Thieves in this 245-year-old port city have discovered a new market in the old, ornate trims on vacant or about-to-be-renovated houses in the historic district.
Savannah has a large number of antique houses. Most are in the oldest section of the downtown, a section that was declared a National Historic Landmark District in 1966 by the Department of the Interior. Houses there have been renovated over the past 15 years, and city planners and home buyers are now looking to a slightly newer adjoining section known as the Victorian District for renovation possibilities. The Victorian District was added to the national register in 1974.
In the past few years, according to police and housing authorities, thieves have begun to realize the value of the gingerbread bric-a-brac that decorates porches and the handcarved bannisters and mantlepieces inside the Victorian District's 60- to-100-year-old frame houses.
"We've had whole front porches and staircases taken out of houses," said a Savannah detective, Earl Knabb.
Thieves generally don't get much for the items, Knabb said: "They're not swift. The ones who are buying the stuff are swift."
A load of porch railings and bannisters stolen from a 93-year-old house - a house that was designated as "excellent" architectually by the Historica Savannah Foundation - were recently found at a riverfront warehouse by the house's owner.
The entire load, which had been pried loose from the porch and trucked away, brought the thief $45, according to warehouse owner Everett Flowers.
"The man (who sold them) said he was rebuilding a porch, and the owner of the house had given it to him," Flowers said, adding that he would have probably resold the trim for about $100.
"There's no way I could think of to tell whether anything's been stolen," he said. "The only thing you can go by is the story a man tells you."
Recently, after newspaper accounts here of the theft were publicized, Flowers said a man offered to sell him old wood trim. "I asked him what he had, and he said, 'what do you want?'" the warehouse owner said. "I let him go on."
Flowers said most of his sales are to restaurant owners who want to use the pieces as decorations on their walls. He said some house restorers buy from him as well.
A major part of the problem, police say, is the neighbors cannot tell if people trucking off such things are legitimate wreckers. In addition, Knabb said, "It's easier to find the culprits than it is the owners.
"These people (the owners) are sitting around waiting for their 3 percent money to refurbish them (the house), and I don't have easy access to find out who they are."
The officer was referring to federal loans available to homeowners who renovate their own houses. The loans, offered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development are available to qualified owners at rates as low as 3 percent.
The stealing is a problem for the Historic Savannah Foundation's renovation program, according to assistant director Audrey Rhangos.
"Between the time the building is vacated and renovation is begun they get vandalized and stole from," she said. "The floor of one house was taken," she added.
Historic Savannah has legal power to pass on all exterior remodeling work of houses in the downtown historic district and is seeking the same authority for the Victorian District. It is currently starting a drive for renovation in the newer area.
The organization recently bought three threatened Victorian houses in an urban renewal area and moved them to vacant lots in the Victorian area for sale and renovation, Rhangos said.
Foundation officials hoped to make one house, which has been vandalized since it was bought by the group, into a community center.