Savannah, Georgia, was laid out in 1733 as an oasis of civilization in an otherwise raw colony. Its generous grid of streets and squares remains a source of inspiration for planners, but stately spaces and historic buildings alone cannot guarantee urban vitality. By 1966, when old Savannah was declared a National Historic Landmark District, much of the area was severely impoverished, and even well-preserved streets were dispiritingly lifeless. Yet the city has been transformed—a process generated largely by the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), founded in 1978. Rather than establishing a traditional central campus, the school has restored and adapted more than 50 existing buildings (and constructed others) scattered through the historic district. “Each time they did that they formed a seed for development,” city preservation officer Beth Reiter says of the surrounding area. “They’ve put people on the street twenty-four hours a day.”
Now SCAD is expanding beyond Savannah, taking its approach to campus-making with it. In 2002 the college acquired an art school in the medieval French village of Lacoste, including 29 historic buildings. This year it opened an outpost in Atlanta, in a 1950s office block in the Midtown district. It’s an unremarkable structure, but the previous tenant—legally troubled Internet consulting company iXL Enterprises—had recently commissioned an interior renovation by Arquitectonica that gives the college high-tech, high style, and highly flexible digs. An adjacent motel has been repurposed as a dorm. Since SCAD currently occupies only 20 percent of the main building, it is unlikely that it will feel pressure soon to expand to multiple sites. Still the school has already announced plans to restore the Peters House, an elaborate Queen Anne mansion about two miles away. Used as a restaurant, the 1883 structure was damaged by fire in 2000 and has been decaying ever since. SCAD intends to make it a public venue for exhibitions, literary events, and the like.
The college’s revival of the three Atlanta properties is significant, although their impact on the sprawling city hardly equals that of resuscitating so many buildings throughout the smaller Savannah. The value of the SCAD model of adapting disused building stock, however, is less in its potential to create historic showplaces, or even to have an overall impact on a city, than as a strategy to arrest the decay of existing buildings and spur surrounding regeneration. While few places have the extensive architectural quality of old Savannah, almost every town has moribund neighborhoods with underutilized buildings.
Once the college decided to locate in downtown Savannah, where there is little undeveloped land and many buildings with landmark protection, its approach was perhaps inevitable. Yet SCAD president and cofounder Paula Wallace notes, “Reinvigorating the existing fabric seemed a historically and ecologically sound approach, as far as setting an example for our students”—whose degree choices include architecture, architectural history, art history, historic preservation, and interior design, among others. In fact, SCAD’s contributions to the city go well beyond the simple rescue of buildings. The growth of its student body has fueled a boom by private developers in the renovation of decrepit and abandoned Victorian houses as rental apartments, and has stabilized several once declining neighborhoods. Many SCAD facilities incorporate galleries where work by both students and nationally known artists is shown; others house restaurants and shops. These enhance tourism, a major local industry, just as the permeating presence of the college—with its events, resources, and creative
people—adds dimensions to the city’s cultural life. “If an old school building becomes available,” says Mark McDonald, executive director of the Historic Savannah Foundation, “SCAD is the natural reprogrammer of that space.” Disused department stores and movie houses, he points out, are “maladies that most cities our size don’t really have a good solution for, but we don’t even have the issue. SCAD has completely taken care of that community problem.” Savannah is newly fashionable for upscale retirement and second homes, and both Wallace and McDonald say they know otherwise unaffiliated people who have relocated there precisely because of the local ambience the college has helped create. “A café society has developed here,” McDonald observes.
Many schools have campuses that incorporate preexisting buildings, such as Art Center College of Design’s reuse of a huge former aircraft testing facility in Pasadena; others have porous boundaries that integrate college with city, as at Rhode Island School of Design, in Providence. Even in Atlanta, Georgia State’s recent expansion into both existing and new buildings downtown contributes much needed life, and Georgia Tech’s new Technology Square development planted dense mixed-use infill at an edge of Midtown formerly dominated by surface parking. Sometimes colleges intentionally serve as “revitalization anchors” for adjacent areas, in the phrase of Joseph Schilling, who teaches planning at Virginia Tech and is on the executive committee of the National Vacant Properties Campaign, which aims to give cities the tools to find new uses for unused building stock. Encouraging this approach to campus building—not only for academic institutions but also for government agencies and corporations—would seem wise for cities with stocks of unused buildings or empty parcels. “But the Savannah experience is unique,” Schilling notes, “because of the focus on the restoration and adaptive reuse of historic buildings, and the decentralized model, where they’re identifying properties throughout the downtown core.” SCAD’s efforts have won numerous preservation awards, and the college received a 2002 grant from the J. Paul Getty Trust to prepare condition reports on additional historic buildings that urgently need preservation.
Some Atlanta observers would have preferred that SCAD locate downtown, which needs a boost, rather than in Midtown, the city’s most robust area in both redevelopment and quality of urbanism. But with the Peters House, SCAD has a chance to work a bit of its synergistic Savannah magic. Designed by architect Gottfrid L. Norrman, who did several of the Savannah buildings SCAD has previously restored, it occupies a hilltop site where Midtown’s fabric unravels, approaching downtown. Charming early twentieth-century apartment houses and storefront strips are interspersed with awful twenty-first-century apartment complexes, fluorescent-lit gas stations, a car-oriented shopping center, and surface parking lots. Aesthetics aside, these hardly comprise the most desirable uses for an area close to the heart of a metropolis served by rapid transit. “What you hope is that the good inspires a reuse of the other properties,” says Susan Mendheim, president and CEO of the Midtown Alliance, an economic development association. “We’ve worked for years unsuccessfully to find the right solution that would not only preserve the Peters House but also allow the building and grounds to be enjoyed by the public.” SCAD’s planned restoration, she says, will be “almost a miracle.”