How one university saved Savannah’s architectural history

CNN  — 

In his 1994 Pulitzer Prize finalist “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” John Berendt wrote, “For me, Savannah’s resistance to change was its saving grace. The city looked inward, sealed off from the noises and distractions of the world at large.”

Indeed, Savannah, the oldest city in the state Georgia, feels bound to its history. Downtown, visitors can walk down cobblestone streets lined with moss-draped trees. Wrought iron fences curl into floral arrangements in front of red-brick homes that still feature the interior woodwork of the early 1800s. The 150-year-old fountain at the heart of the sprawling Forsyth Park – one of more than 1,000 historically significant structures in the city – speaks to a bygone vogue for French-style public gardens. Southern charm abounds.

Built in 1883, Magnolia Hall is now a guest house for the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). Previously, it was home to Pulitzer Prize-winners John Berendt and Conrad Aiken.

But in the 1950s, downtown Savannah was anything but charming. Everywhere, historic buildings were crumbling and at risk of being repurposed as parking garages or demolished altogether.

“Savannah went through a huge decline in the Depression, then in WWII, and by the 1950s everyone wanted to move into the suburbs. Many million-dollar townhomes were empty and there was a high level of vacancy. It was very sketchy,” Ryan Arvay, historic properties coordinator and revolving fund manager at the Historic Savannah Foundation (HSF), said in a phone interview.

“Union Station was bought by the Department of Transportation in 1961 and they used the Railroad Right of Way Act to build i-16 (the Interstate 16 highway) and demolish the property. The original DeSoto hotel, built in 1890, was an opulent, five-story Victorian hotel comprised entirely of brick with stained glass, beautiful turrets and gilded elements. In 1968 it became a modern high rise and was built in the new formalism style reminiscent of the 1960s. The Liberty Bank building, at 10 stories, was one of few true skyscrapers in Savannah, but it was torn down in the 1960s and made into a modernized two-story structure.”

Image of the DeSoto hotel, Hibernia Bank and Union Station of Savannah.

It was against this backdrop that news writer and painter Anna Colquitt Hunter gathered six friends (all the wives of wealthy, influential men) to start the HSF in 1955.

Their initial goal was to save Isaiah Davenport House, the former Federal-style home of one of the city’s most prolific master builders, and its restoration marked the beginning of the preservationist movement in Savannah.

Through a revolving fund, HSF saved 145 buildings between 1955 and 1980, restoring, reconstructing and sometimes reselling properties to likeminded parties to ensure Savannah’s history was not forgotten. But despite these efforts, historic Savannah remained under threat.

L-R: Dorothy Ripley Roebling, Lucy Barrow McIntire, Anna Colquitt Hunter, Katherine Judkins Clark, Elinor Grunsfeld Adler and Jane Adair Wright. Together with Nola Roos (not pictured), the women -- who became known as the "Magnificent Seven" -- founded the Historic Savannah Foundation in 1955.

“The nature of cities is to tear down and build up. It is impossible for a city to grow without some process of demolition in order to allow for redevelopment,” Daves Rossell, a professor of architectural history at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), said over the phone. “Savannah has a lot of buildings that weren’t famous or historical sites and has lost a lot of its historical fabric due to the desire for modern opportunity.”

But things took in turn in 1979 when Paula Wallace and her family purchased the Savannah Volunteer Guards Armory, a 36,000-square-foot, castle-like building with boarded up windows and a thick layer of dust. It would become the first structure of their newly incorporated university. (The armory would serve as my base for the four years I attended SCAD as an undergraduate student.)

A cartoon from the 1950s  referencing the HSF's efforts to save historic buildings.

“It was the perfect time for SCAD. The Historic Savannah Foundation had buoyed the market and shown that real estate was an effective way to save buildings but as a non-profit, we could only handle so much scale,” said Arvay. “SCAD had the capacity to take on the big buildings – as we like to call them, the ‘white elephants.’ There are few property owners like that, that can handle that kind of scale.”

Some of the white elephants SCAD has restored since then include a convent, the 19th-century home of Georgia Historical Society founder Alexander Smets and a historic African-American Baptist church that dates to 1866. (The church was returned to its original congregation in 2000.) These buildings and others like them have served as residence halls, learning centers and studios for the college’s students.

SCAD's Poetter Hall. It was originally the Savannah Volunteer Guards Armory.

Over the last 40 years, SCAD has acquired 68 buildings across Savannah. But their mandate hasn’t stopped there: In 2002, the college launched its first international location in Lacoste, a medieval village in the south of France, where its students can study abroad. The picturesque campus includes 34 buildings, some of which date back to the 16th century.

Two years later, SCAD transformed internet startup iXL’s 300,000-square-foot Atlanta headquarters (previously home to credit giant Equifax) into its main campus in the city, and in 2009, SCAD opened a campus in Hong Kong. Fittingly, it’s based in the former North Kowloon Magistrate, an 81,000-square-foot courthouse constructed in 1960. (The structure was awarded to SCAD by the Hong Kong Development Bureau as a part of a heritage conservation program.)

The main academic building at SCAD's Atlanta campus. The building had previously served as a headquarters for iXL and Equifax.

“We have a lot of buildings with different histories,” said Wallace, who serves as SCAD’s founder and president. “One may have been a synagogue while another was a prison. We have taken on a lot of old-school buildings and federal buildings under our wing. Anytime we see these empty buildings we love to shower them in attention to create a space of comfort for creatives.”

Today, nearly 15,000 SCAD students are walking through ornamental archways in Savannah and sunlit terraces in southern France. They’re studying in neoclassical court rooms in Hong Kong and renovated broadcast studios in Atlanta.

Inhabiting the same spaces where great minds of the past once studied, slept, worked and flourished, these students are breathing new life into forgotten structures, transforming historical sites into incubators for future innovations.