AS evening slips quietly into this coastal city, lamps begin to glow in the windows of ivy-covered mansions and tidy rows of townhouses. Savannahians walk home beneath oak trees draped with Spanish moss, passing banks of blooms contained by ornate wrought-iron fences.
In this elegant setting it is difficult to imagine that before the 1950s most of downtown Savannah stood derelict and dilapidated. Through the efforts of a group of citizens, Savannah was able to save and restore many of its venerable buildings - making up one of the largest urban historic districts in the country.
''From the beginning and over the past 30 years, (the restoration of Savannah) has really been a grass-roots effort,'' says Neil Horstman, executive director of the Historic Savannah Foundation.
Today fewer than 100 of Savannah's 1,100 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places remain unrestored. The city's original layout, an orderly grid of landscaped squares ringed by residential and public buildings, is virtually intact. Current restoration work is focused on the city's business center and on the low-income Victorian District just south of the 2.2 square-mile Historic District downtown.
Savannah's renaissance has attracted new residents to the city and has sent downtown real estate values soaring. Tourism has grown into Savannah's second largest industry after its port.
Savannah's extensive restoration program, now used as a model by other cities , reversed nearly half a century of deterioration following the decline of the cotton industry. Townhouses built of soft Savannah-gray brick had become tenements, and some of the city's fine Regency and Greek Revival homes served as slum dwellings for 10 to 12 families. Many historic homes were lost, but bleak economic conditions stalled any urban-renewal bulldozer measures that might have destroyed Savannah's wealth of 19th-century buildings.
As one visitor noted, ''It was poverty that saved the city.''
During World War II the military installations of Fort Stuart and Hunter Air Force Base brought a new influx of people and money to Savannah. The city began tearing down old structures and destroying some of the squares to put new roads through.
Finally in 1954 the old city market was destroyed and a parking lot replaced it.
''When a symbol is lost, it raises people's awareness,'' says Mr. Horstman.
The following year the early 19th-century Isaiah Davenport House was threatened with demolition. Seven Savannah women rallied to save the fine Federal-style home, and they succeeded. That same year they formed the Historic Savannah Foundation and were soon joined by other community members, including local businessmen.
''After saving a few buildings from demolition, the community realized something had to be done on a grand scale to save the Historic District,'' says Mr. Horstman.
From 1958 to 1962 the foundation sponsored a survey of Savannah's historic buildings. The survey was conducted by preservation experts and architectural students. The results, published in 1968, rated the buildings according to their importance and listed projected restoration costs and resulting tax revenues.
''People in the community began to realize the tremendous value of their historic heritage,'' says Mr. Horstman at Historic Savannah headquarters in the Regency-style William Scarbrough House. ''(The restoration work) has mushroomed ever since.''
In 1962 Historic Savannah, then under the leadership of Lee Adler, initiated a revolving fund to acquire historic buildings before they were destroyed. The $ 200,000 fund was established by private donations and a half-million dollar credit line through local banks. From the mid-'60s through the mid-'70s the foundation purchased hundreds of endangered buildings, sometimes in blocks at a time.
Under the revolving fund system, which is still in operation, buildings bought by the foundation are resold at purchase price to new owners with the stipulation that restoration begin within six months and be completed within 18 months.
''This is really where the community support came in,'' says Mr. Horstman. ''It couldn't have been done without people willing to invest in the downtown area.''
Today revolving funds are a common method for nonprofit organizations to acquire historic buildings. There are approximately 100 such funds operating in cities around the country including Louisville, Ky.; Kansas City, Mo.; Hartford, Conn.; Providence, R.I.; and Boston.
In addition to private investment, Historic Savannah received government assistance. According to Lee Adler, ''Government and private money were both important. But in Savannah the private sector has not only led, that's where the big money came from.''
The city government has played an integral role in the preservation effort, particularly in restoring Savannah's squares and parks. Twenty of the original 24 squares are intact, each with its own fountain, monument, or gazebo. The local government also invested several million dollars to develop an esplanade along the riverfront to complement a colorful string of shops and restaurants in restored warehouse buildings.
In accordance with city ordinance, an architectural review board monitors new construction to ensure that the design is compatible with the character of the Historic District. In many cases, historic buildings are moved to new sites rather than destroyed to make way for new construction.
So far, total investment in the downtown area is estimated at $400 million.
''A fringe benefit of this has been the growth of tourism,'' says Mr. Horstman. In 1960 tourism brought about $200,000 to the city; last year tourist dollars totaled about $132 million.
The last big challenge is to revitalize Savannah's commercial area.
Originally, ''our concept was to put a first-class residential district around a first-class business district,'' says Lee Adler. Over the years, Savannah's retail center failed to keep pace with the restoration of its homes. Most Savannahians shop at a mall a few miles out of town.
Historic Savannah is now beginning to work with the city and private developers to assess and rejuvenate Savannah's retail shops concentrated along Broughton Street.
The goal to bring businesses back to downtown Savannah and the renewal of the Victorian District, which is already well under way, are the last vital links in the flowering of Savannah.
June 7: Restoring Savannah's Victorian District.