Restoration Splits Town and Gown

Creative use of old buildings by the Savannah College of Art and Design stirs controversy. HISTORIC SAVANNAH

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

WHAT do you do with an outdated elementary school almost 100 years old? Who will buy an obsolete county jail with an onion dome, or an armory flanked by cannons? How can you use a railroad building where trains no longer run? Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) has purchased these buildings, along with 15 others, and turned them into part of its college campus here. The elementary school is once more filled with students - college students who use the classrooms for painting, drawing, and fiber arts studios. The jail houses the art and video department, and students use the original cells as editing studios. And the armory, which now holds the campus library, is filled with students completing projects in the graphic design and illustration departments.

With a note of pride, Harry Weiss, professor of historic preservation, says, ``We believe in using the city as our teaching lab and classroom. Students here live, eat, and drink historic buildings.''

Indeed, the historic preservation program is housed in one of the college's recently acquired elementary schools, which the local school board was using for storage. Mr. Weiss says, ``Although the classrooms were no longer functional for an elementary school, they're perfect for us. They have good ventilation, and the big windows provide lots of natural light.''

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Robbie King, a recent graduate with a degree in historic preservation, says, ``I kind of fell into the program. I'd always been interested in old houses, but I never considered it [historic preservation] as a career until I saw the role at work in a city firsthand.''

Despite its innovative use of many properties that had been boarded up and abandoned, the college has angered some Savannahians, who want to preserve the character of the largest urban historic district in the country. Some citizens and neighbors living in the carefully restored homes lining the cobblestone streets feel that the school is out of place and detracts from the charm and tranquality of the historic district.

And now the quiet, peaceful city, designed by General James Edward Oglethorpe in 1733 and recognized as a national treasure by the Department of Interior some 225 years later, is in the midst of an ongoing town/gown conflict.

The private college was founded 10 years ago by Richard and Paula Rowan, ambitious, young educators from Atlanta. They chose Savannah as the site for their college, because it was ``a beautiful, old city, with tremendous potential.''

President Richard Rowan recalls, ``Working with our board of trustees, our goal was to create the largest, best, and least-expensive art and design college in the United States.''

Under the Rowans' direction, Savannah College of Art and Design has grown steadily and now has an enrollment of almost 1,500 students and offers nine degree programs. With the increasing demand for space and facilities, the college has purchased 20 historic buildings to use for administrative offices, a library, classroom space, and student dormitories over a 15 block area.

The college spends more than half a million dollars each year on the maintenance and renovation of existing buildings. The full-time staff of 30 includes carpenters, painters, and an electrician, who work on the buildings year round.

At first, most of the community welcomed the college. But when nearly 60 students started living in an old inn three years ago, many Savannahians began to view the college as a business rather than a nonprofit institution. They quickly pointed out that the local zoning ordinances did not allow dormitories in the historic district and complained about students playing stereos and riding skateboards around the historic squares.

Furthermore, rumors of improper city politics and trading favors began to circulate.

One longtime resident who asked not to be identified, says, ``This is a living, breathing historic district, where people have their homes. We will share the area, but we're not going to give it away [to the college].''

Even though the school has generated jobs and revenue for the city and won several awards for its restoration efforts, the Downtown Neighborhood Association and Historic Savannah Foundation are also critical of the college. They stress that the college administrators are taking advantage of the historic district and have gotten special treatment from city officials.

According to Larry Lee, an attorney and current president of the Downtown Neighborhood Association, Savannah College of Art and Design has not followed established procedures for obtaining permits, inspections, and certificates of occupancy for some downtown buildings, including the recently purchased elementary schools.

Mr. Lee says, ``The college is spreading willy-nilly, and it's not playing by the same rules everyone else is playing by.''

G. Ken Matthews, a financial consultant and former president of the Historic Savannah Foundation, who still serves on the board, says, ``We'd like to have better communication between the college and the neighborhood groups and foundation. We want to sit down and discuss some of these problems face-to-face, but they [college administrators and representatives] haven't been available or willing to meet with us in the past couple of years.''

But other residents feel that having the college in the district has benefited the community. Neil Creacy, an attorney, says, ``The school has purchased several buildings that would have otherwise attracted homeless people and become fire traps. And the streets are safer at night, because there are more people and activity around the area.''

Weiss, who is chairman of the historic preservation program at the college, also responds to the critics: ``We practice the ultimate preservation plan - we're able to maintain the original structure and integrity of the buildings and keep many of them in use as originally designed.''

Despite the ongoing controversy, the college is busy renovating the recently acquired Central of Georgia Railroad Headquarters, an imposing brick structure erected more than 100 years ago. Weiss says, ``It's a facility almost uniquely matched for our needs. We'll use it for classes in architecture, historic preservation, and interior design in the fall.''

Mr. Rowan also plans to increase the number of international students enrolled and to purchase another historic building to use as a library within the next year. He hopes to establish the largest fine arts library in the country.

College officials believe that the local criticism reflects the feeling of a small minority within the city. Kathy Hoppe, an official of the college, says, ``If local people aren't restoring the buildings, does that mean they should just stand empty for years and years? Some people just don't like change.''

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