Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Photo of the Day: Cotton Exchange, Savannah, GA

I took this photograph a month and a half ago, when I was visiting Savannah one afternoon while on vacation.

The original Savannah Cotton Exchange was built in 1872. To get an idea of just how immense a contribution that cotton made to the Southern economy before the Civil War, remember that seven years after the conflict left the entire region devastated, export revenues from the crop had reached $40 million, and Georgia was, once again, the leading cotton producer in the country.

This particular Savannah Cotton Exchange was erected in 1886 at 100 East Bay Street, making it one of the first major buildings constructed completely over a public street.The architect, William G. Preston, a Bostonian, was particularly active in the region around this time, having also designed the DeSoto Hotel (since torn down for the Hilton DeSoto), a brick mansion just south of Gaston Street, as well as the the Chatham County Courthouse (1889) and the Guard's Armory (1893), now Poetter Hall, part of the Savannah College of Art and Design.

Features of the Cotton Exchange include  the use of red brick with a terra-cotta fa├žade, iron window lintels and copper finials and copings. Unfortunately, its magnificence outlasted its useful life as a commercial structure. Although at the time of construction cotton had helped make this part of Savannah “the Wall Street of the South,” and even exactly a century ago over 5.2 million acres of land in Georgia were allocated to the crop, it would all be different in a few short years.

A tiny insect from Central America, the boll weevil, had been sighted in Texas in 1892. By 1915, it had reached all the way across to Thomasville, Ga. Its impact was immediate—and ruinous. By 1923, cotton acreage in Georgia had plummeted to 2.6 million acres—half its 1914 peak—and would fall to only 115,000  by 1983. The pest would finally be eradicated a few short years after that, but not before having fundamentally altered the entire economy and way of life for a region.

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