A key theme of concern in the architectural community has been that of façadism, or the problematic pattern of people renovating historic properties but only really preserving the façade of the building and its outward street-level appearance while gutting the interior and transforming it in whatever manner suits the new owners/users. The argument against such is understandably that the façade composes only a portion of the actual building and if it is purported to be an actual historic property yet the interior no longer bears any clue towards its origins, how much of the property in reality can be considered as historic? Just the street-facing exterior that has, in many cases, been retained to comply with local preservation laws and/or receive tax breaks for historic properties? Is that enough? Is that authentic or even valid?
The Savannah examples showcase two ways of approaching this problem: With SCAD’s academic buildings, many—especially the former grade schools—have in a sense continued forward with their original mission in some capacity. Buildings such as SCAD’s Wallin Hall and Anderson Hall—both originally grade schools and now classroom buildings for the college—have in a direct sense continued their original mission and the architecture of Wallin Hall with its Prairie-style design underscores the forward-thinking design and planning of the early twentieth century schoolhouse that suits just as well for students in 2016.
In other cases, such as SCAD’s renovation of a Marine hospital for merchant sailors, the school encountered additional challenges. The hospital had long been out of use as an inpatient facility and since the 1960’s had been a low-income outpatient clinic. The first two floors of the building had been renovated, probably in the early 1980’s, with new walls erected and carpet laid down, and had been transformed away from the original splendor of Federal project architecture with its use of marble, wrought iron, and other fine materials not uncommon to governmental projects in the later 1800’s and early 1900’s.
In its renovation of the hospital to serve as administrative offices for its registrar, financial aid, advisement, and other departments, SCAD returned to the original flooring, ensured a rather unique period balustrade was retained, and otherwise saw that the aesthetics and materials crucial to the building’s identity were preserved despite the radical shift in programmatic purpose. Obviously, the college did not wish for students and staff to walk in and feel they were in an outdated hospital, but they did want them to realize the architectural origins, period, and details of the structure—inside as well as out.
Many industrial buildings were designed from the start to be multipurpose and able to adapt to new needs. Advances in building technologies from the 1880’s forward, the Chicago Style of architecture, and other innovations—certainly those of central heat and air in the twentieth century and other core building environmental and service systems—allowed commercial properties to become flexible. Often some degree of reuse that moves away from the original mission only underscores its having been done on a smaller level already in the building’s history. In other instances, attention to a property’s original use can be paid through signage and other visual cues. A great example of this approach is The Grey, a new upscale restaurant that went into an old 1938 Greyhound bus station in downtown Savannah. The restaurant placed emphasis on the Art Deco design of the bus station, named it after the bus line, and constructed a new sign that is evocative of the 1930’s and even includes as its logo a greyhound. It would be hard to argue that even if the building had instead been returned to use as a bus station, garage, or something else of that nature, it could have preserved the architectural and aesthetic character of the Art Deco structure as well as the restaurant has done.
In addition, façadism is not always a bad thing. The Austrian architecture firm of Coop Himmelb(l)au is renowned for building cutting-edge post-modern architecture that builds upon or intersects with extant, much older, architecture, often of industrial origins, as in the case of their famed Gasometer project in Vienna where massive old gas storage tanks were renovated into housing and retail facilities. Something similar was done in Savannah when SCAD decided to construct an art museum. It took railroad maintenance sheds it had owned for years as the site for the museum, but these sheds were in poor repair and only a few of their original walls and other features fit for preservation and reuse. So local architect and dean of SCAD’s School of Building Arts, Christian Sottile, designed a very cutting-edge museum that incorporated the extant nineteenth century railroad shed features. Thus, in a sense, the opposite of façadism was achieved: while some of the external aspects of the new museum betrayed little of the site’s original intent, once inside the visitor sees old brick arches and other tell-tale evidence of heritage of the site. This innovative preservationist approach despite its emphasis on inclusion of strong post-modernist aspects of design did not go unnoticed: Sottile was awarded the prestigious National Trust for Historic Preservation’s National Preservation Honor Award for the museum in 2014.
Another question often asked about historic preservation is, who benefits from it? Is it only for the civic leaders, for tourism, for building owners? Do less-fortunate populations benefit, or are they instead left out or even inconvenienced as rent may rise or buildings may be repurposed in ways that exclude them? This is something that in Savannah has been a foremost concern: much of Savannah’s population is black American and there is a history of exclusion and poverty in the shadows of the better-known history of great men and grand architecture of the city.
Savannah’s recent response to these realities has been encouraging. The low-income clinic that was previously the occupant of the old Marine hospital moved into purpose-built quarters that are new and to the clinic’s exact specifications, allowing it to expand its services. The majority of properties SCAD has purchased and renovated—especially the old grade schools—were vacant within their neighborhoods, and all but one of five of these schools were in predominately black American neighborhoods. As these major properties were renovated, cleaned up, and put to use, property value and the innate sense of well-being of these neighborhoods increased. Stores and restaurants also went into nearby retail spaces to serve the influx of students and staff that these buildings attracted. Preservation, when done with due cultural and local sensitivity, only enhances neighborhoods, restoring quality and surety to buildings and encouraging prosperity.
While Savannah’s situation is decidedly unique in many ways—the character of the city, the diversity and number of historic properties, the presence of SCAD, the fact it is a major tourism destination—lessons from this city’s ample experience can be applied elsewhere, especially elsewhere in the South, and there are similar approaches to adaptive reuse and preservation in other towns and cities across Dixie. In Lake City, Florida, for example, a 1950’s car dealership—Powers Automotive—is now being restored and renovated for use as a restaurant and grocer. The renovation is being done with a strong eye for authenticity and quality, and the building by any standard is looking great. As the innate value of historic properties is realized by more and more people, it’s a trend we’re certain to see across the South and one that can only add to the beauty and understanding of our communities.
SEE ALL OF MIKE WALKER’S “HISTORIC PRESERVATION: SAVANNAH” PHOTOS HERE