The American South perhaps more than any other region of the United States is evocative of a collective history via its famed architecture: the grand plantation home, the stately Victorian house in town, the beautiful churches. While there are large cities elsewhere in the nation known for important buildings, the South boasts architecture that traces its history and culture back to its very beginnings in a manner that is unique and informative.
Such architecture long has been a key aspect of historical tourism. Consider, for example, communities such as historic Williamsburg and plantations such as George Washington’s Mount Vernon, where visitors can experience history by visiting the very places where important people and events were located. Yet beyond this, living cities that have extensive historical architecture and are associated with certain periods or events in the nation’s broader history also have a lot to offer through their architecture by meeting the challenge of catering to their contemporary purposes and the lives of their current residents.
A city such as Charleston, Savannah, or Saint Augustine is indeed a great place for historical tourism and offers a wealth of everyday history through its architecture to visitors and residents alike. But such a city must offer to its residents and businesses the capacity for a viable modern life and to move forward, because it isn’t simply a living museum but a vital city of progress as well. This is one of the great challenges in historic preservation of architecture, to not only preserve and retain the historic nature of architecture but to do so in a way that keeps the architecture in line with its original purpose as much as possible yet is agreeable to the contemporary visions of its current owners and users, and that of the buildings and city around it.
This all may sound like a nearly-impossible challenge—to preserve the historical character while providing for current and future applications often completely different in nature from original intent of structures sometimes centuries old—yet it’s a challenge being met with surprising success in the South, and there is no finer example of it than in Savannah.
Historic preservation has always been somewhat on the minds of Savannahians. The colonial period architecture was in many cases both grand and serviceable and lasted well into the 1800’s up to the Civil War era. Then the city was spared from burning by Sherman during the War, avoiding the ignoble fate that befell Atlanta and other Confederate cities at the hands of the Union general. After the war, economic success eluded the port city in many ways, causing much of its downtown core to remain a place of only moderate changes and few new buildings. As the growth of the city following the Second World War—like many American cities—spread outward, creating new suburbs and growth away from the historic urban core, this also helped preserve what is now known as the Historic District and what is indeed one of the finest examples of a geographically-unified historic district in the South.
Some have called this “preservation by neglect” or “preservation by default,” but that’s unfair and inaccurate. What really occurred was the combination of a city that did small things to retain its important historical character and typical mid-century forces—growth of suburbs, shopping malls, etc.—that left large portions of the Historic District intact without the intervention of new buildings that would have greatly changed the overall historic character of the area.
There were, alas, some cases where large new buildings were constructed, including the Savannah Civic Center, yet the city has over time responded to these incursions as best it can. A shining example is the recent return of Ellis Square—which had been replaced with a parking garage—to its original function as one of Savannah’s treasured squares which were part of General James Oglethorpe’s original and very unique plan for the city. In other cases, sometimes actions that appeared to be departures from the historic character have instead been blessings in disguise, such as the modernist Drayton Tower apartment building, a 1951 twelve-story affair of glass and steel that for many years people said was a blight on the Historic District’s skyline given its size and composition, but now, renovated back to its original purpose as apartments, it provides a stellar example of design from its time period—the mid twentieth century is, believe it or not, now itself considered historic.
One of the most-crucial events in Savannah’s post-war evolution was the founding of the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) there in the late 1970’s. The college’s co-founder and current president, Paula S. Wallace, had a rare and daunting vision: to establish a new art school and to do so in a place that was considered remote and somewhat languishing at the time—Savannah—and to house the college in restored buildings instead of building an entirely new campus, as most colleges or universities would have attempted. Many in Savannah and elsewhere assumed her project to be a folly at first, but she has proven them wrong as the school now is one of the world’s largest and most-respected of art and design colleges and has been the locus of innovation after innovation in terms of new majors, dynamic programs, and progress in pedagogy.
Yet at its heart is its innovative campus—a campus that technically includes the entire Historic District of Savannah—and the majority of its buildings are historic ones from various periods that display a minimal invasiveness of the college’s physical infrastructure on the District. What is more, SCAD was investing in buildings that virtually no one else was likely to purchase let alone renovate. Its very first building was an old national guard armory located in the heart of this Historic District, a sprawling Romanesque Revival affair dating from 1893 that boasts not only history but unique, charming, architectural design—yet would have been a tough sale to nearly anyone other than an educational institution.
And that building was just the first of many. Savannah’s human composition from circa 1880 to the 1930’s was such that schools, office buildings, and stores downtown had been erected to serve a once-growing population. Then by the 1970’s many of those buildings were vacated or under-used as that population shifted in geography and demographics. SCAD purchased several old elementary school buildings, the old Citizens’ Bank building—an 1895 Renaissance Revival structure in the heart of the downtown core—and even an old Maas Brothers department store on Broughton Street, the city’s favored old shopping “main street” prior to the era of the shopping mall. The department store building was transformed into the school’s Jen Library, one of the few possible uses for a large three-floor commercial structure of its nature in a time when department stores no longer are located downtown.
As SCAD expanded in terms of enrollment and major areas of study offered, its need for physical facilities also expanded. Many schools would probably have followed a path of hiring architects and commissioning new buildings from scratch, allowing complete control over their design and how they represented the institution. But SCAD stuck to its core ethos of not building anything new whenever extant structures would serve their purpose just as well and when by doing so, they could save languishing historic properties. Some of the buildings they acquired and turned towards academic use include the old Kahn Bros linens warehouse/offices (now Crites Hall, a SCAD academic hall) and Hamilton Hall which was once also a warehouse and small power station seated near the Savannah River but repurposed by SCAD for their film and television department.
The benefits of this approach on the immediate level were seeing these buildings renovated, made safe and no longer derelict blights on their streets, and put to good use with people working, learning, or living within them (several SCAD dormitories also are repurposed buildings). However, the greater benefit was much broader than what was happening on the streets of Savannah. For a long time, historic preservation in the United States and especially in the South has been tied to two specific goals: the renovation of historic homes to serve as homes once again, or as small businesses, and the renovation of other structures and neighborhoods to better facilitate history-based tourism. While Savannah has its share of historic homes that have been lovingly renovated, and while tourism-based in history is a huge part of the city’s economy, SCAD set the tone for doing something very different in a Southern city: the historic preservation and adaptive reuse of major commercial, industrial, and institutional buildings.
By 2016 SCAD has five former grade schools, multiple industrial buildings, a former Marine hospital, three former orphanages, and numerous other commercial buildings as part of its campus in Savannah—all renovated, all with a view towards their innate historic design, and all in daily, active use. The school has only built new when it has been the only viable option—such as in the case of some of its newer dorms which provide larger structures with ample outdoor spaces—and the best possible living experience—for the larger numbers of students.
All this may seem well and good for a specific, limited example—a college in a given city, with certain historic parameters and explicit circumstances—but can it translate beyond SCAD? It already has in many ways, starting with other preservation efforts in Savannah itself. As the college grew and more students came in, there was a larger economic base in the immediate downtown area, plus, over the 1990’s and 2000’s, tourism grew in Savannah. This meant more people to feed, more people to house, more shopping and going out. It also meant that other users of large properties would follow in SCAD’s footsteps and invest in extant buildings: major retailers such as Banana Republic, The Gap, Urban Outfitters, and J. Crew have put stores in on Savannah’s Broughton Street, returning the once-popular retail street to its role as Savannah’s downtown center of commerce. The iconic Swedish retailer H&M recently built a fully-new store on Broughton Street, tearing down an older building in the process which did meet some local opposition, but in the design of its new construction achieved a high degree of visual harmony with existing buildings on the same block while retaining the retail-focus that the street long has held.
SEE ALL OF MIKE WALKER’S “HISTORIC PRESERVATION: SAVANNAH” PHOTOS HERE