Savannah Art and Architecture: A Fusion of Past and Present

Savannah’s remarkably well-preserved historical buildings and celebrated contemporary arts scene offer an elegant feast for the eyes.

At a moment when the United States’ sprawling pattern of development is being questioned, Savannah just may hold an answer. Even a short stroll through the historic district reveals its remarkable town plan, which allows urban density and private space to coexist.

At regular intervals within the grid of streets and lanes are 21 public squares. About a half-acre each, they are lushly planted and furnished with monuments and benches. Without them, the stately calm which is one of Savannah’s greatest attractions might not exist, and they’re well worth checking out on your next Savannah vacation.

Savannah: National Historic District

Along those streets and facing the squares is a trove of old buildings, nearly all of which are in superb condition. (This is one of the country’s largest National Historic Landmark Districts.) Most houses dating from the 18th and early 19th centuries are in the austere Federal style. Built mainly of brick, they have simple facades, which often hide highly detailed interiors and walled rear gardens. One beautiful example you can tour is the 1820 Davenport House, furnished today as it was originally. Tours run for about 30 minutes every half-hour beginning at 10 a.m.; the last tour runs at 4 p.m.

324 E. State St. Tel. 912-236-8097. Admission: Adults, $8; seniors, $7.20; children 6 to 17, $5; under 6, free. Hours: Mon. to Sat., 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Sun., 1 to 4 p.m.

Town and Gown: SCAD’s Positive Effects

Many of Savannah’s early public and commercial buildings are in the Greek Revival style. An excellent example is the 1856 former headquarters of the Central of Georgia Railroad. Today, it serves as the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) Museum of Art. It houses the Evans Collection of African-American art, the Rhoads Collection of photography, as well as changing exhibitions.

SCAD in Savannah

SCAD has had a powerful impact on both the architecture and the arts scene in Savannah. Rather than choosing a single site, the college acquired dozens of existing buildings scattered through the old part of town. They range from a five-bay 1853 Italianate mansion to a 1925 streamline-modern department store. Renovated—often with the help of students from the school’s historic preservation program—and repurposed, they helped revitalize the city.

Suddenly, a lively contemporary sensibility was injected where once only the formal and historic was revered. Many of SCAD’s buildings contain public galleries, showing work by nationally known artists as well as students.

Poetter Hall

One must-see SCAD building is Poetter Hall, overlooking Madison Square. It was built in 1892 as an armory, in the Romanesque Revival style. It has massive corner towers, lacy wrought-iron balconies and deep-set glassed archways along the sidewalk. It houses SCAD’s welcome center, a gallery and shopSCAD where inventively designed items—some by students—are available for sale.

Savannah Art and Design for Sale

Savannah antiques shops, especially formal ones, have long been part of the city’s shopping landscape. Perhaps another effect of SCAD’s presence is that the city now has a number of terrific contemporary design shops. Among them is 24e, with a transitional aesthetic in furniture, linens and tableware. 24 E. Broughton St. Tel. 877-274-6724.

The Paris Market & Brocante has an eclectic mix of furnishings and accessories for kitchen, bed, bath and garden. 36 W. Broughton St. Tel. 912-232-1500.

DC2 Design, in addition to contemporary furniture, has an unusual range of ceramics, plus a coffee bar. 109 W. Broughton St. Tel. 800-955-2871.

Arcanum shows a canny and tasteful selection of antique and new furniture. 422 Whitaker St. Tel. 912-236-6000.

One Fish Two Fish offers fun lighting, tableware and linens, and books on design, among other wares. 401 Whitaker St. Tel. 912-447-4600.

The Telfair: A Museum of Then and Now

Good things come in threes, and the Telfair Museum of Art is an especially good thing. It has three very different but equally marvelous buildings.

Tel. 912-790-8800. Admission: Adults, $15; students (kindergarten to college), $5; children under 5, free (ticket includes one-day admission to all three buildings). Hours vary per building (see below).

Owens-Thomas House

One is the Owens-Thomas House, completed in 1819 and considered the finest example of English Regency architecture in the United States. It’s mostly built of tabby, a mixture of lime, water, sand, crushed oyster shells and ash that was commonly used here before 1850. The interior is exquisitely detailed. There’s a columned foyer with a faux-marble floor cloth, for example, and a Greek-key patterned window of amber glass in the dining room.

For its day, the house had an extremely sophisticated indoor plumbing system. And beyond the walled garden is one of the earliest intact urban slave quarters in the South. The house is furnished with period accuracy, and can be toured.

124 Abercorn St. Tel. 912-233-9743. Hours: Sun., 1 to 5 p.m.; Mon., 12 to 5 p.m.; Tue. to Sat., 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Telfair Academy

The Telfair Academy, the museum’s progenitor, was founded in 1875 in another impressive Regency mansion, which it still occupies. It displays two period-furnished rooms, plus galleries of mainly 18th- and 19th-century decorative and fine arts.

121 Barnard St. Tel. 912-790-8800. Hours: Sun., 12 to 5 p.m.; Mon., Wed. to Sat., 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Tue., closed.

Jepson Center for the Arts

Just across the square is the Telfair’s third building, the Jepson Center, built in 2006. It’s a breathtaking contemporary structure by architect Moshe Safdie. When the radical design was unveiled, it raised the hackles of preservation purists. But its scale and proportions settle it respectfully among the other buildings around the square. Its transparency and flowing spaces feel like a seamless extension of the park itself. The Jepson Center shows rotating exhibitions of 20th and 21st century art, and has a terrific interactive children’s section.

207 W. York St. Tel. 912-790-8800. Hours: Sun., 12 to 5 p.m.; Mon., Wed., Fri. and Sat., 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thu., 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Tue., closed.

Destinations: Georgia, Savannah

Themes: Art and Museums, Historical Vacations, Architecture

Activities: Arts and Entertainment, Museums, Sightseeing