Restoration Splits Town and Gown
Creative use of old buildings by the Savannah College of Art and Design stirs controversy. HISTORIC SAVANNAH
WHAT do you do with an outdated elementary school almost 100 years old?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.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
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.''
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.