This Must Be the Place
Nearly 40 years ago, I moved to Savannah to do something that sounded strange to almost everybody who heard me say it.
"We're starting an art school," I said to anybody who asked.
"Oh, that's fun!" they said, nodding, backing away slowly.
Back then, Savannah wasn't quite the cosmopolitan dreamscape it is today. Headlines and photos from the late 1970s tell the whole story: windows boarded, no movie houses, sidewalks empty, especially at night. Only the stalwart remained downtown, and I am grateful they did. Downtown is where SCAD wanted to be.
The city has always cast a wondrous enchantment over visitors. Can any other American city claim the distinction of being presented as a Christmas gift to the greatest American president in U.S. history, as Sherman did for Lincoln in 1864? Savannah has soul. As a newcomer so long ago, I felt this magic wholly and completely, like I had been here before in a beautiful dream. I wanted to build our little art school in a city that felt like a Place, and Savannah was the "placest" Place of all.
In 1979, my family and I sold virtually all of our possessions to buy the Savannah Volunteer Guards Armory on Bull Street, the sale of which required a majority vote from the remaining members of the Savannah Guards. We crossed our fingers and prayed hard, and in late winter, the sale went through.
"We just want the building to stay, young lady," one member said.
"Yes, sir," I said. "It's the most beautiful building in all the world."
A dream takes many believers, and the old Guards believed in SCAD.
By then, historic preservation already had a strong foothold in the city, thanks to the efforts of early pioneers, such as Lee and Emma Adler, who were on the front lines of a war raging across American communities. On one side of this war stood beauty and history (the "Conservationists"), on the other stood economic progress and the automobile (the "Progressives").
Architectural historian Nathaniel Walker describes how the Progressives eliminated three Savannah squares on Montgomery Street to allow heavier traffic flow into the city, and yet the Conservationists ultimately "won the war."
By the 1970s and 1980s, most Savannahians wanted to save the treasures of our city, but it was unclear how this was to happen. What do you do with an old building? The best answer at the time was: Turn it into a house museum, or if you're especially adventurous, a B&B. But cities cannot live by house museums and quaint inns alone. A city needs reason for people to visit and linger.
The first great wave of historic preservation in America saved the buildings. The second great wave, in which we are today living, focuses on what to do with these buildings. As Stephanie Meeks, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, recently remarked, the maintenance of house museums generally costs about $40 per visitor, while only taking in $8 per guest, the rest of which must be accounted for in donations. That's no business model. To save a historic building, you have to fill it with a distinct service that the world needs and wants.
When SCAD started, I was convinced that the U.S. needed a new approach to arts education, and the students poured in like pilgrims from lands near and far, from Macon and Macau, Albany and Argentina. They came for the professionally oriented arts mission, and they came for the city.
Students felt the magic, the way all of us feel it. And as these ambitious students arrived in this startlingly beautiful place in greater and greater numbers, we were faced with an important decision: Build new structures far outside the historic city center, or find a way to rehabilitate and repurpose some of downtown's most beloved and important historic properties?
In my next article, which you can find online at southmag.com, I'll discuss how SCAD chose the more meaningful, more civic-minded path, and how the little art school on the square took its early design cues from the city we're proud to call our first home.
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