“The Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) Museum of Art is more than a preservation project,” said architect Christian Sottile, “It is where a new structure gives life to the old.” Situated in the historic landmark district of Savannah, Georgia, the 82,000-square-foot gallery space—including an outdoor theatre and event terrace— just two years ago was the site of rubble. The destitute walls of Savannah gray brick, some precariously leaning and others morbidly collapsed, were a relic of the country’s last remaining antebellum railroad complex. When the city’s Historic Review Board insisted that SCAD, who owned the site, secure the remnants of the former railway depot to prevent it being razed to the ground, SCAD responded by hiring Sottile, a SCAD alumnus and local architect who also taught at the college. This October, the SCAD Museum of Art opened to the public.
Key to Sottile’s design from the start was the inclusion of the original materials. The brick walls were pinned to styrofoam and cast in situ to smooth concrete walls that seem to sprout from out of these fragments, while the fallen bricks were repurposed as pathways and are sewn into the streetscape along the east-west stretch of Turner Street. Here “jewel boxes” form a street-side gallery where protruding glass encasements frame artwork hung on a recessed panel behind. Inside, existing brick arches between galleries break up the white cube interior into three main gallery spaces, and in the auditorium, wood from the former depot has been repurposed as wall panels.
On Martin Luther King Boulevard, behind the mid-19th century Greek Revival facade that is the original SCAD museum, a 500-square-foot addition sits within the former North Depot’s linear configuration, mirroring an adjacent warehouse block that houses SCAD’s School of Building Arts (also renovated by SCAD in the late 1980s). The new building rises two stories and is accessible from the original museum entrance by way of a circulation junction known as “the gasket.” In the center, the museum spills out into a courtyard space to form an outdoor theatre and connects a direct path to a huddle of student housing to the west. The North Depot’s original 800-square-foot footprint means that there is room for expansion. Until funds have been found, however, the 300 square feet of grassy area at the western end of the museum, delineated in part by the original brick walls propped up by steel brackets, offer a further outdoor exhibition space.
Visibility was also a concern for Sottile, and atop the main entrance of the extension is a 86-foot-tall lantern made from a steel frame and channel glass bricks. The c-shaped blocks interlock to resist earthquakes and severe hurricanes, and their structural striations also repeat the overarching theme of linearity. The rectangular glass tower joins the spires and domes of some of Savannah’s oldest buildings, standing out as one of a few new icons in the skyline of the carefully preserved city, once gifted to President Lincoln by General Sherman following its capture at the end of the Civil War. The historic city boasts significant new architecture, such as Moshe Safdie’s 2008 building for the expansion of the Telfair Museum, but SCAD’s museum takes its place as an extraordinary project that harnesses history rather than mimics it.