Old City Exchange Bell

This Hidden History was created by SCAD student Irmak Merve Gurses as part of his SCAD art history department coursework with guidance from art history professor Holly Goldstein, Ph.D., 2017.

The Old City Exchange Bell historical marker was dedicated in 1957. View the Old City Exchange Bell historical marker listing.

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1. City Exchange, Savannah, Ga., Foltz Photography Studio (Savannah, Ga.), photographs, 1800s, Image courtesy of Georgia Historical Society.

2. W.P.A. Drawing of Savannah Building – City Exchange, 1936, Image courtesy of Georgia Historical Society.

3. View of Savannah: Panorama of Savannah by Cerveau. View south from the steeple of the Exchange at the intersection of Bull and Bay Streets, 1837, Image courtesy of Georgia Historical Society.

4. Savannah Engine Co. Number Seven, 1870-1960, Image courtesy of Georgia Historical Society.

5. Fire Department: Old fire truck, 1800s, Image courtesy of Georgia Historical Society.

6. Savannah from Exchange, Bull Street, Savannah, 1870, Image courtesy of Georgia Historical Society.

7. Iron Work’s After Hurricane, 1942, Image courtesy of Georgia Historical Society.

8. Savannah River looking from Emmett Park, #473, 1883-1892, Image courtesy of Georgia Historical Society.

9. The Steeple Monument, 2017, Image courtesy of Irmak Merve Gurses.

10. The Bell from The Steeple, 2017, Image courtesy of Irmak Merve Gurses.

11. The Old City Exchange Bell, 2017, Image courtesy of Irmak Merve Gurses.

The following essay is by SCAD student Irmak Merve Gurses, 2017.

Rationale:

As a sound design M.F.A student at SCAD, I wanted to choose a marker that paid attention to at least one sound in Savannah’s history.  While I was doing my research, I was fascinated by the many functions the old city exchange bell had in 1800’s Savannah. I wanted to focus on when the sound was present in daily life and its journey in Savannah throughout the years.

The Old City Exchange Bell: Voice of Savannah

The Exchange with its quaint steeple had a place in the affections of many generations of Savannahians, one of their favorite expressions being “as high as the steeple of the Exchange.” From such an eminence Savannah merchants would scan the river for incoming ships, while sentinels of the City Watch kept vigil for signs of fire. The steeple bell, resonant and clear, was in a real sense the voice of the community, ushering in patriotic festivals, sounding alarms, and tolling the passing of civic worthies.[i]  (Figure 6)

On East Bay and Drayton Streets, the exchange bell that is believed to be the oldest in Georgia hangs in a replica of the original city exchange cupola. Although it seems like any ordinary bell that can be seen and heard everyday, the old City Exchange bell had significant impact in Savannah’s history. It was the voice of the community, signalling celebration and disaster, and audibly marking daily life from the steeple of the City Exchange building.

The Old City Exchange

After a fire destroyed the old city exchange building in 1776, the city government ordered the building of a new exchange building that would be “useful and ornamental” and could be used for both public and private events.[ii] The City of Savannah and the citizens came together purchasing shares in order to fund the construction of the new brick and stone building.[iii] A stock company began its construction in 1799, and the building was finished in 1801 at a cost of $20,000. The new building was much larger than needed at the time, but it was erected with a thought for the future. Initially, commercial tenants occupied the City Exchange. The City of Savannah held only 25 of the 200 shares by the time the Exchange opened its doors. In 1812, the Savannah bought all the shares to the building and started opening city offices. Although the city offices were present in the building, the building was still open for public use until 1896, when the city government occupied the whole building. [iv]  Until 1896, the building was often used as a ballroom, a meeting hall, a theatre or an area of general assembly, in addition to private use. In 1904, the City Exchange building was demolished in order to build a new city hall at the same location.[v] (Figure 1)

The Exchange Bell

According to the treasurer’s report from the year 1806, the steeple of the Exchange was built by the City and cost about $1,400. Initially, the city council approved a $500 bell to be put in the Presbyterian Church’s steeple. Shortly after the old City Exchange building was built, the council ordered that the bell and a clock would be put on the City Exchange steeple. [vi]  The council put Alderman Bolton in charge of importing a bell and an eight-day clock. The bell was imported from Amsterdam, and in 1803, the Exchange bellhung for the first time at its home for the coming 100 years.

The bell not only completed the steeple, but also had numerous functions and marked important moments in each daily routine. These occasions included: signalling the city council meetings, marking the opening and closing of the businesses, alarming the city when there was fire, beginning of the curfew, arrival of ships carrying important items, paying tribute to the honourable dead, when the city was being threatened by invasions and insurrection, or any outbreak of a disease.[vii] The bell was also heard when distinguished visitors, such as the fifth president James Monroe, General Marquis de LaFayette, former US president Millard Fillmore, Joseph Clay, Daniel Webster, and Aaron Burr arrived to the City of Savannah and celebrated the victory after the War of 1812.

The bell was heard in Savannah on a daily basis. It signalled societal structure and let the people of Savannah know about the timing of daily events. One of the ways the bell affected the city’s daily life was, signalling the city curfew. After the bell rang, no sailors nor slaves were allowed on the streets.[viii] It is recorded that sailors were frequently fined for being ashore after the bell signalled curfew, and the citizens were fined for entertaining them during these hours.[ix]

Another function of the bell was to let the citizens know the opening and closing of businesses. On May 28th, 1804, it was ordered that the bell would ring at 9 p.m. every night during summer and 8 p.m. for the rest of the year to signal closing of the businesses.[x]

Fire Alarm

Perhaps one of the most important functions of the old City Exchange bell was signalling fire. The cupola of the City Exchange was famous for its view of Savannah, and from the cupola, the watchmen had a clear view of the city’s districts. The watchmen’s duties were identifying the location of the fire within the five districts and ring the bell to alarm the firemen and the civilians of Savannah. The watchman would first give a general alarm that did not exceed two minutes, then ring the bell one time for the first district, two for the second, three for the third, four for the fourth, and five times for the fifth district to inform the citizens and the firemen of the location of the fire.[xi]

After the Exchange Building

After the Exchange Building was demolished to build a new city hall, the bell was put into the tower of  Rourke Iron Works. The bell hung in the Iron Work’s tower for 36 years. In 1940, a hurricane hit Savannah and destroyed the tower of the Iron Works building. The bell was salvaged through the remains of the tower. Walter L. Mingledorff acquired it and gave it to the Chamber of Commerce where it was put into storage until the construction of the replica steeple monument, where it currently hangs.[xii]  Although the bell retired many years ago, the City of Savannah still pays its tribute to the Exchange City Bell.

[i] Walter C. Hartridge, Letters of Robert MacKay to His Wife. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1949.

[ii] William Rotch Ware, The Georgian period; a Series of Measured Drawings of Colonial Work. New York: U.P.C. Book Company Inc., The American architect Book Dept., 1898.

[iii] “City History.” Savannah, GA – Official Website – City History. Accessed May 14, 2017. http://www.savannahga.gov/index.aspx?NID=749.

[iv] Ibid., 183

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Walter J. Fraser, Savannah in the Old South. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2003.

[vii] “Chatham County.” County of Chatham – GeorgiaInfo. Accessed May 14, 2017. http://georgiainfo.galileo.usg.edu/topics/counties/chatham.

[viii] ibid.

[ix] Gamble, Thomas. A history of the city government of Savannah, Ga., from 1790 to 1901. Savannah, GA, 1900.

[x] Maude Heyward, Illustrated guide to savannah. Place of publication not identified: Nabu Press, 2010

[xi] Edward G. Wilson, A digest of all the ordinances of the city of Savannah, and various laws of the state of Georgia, relative to said city, which were of force on the 1st January, 1858, together with an appendix and index. Savannah, GA: J.M. Cooper, 1858.

[xii] Luciana M. Spracher, comp., The Birth of City Hall, 1906-2006, Savannah City Hall Centennial, 1906-2006. Savannah, Georgia: City of Savannah, Research Library and Municipal Archives, 2006

“Chatham County.” County of Chatham – GeorgiaInfo. Accessed May 14, 2017. http://georgiainfo.galileo.usg.edu/topics/counties/chatham.

“City History.” Savannah, GA – Official Website – City History. Accessed May 14, 2017. http://www.savannahga.gov/index.aspx?NID=749.

DeBolt, Margaret Wayt. Savannah: a Historical Portrait. Gloucester Point, VA: Hallmark Publishing Company, Inc., 2001.

Fraser, Walter J. Savannah in the Old South. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2003.

Gamble, Thomas. A history of the City government of Savannah, Ga., from 1790 to 1901. Savannah, GA, 1900.

Hartridge, Walter C. Letters of Robert MacKay to His Wife. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1949.

Hester, Joseph C. The Code Of The City Of Savannah, Containing A Codification Of The Acts Of The Legislature Of Georgia Constituting The Charter Of The City Of Savannah And A Codification Of The Ordinances Adopted By The City Council, Now In Force. (State Laws Include Act. Savannah: Press Of Macfeely Printing Co., 1936.

Heyward, Maude. Illustrated Guide to savannah. Place of publication not identified: Nabu Press, 2010.

Jones, Charles C., O. F. Vedder, and Frank Weldon. History of Savannah, Ga.: from its settlement to the Close of the Eighteenth Century. Syracuse, NY: D. Mason, 1890.

Spracher, Luciana M., comp. The Birth of City Hall, 1903-1906, Savannah City Hall Centennial, 1906-2006. Savannah, Georgia: City of Savannah, Research Library and Municipal Archives, 2006.

Ware, William Rotch. The Georgian Period; A Series Of Measured Drawings Of Colonial Work. New York: U.P.C. Book Company Inc., The American Architect Book Dept., 1898.

Wilson, Edward G. A Digest Of All The Ordinances Of The City Of Savannah, And Various Laws Of The State Of Georgia, Relative To Said City, Which Were Of Force On The 1st January, 1858, Together With An Appendix And Index. Savannah, GA: J.M. Cooper, 1858.