Then and now: Savannah is a community shaped by its people Three generations of Celias have seen the city change from quiet to cosmopolitan
(SAVANNAH) – Growing up in the Thomas Square neighborhood of Savannah, Celia Williams Dunn never imagined how her life – or her city – would turn out. “Savannah was a small conservative Southern town … DeRenne Avenue was dirt,” she said with a laugh. As a child, she took horseback riding lessons there.
Three generations of Celias have seen Savannah changing, shaped by the residents who love it. Celia Williams, still spry at 95 years old, inspired her daughter’s love of historic buildings and community spirit and is “the consummate mother.” Celia Williams Dunn is a civic leader and has been an important part of the revitalization of downtown. Her daughter, Celia Dunn, is a Dance Therapist who leads several dance therapy groups for senior citizens in Savannah. Growing up, the middle Celia didn’t see many examples of strong businesswomen, except Alida Harper Fowlkes, who had an antique shop and a tea room.
“Women weren’t looked on as having professional careers,” Dunn said. “I thought I’d graduate from college, work for a few years, get married, have children, do volunteer work and play tennis, and that would be my life.” She never expected to become a business leader owning her own company, Celia Dunn Sotheby’s International Realty, which she runs with her husband, Larry. And maybe if her in-laws hadn’t offered Celia and Larry a place to live rent-free downtown when they married in 1963, her path might have turned out differently. “My parents said, ‘We gave you a good education and you got married and moved to the slums!,” Dunn laughed.
By 1963, people had started renovating historic properties, but the area had a long way to go. The preservation and restoration movement had begun, but on a fairly small scale, she explained. “We were able to attract other people to rent apartments in the Historic District,” Dunn said. “We talked to friends and said we like living downtown.” They brought residents into long-vacant homes, even connecting people with homes without compensation before starting the business. Her volunteer background, especially being president of Junior League, gave her the confidence to start her real estate business.
“The attraction was old-world charm for less money,” Dunn said. “We had lots of young families living downtown. Having people living downtown was key to its revitalization. You were taking a chance on its being a sound investment,” back before anyone knew how well downtown was going to turn out. “Now, it’s a vibrant Southern city,” Dunn said. “I always thought it was a comfortable place to live, but I didn’t know it was going to be so much fun to live here. There’s such a diverse group of interesting people who have moved here or who grew up here and have moved back.”
One of those dynamic people is her daughter, Celia Dunn, who has a master’s degree in Dance Therapy from Pratt Institute in New York. She volunteers with Ruth Byck Adult Day Care Center and Sisters Court, leading dance therapy groups that improve the cognitive, emotional and physical health of participants. Dance therapy is also her career, and she plans to add more dance therapy groups. Her motto is “Move into health.” Therapy is about making connections, she explained, whether with yourself or others. Dance therapy allows the seniors to get in touch with emotions and memories we hold in our bodies. She finds volunteering and helping the community makes her feel good. “I’m feeling involved and feeling connected to something bigger than myself. It gives more purpose to life and living.” And that attitude, shared by so many Savannahians, is a big reason the city has become what it is today.
Sidebar: Known for its tradition of integrity, Celia Dunn Sotheby’s International Realty specializes in residential and commercial properties in Savannah and the Low Country of Georgia and South Carolina. The owners, Celia and Larry Dunn, are natives of Savannah who have more than 60 years’ combined experience in real estate. Celia Dunn has earned the Distinguished Sales Society recognition for the 28th consecutive year. She has been inducted into the Savannah Business Hall of Fame. She’s been featured on HGTV as well as in a BBC documentary and book by British actor Stephen Fry, showing off Savannah’s real estate. Founded in 1981, the company has grown from one broker in one room to seven brokers and 41 agents in three adjoining buildings on Madison Square, and an office in Bluffton, S.C. As of January 2006 it has become Celia Dunn Sotheby’s International Realty. Since the early 1960s Celia and Larry Dunn had been encouraging young families to invest and move into the Historic District where homes were spacious, charming and less expensive. Larry researched possible properties, and they put buyers and sellers together. Larry managed several properties, and the bank where he worked was one of the first to make mortgage loans for purchasing and restoring historic properties. By 1974, they had effected several real estate transactions with no compensation, so Celia and Larry decided to get their real estate licenses.