contains what was originally Savannah Bank and Trust Company in 1911. It was the tradition of Savannahians to bring outside architects to the city for the more important buildings and these are no exception, having been designed by Mowbray & Uffinger, who demonstrated their skill and versatility by designing these buildings in scale and style compatible with the Christ Church.
From Johnson Square back to Savannah Squares