THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT Copyright (c) 1996, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: Saturday, January 20, 1996 TAG: 9601190123 SECTION: DAILY BREAK PAGE: E1 EDITION: FINAL SOURCE: BY ALEX MARSHALL, STAFF WRITER DATELINE: SAVANNAH LENGTH: Long : 184 lines
Richard Rowan, founder and president of the Savannah College of Art and Design, stood in the middle of the abandoned train repair depot, light streaming through broken panes of cathedral-sized windows, chortling with glee.
``This is wonderful, just wonderful,'' said Rowan, turning round and round, looking at the weathered brick walls and dirty concrete floors inlaid with rusty railroad tracks, the soaring roof and the massive steel I-beams holding it up. ``This is the most excellent space I've ever seen.''
This would not be most people's first remark.
Overgrown with weeds and vines, the massive 150,000 square feet of building had small trees growing out of one section, liberally kept watered through the smashed skylights.
But Rowan sees that the brick walls and the steel frames in the broken-out windows are sound. The concrete floor, which once supported 13 locomotive engines, isn't going anywhere. The wooden roof may be in tatters, but the steel girders are fine.
So. Pour some fresh concrete across the floor. Put glass in the windows. Keep the massive skylights but put a new metal roof on. Wire it. Plumb it. Presto. You have the college's new design center, filled with studios and classrooms.
In Norfolk, the city and state are spending millions to build a downtown campus for Tidewater Community College on Granby Street. Portsmouth opened last May the Tidewater Community College Visual Arts Center in the old Famous department store on High Street. Both cities hope that that students will enliven downtown and put people back on the street again.
That's what Richard Rowan, with his wife, Paula, have done in Savannah - except on a scale 10 times as large, and using private dollars instead of public ones.
The abandoned train depot, when renovated, will take its place with about 40 other old buildings the school had ``adaptively reused'' - turning them into classrooms, laboratories, studios and dormitories that are economic engines, infusing the town's lovely squares with students and life. Most of these buildings are enormous - a five-story brick elementary school, an abandoned National Guard armory, a 19th-century power station - that would be difficult to use for anything else. Since its first classes in 1979, the college had grown from a few dozen students to 2,500.
The college's creation was made possible not only by the Rowans' vision, but by the different path this town chose to take after World War II, compared to Norfolk and Portsmouth. While Norfolk, in particular, reveled in urban renewal, Savannah chose to keep and restore its historic pattern of streets and buildings. So the Rowans' school buildings take their place in a city whose core street pattern was laid out in 1733 by James Edward Oglethorpe, and was built for walking and strolling. It has been relatively easy to turn a city into a college campus.
The school offers degrees in architecture, art history, computer art, fashion, fibers, furniture design, graphic design, historic preservation, illustration, interior design, metals and jewelry, painting, photography, sequential art and video. Master's and bachelor's degrees are offered in all majors except architecture, which has the traditional five-year bachelor's degree.
The school's phenomenal rate of growth has not been without tensions. Students complain about an administration so hell-bent on expansion that it over-hypes the school's already excellent facilities. Professors have left or been fired because of disagreements with the school's management style. Townspeople complain that Richard and Paula Rowan make too much money and run roughshod over critics.
But most difficulties appear to have been resolved. The college continues to expand, and the town welcomes students who put money in merchants' pockets and make the streets safer.
``I have a small bakery near here,'' said Wayne Spear, a balding man with a mustache who had gathered in a square for a block party. He wore a Ralph Lauren shirt that featured a polo player galloping across a pink cotton weave.
``I use the students for part-time help. I have some rental property, and the students have made its value go up tremendously. On the side streets around here, little shops are opening because the students have given them a market. People go out at night, because they feel safer with students out and about. The college has been great for this city.''
David T. Guernsey Jr., the new president of Nauticus, was director of the Ships of the Sea musuem in Savannah for 12 years and saw firsthand the impact of the college on the city. He said ``SCAD,'' as it is known in Savannah, had been enormously beneficial.
``Tidewater Community College will have exactly the same impact on Norfolk's downtown as SCAD had on Savannah,'' Guernsey said.
Rowan, the man who stands amid the abandoned train workshop, is the same man who, 16 years ago, stood with his wife in an abandoned armory and ripped out rotten walls with his bare hands. Even Rowan won't admit to seeing how far that would lead.
``It doesn't take great vision to see green metal instead of rotting wood,'' Rowan says. ``To say, `pour some concrete across this floor.' I don't think you could build something like this now with this much structural integrity.''
It's this type of attitude that has helped the Rowans build one of the largest design schools in the country from empty, abandoned buildings, and establish a new way for a school to be built.
Although a port city like Norfolk, Savannah has followed a very different path in both cities' struggle to reinvent themselves in a modern era.
Back in the 1950s, the historic part of Savannah, now treasured internationally as one of the finest examples of town planning, had deteriorated into an unkempt slum. The lovely parks that once graced each block were untrimmed and unlandscaped. Many of the fine old homes had become rooming houses. Only a few of the best families remained in the graceful old homes that are now tourist attractions.
So Savannah officials began doing what Norfolk was setting a national example in - urban renewal - tearing down block after block of old buildings, digging up the streets and building something new. City fathers had already torn down two of the 40 squares, building a parking garage on one. They envisioned a new city of skyscrapers and freeways.
``Thirty years ago, town fathers would have traded six of these squares for two tall buildings,'' said Lee Adler with a chuckle, who spearheaded the preservation drive. ``They wanted to be another Jacksonville.''
Adler, now 72 and wearing a soft-summer suit and a red bow tie, led the drive in the '50s and '60s to save Savannah's historic downtown, often against considerable odds. Adler was one of the Savannah residents who did something that Norfolk folks did not, at least not with the same strength.
They said stop. Adler led a new movement, through the Historic Savannah Foundation, that started a revolving fund to buy old homes to save them from demolition.
When a referendum on urban renewal went before the voters, they rejected the free federal money that would have funded the clearance of the old city.
Now, Savannah is a leading tourist attraction in the nation. It's lately had a leading role in a best-selling movie, ``Forrest Gump,'' and book, ``Midnight in the Garden of Evil.'' In ``Forrest Gump,'' Tom Hank's character sits in one of the lovely squares with the graceful Spanish moss behind him.
SCAD makes the city complete by giving the town an industry beside just tourism and its ports.
SCAD and Savannah's ability to reuse old buildings, such as a National Guard armory or train depot, is something Norfolk and Portsmouth are following, if on a smaller scale and with a more uneven record of success.
Norfolk has renovated Maury High School, and is renovating Granby High, at a cost of $22 million, roughly the cost of a new school. But in the last five years, it has torn down Norview Middle School, Ruffner Middle School, John Goode Elementary School in Brambleton, and is expected to tear down John Gatewood School in Berkley.
Brian Townsend, a city planner, said the numbers are just very difficult. With modern building codes and the American Disabilities Act, reusing an old building can be very risky financially.
``In the long run, from a community fabric point of view, it's probalby worth it,'' Townsend said. ``You can't replicate the trouble and design that went into those buildings.''
If done properly, renovation can be substantially cheaper than building anew, the Rowans say. Using their own construction crew, Rowan says ready-to-use building space costs him $19 per square foot compared to an average of $140 per square foot at colleges across the country. Renovating the abandon train depot should cost just $7 per square foot - a total of about $1 million dollars. Normally, such an effort might cost $5 million, Rowan says.
The school has essentially spearheaded a new type of historic preservation and that has won it recognition. Last year, SCAD won the prestigious 1994 National Trust Honor Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The school continues to expand, aiming for a target of 5,000 students. The school has already bought a darkened theater on the city's old main street as part of a plan to add a school of performing arts. Having dancers and musicians filling the squares as well as painters and architects would be nice.
As the school grows, it will test the adaptability of Oglethorpe's famous squares. So far, they have proved remarkably elastic. The students with green hair and absent-minded professors that fill them now, along with residents and businesspeople, seem only to enhance them, make them more robust.
It's a compliment to Oglethorpe that this town designed for carriages and horses, when a shopping mall, an office tower or an elevator were as yet undreamt, has so easily absorbed cars, computers and a college. ILLUSTRATION: SAVANNAH COLLEGE OF ART AND DESIGN
Savannah's College of Art and Design has breathed new vitality into
the city by taking over old buildings and adapting them to new uses.
Will Tidewater Community College's expansion plans work the same
magic for Norfolk and Portsmouth?
Norfolk's Smith & Welton building (top) and Portsmouth's old Famous
department store (bottom) are recent additions to Tidewater
Reusing existing space, Portsmouth opened the TCC Visual Arts Center
in the old Famous department store on High Street.
KEYWORDS: URBAN RENEWAL DOWNTOWN REDEVELOPMENT by CNB