Thank You, Savannah

In the early days of SCAD, the university took its preservation design cues from the city itself. Who knew that saving and repurposing architecture is actually the progressive, business-oriented solution for cities?

In the April-May 2018 issue of South, I write about the legacy of historic preservation in Savannah and the first victories that paved the way for the Hostess City's international leadership in heritage conservation and adaptive new use. 

In the early days of SCAD, the university took its preservation design cues from the city itself. For example, when the automobile first appeared, Savannah had two equally bad options: Ignore this strange new machinery entirely, or irreversibly alter the city to suit it. Instead, the people of Savannah found a third way — resisting massively powerful efforts to eliminate many of the squares or turn them into parking lots (Can you imagine!?) while adapting to this disruptive technology without destroying Oglethorpe's design for the city. This careful, historically minded adaptation does not happen naturally. Savannah was intentional and creative. 
SCAD learned from this approach.

Then and now, when we acquire new property for students, we don't raze the structure and build something cheaper, but we also don't turn the property into a house museum, embalming it in amber. Savannah already boasts elegant period mansions aplenty, so SCAD chooses the third way: Give the building a currently viable and sustaining function. Shape preservation around purpose, not the other way around. Historic buildings are not so precious as passersby might assume. They can pirouette and arabesque, dancing right into the present with grace and style.

Our university's style of architectural rehabilitation has evolved, to be sure. When I first came to Savannah, the palette of approved paint colors was rather limited, more in keeping with a Quaker village than a sophisticated city center, and SCAD, preferring to celebrate the past without deifying it, adopted a broader palette. Inside the buildings, we balanced the solemnity of architectural history with the vibrancy of contemporary art, the latest technology, and a healthy sense of humor. SCAD endeavors to treat our buildings the way one should treat students: Care for them, and fill them with goodness and beauty, to prepare them for long and happy lives.

This new, purposeful approach to historic preservation has many surprising benefits. Cities become healthier, happier places to live and work — and importantly, this approach generates real economic growth. After all, when people enjoy being in a city, they spend more time there. Because of the repurposed beauty of Savannah, more and more locals and newcomers alike are choosing to move, live, and invest downtown.

A new study by Tripp Umbach reports a rather stunning fact: Last fiscal year, SCAD generated more than $438 million in economic impact for Savannah and $603 million for the state of Georgia. That's more than half a billion dollars from SCAD to Georgia in 2016 alone! SCAD has always operated as a not-for-profit university, and yet Tripp Umbach reports that annual state and local government revenue attributable to the presence of SCAD totals more than $28.1 million. SCAD students and families do a great deal of giving here, too — donating more than $20.1 million annually through charitable organizations and volunteer activities. The full report can be found at

Most impactful is how a SCAD degree creates $10.3 million in additional earning power for members of each graduating class, a phenomenon we call the "SCAD Bounce." This windfall is not insignificant when you consider that 22 percent of SCAD alumni remain in Georgia, which means an increased earning power of $4.2 billion over 40 years, per class.

That's big news.

Who knew that saving and repurposing architecture is actually the progressive, business-oriented solution for cities? I'll tell you who: the good people of Savannah knew, and our students and treasured graduates know, too.

Today, the little art school on the square is now a global university on three continents, and downtown Savannah is bright with light and life, at nights, on weekends, all year long, a destination the world wants to visit. I am eternally grateful that this wondrous city's citizens have welcomed SCAD from the beginning, making space for us to build something miraculous in the midst of this wondrous Place.

Thank you, Savannah!