Drive north along Savannah’s Drayton Street into and through the city’s historical section, and you should come to an eventual stop at the T intersection with East Bay Street. I say ‘should’ because it cannot be taken for granted, as Donna Haddock proved when she plowed through the intersection, smashed the lion fountain, and careened into the Savannah Cotton Exchange building (figure 1).
That was 2008, some 122 years after William G. Preston designed the Exchange building in 1886.
Preston tended to favor a Richardsonian aesthetic with brick and rich terracottas. The Savannah Cotton Exchange certainly has the latter, though its symmetry and ornament point more toward the neoclassical than the Romanesque.
The first two floors are occupied by a vast hall (where cotton factors were to dicker over pricing), and I suppose there is a series of lateral offices along a longitudinal corridor on the top, third floor. A hipped roof and lantern finish the structure off.
A couple of old HABS survey photographs show the entry vestibule (figure 2) and the large first floor hall (figure 3). More recent photographs of the restored interior can be found here and here. In this essay I’m interested in the façade.
The impressive terracotta decoration in figure 4 sets the symbolic tone that is carried out as one descends to the portals. Aside from decorative grace notes like the acanthus, pellets, inverted brackets, and corinthian capitals, the chief themes point toward a nexus of ideas: cotton-trade-culture-Savannah.
The pedimental ornament, a male figure growing from a classically-derived acanthus rinceau, seems to me an allegory for (king) cotton, which was, after all, the reason for the season in this building. Note the neat feline heads growing out of the vine at the very corners of the pediment. A tabula ansata in the register below the pediment bears the building’s date, 1886, also framed by a rinceau. Both pediment and tabula are constructed of terracotta plaques of irregular outline that have been joined with cement and affixed to the walls of the building.
Moving down the central axis of the façade we come to the semilunate window over the main portal. The symmetry of the façade, apparent here and above all in figure 1, like the decoration, is classically inspired. The use of pilasters to divide the façade into (roughly) vertical thirds has roots in the counterreformation, such as the façade of the Gesú in Rome by Giacomo della Porta. Note that the pilasters of the third story have lyre forms in the capitals, denoting art or culture.
Looking at a crop of figure 5 (figure 6), there is much to wonder at here. The register with the word COTTON, not accidentally front and center to the entire façade, is a sort of weird allegory for the cosmos with flowers as the stars. See the crescent moon between the two letters ‘T’ and the sun with its pointed rays at the top right corner of the register. You might think that the flowers in this firmament are cotton flowers in various stages of development, but as one can easily see, they are quite different one from another and of them all, perhaps only the flower to the immediate lower left of the letter ‘C’ resembles one. Although it seems to have too many tufts, the flower in profile immediately below and the the left of the second letter ‘O’ arguably resembles a cotton boll. The background in wavy lines appears to have been created by the ceramicist’s fingers and is wonderful.
The terracotta plaques in the spandrels over the semilunate window would appear to depict stick-y branches of cotton plants. One can see flowers and what look to my eye like bolls. The problem is that if I am not mistaken, cotton leaves have three, and not five lobes like the ones in the spandrels. I cannot, however, think of any reason for depicting any specific plant (as I take those in the spandrels to be) besides cotton in this façade. Here and there there are three-lobed leaves in the spandrels (look to the far right, for example).
The Corinthian capitals framing the light over the main portal are splendid creations (figure 7). There is a classical legend that the Corinthian capital, or rather the idea for its design, came from observing acanthus growing through and from under a basket that had been inverted and left over it. This is the sort of thing a good, classically trained architect like Preston would have known (he trained at the École des Beaux-Artes). But you do not see such a basket-weave pattern much outside of Celtic design, so I suspect that here Preston is alluding to the baskets used to collect cotton during picking.
The arch framing the semilunate window is pure classical with egg-and-dart and bead-and-reel moldings.
Spanning the space over the main portal is a register with the heraldic device of the Savannah Cotton Exchange superimposed over another rinceau (figure 8). This appears to me to be entirely made of carved wood, for there are no joins for different terracotta plaques and there seems to me to be wood grain clearly visible through the black paint on it.
The heraldic device is a standard shield with American flag elements. At center is a stylized temple with a statue at center framed by two columns on either side. This is not intended as an image of Preston’s building, since the seal predates it by over a decade, but is rather a hoary design we can find as early as a denarius of Octavian of 36 BCE showing the statue of his divine adoptive father Julius Caesar within his newly built temple. In our case the figure appears to me to be female, and she holds in her left hand a sword and in her right hand something I cannot make out: maybe a bag of money? A bag of money weighing down one pan of a scale? Is the figure an allegory of commerce governed by law?
The pieces to resist in this façade, at least for me, are the two splendid splendid terracotta plaques in the outermost pilasters at the level of the register over the main portal. They show exquisitely the hand of the ceramicist as he manufactured them.
A round shield with a Pegasus on it, symbolizing, as one website puts it, “speed, strength, and artistic inspiration,” is accompanied by a helm, sword, and oak branch. It is not clear to me what this constellation of martial symbols represents (constellation-Pegasus, GET IT?). Were the building 15 years younger, I might expect such symbolism in the wake of the Spanish American War with the acquisition of an overseas empire. But as it stands, apart from the Indian Wars, which were serious enough, but do not seem to be symbolically alluded to here, we’d have to go back to the Civil War to find martial bragging rights—which would be out of place in postwar Savannah for Union and Confederates alike. Is it a symbolic victory over the land, wresting cotton from it? Is it a tongue-in-cheek (or in any event, ironic) symbol for the cotton factors, the (cotton-) field marshals of production?
On the right (figure 10) we have a terracotta plaque offering a globe showing the western hemisphere superimposed over laurels and an American shield. The laurels connote victory, and one supposes that the panel represents something like the triumph of the American cotton industry. One sees an analogous sign in Trenton, New Jersey: “Trenton makes, the world takes.” The symmetrical correspondence of the laurels with the continents is elegant.
The lion fountain (figure 11), in an oval patch of garden in front of the building, was reconstituted at some trouble and expense after Ms. Haddock’s misfortune. Her car plowed through the statue with such force that bits of it (and her car) battered the façade and broke its windows. The news story linked above and in the first paragraph state that some bits were pulled off of the roof!
Figure 12 offers a view of a snippet of the (restored) wrought iron railing and the terracotta sill below the first-floor window which looks like a series of four inverted pan tiles.
The Cotton Exchange was built over River Street, necessitating a ramp that descends to the sides of the building and passes directly underneath the portals as a part of the building’s substructures. The walkway with the seated person runs from the terrace with the lion fountain over to the portal of the Exchange building.
And as a final observation, the Savannah Cotton Exchange went belly-up in 1951; the Freemasons’ Solomon Lodge number 1 (figure 14), as was apparent in the appliqué sign (figure 6) within the arch over the semilunate window, has occupied the building in more recent times (since 1976).
Photographs by author: Nikon Z 7ii with Nikkor 24-200 mm f/4-6.3 lens.
Figure 1. 39 mm, f/8, ISO 800, 1/200 s.
Figure 4. 56 mm, f/8, ISO 800, 1/500 s.
Figure 5. 56 mm, f/8, ISO 800, 1/500 s.
Figure 6. Crop of figure 5.
Figure 7. 130 mm, f/8, ISO 800, 1/100 s.
Figure 8. 130 mm, f/8, ISO 800, 1/100 s.
Figure 9. 130 mm, f/8, ISO 800, 1/100 s.
Figure 10. 130 mm, f/8, ISO 800, 1/100 s.
Figure 11. 56 mm, f/8, ISO 800, 1/100 s.
Figure 12. 24 mm, f/8, ISO 800, 1/100 s.
Figure 13. 48 mm, f/8, ISO 1600, 1/360 s.
Figure 14. 54 mm, f/8, ISO 800, 1/100 s.
All images edited in Apple Photos.