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How SCAD founder Paula Wallace turned old buildings into a new campus

The Savannah College of Art and Design is a city-wide case study in historic preservation

Imagine what college would look like if your favorite, most inspiring teacher from grade school started a university. That scenario describes, to a certain degree, how then 29-year-old Paula Wallace, an Atlanta, Georgia, schoolteacher, ended up founding the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) in 1978.

Through optimism, vision, and a deep understanding of how to inspire students, Wallace turned a collection of historical properties scattered about the Georgia city’s then-dilapidated downtown into a cutting-edge arts institution and the catalyst for a thriving neighborhood. Slowly acquiring and rehabilitating buildings to create elegantly restored classrooms, studios, and student housing, Wallace and SCAD used the past as an asset to shape the future.

“Today, they give tourists ghost tours in downtown Savannah,” says Wallace. “But then, it was really a ghost town, filled with abandoned blocks and dilapidated buildings. I saw the elegance of Savannah’s architecture.”

Curbed spoke with Wallace, who recently won the Roger Milliken Honorary AIA Legacy Award for her commitment to architecture and design, about the way she built such a transformative university using historic preservation as a foundation, and her advice for making the most of historic and underutilized property.

Look past the surface and identify a building’s true character

The first building Wallace purchased and revitalized, an old Savannah Volunteer Guard Armory, was a red brick behemoth that was boarded up and smelled faintly of gunpowder. It seemed like an unorthodox flagship with which to launch a university, but Wallace saw that it had stood the test of time, had great bones, and more importantly, had character.

“While it seemed unlikely at the time, I thought it was handsome, and would be a great home for the university,” she says.

Now, Poetter Hall, a stately brick building that was once named Preston Hall, has become a centerpiece for the eclectic campus, which is spread throughout the city. She never thought the school would require such a big space, but dozens of renovations and retrofits later, the first building had proven to be a great fit.

The more Wallace dug into the old armory, she found that it did indeed have character and history: a symbol of Savannah, it was once used by the USO during WWII as a dancehall. The structure had many layers and possibilities, if someone was willing to make the effort.

“Lady Astor [a famous mid-century socialite] once said Savannah was ‘a beautiful woman with a dirty face,’” says Wallace. “The city had just declined over the years. But luckily, urban revitalization never hit Savannah, so these great historic buildings remained. They just weren’t being cared for or utilized.”

Appreciate every aspect of your environment

Before Wallace started SCAD, she was teaching elementary school in Atlanta and living in a carriage house in the Peachtree Hills neighborhood. She was “amateurishly” fixing up the old building, but reveled in the experience, enjoying the work and most of all, the environment she was building. She felt the same way about her classroom.

“I learned a lot about education over the last 38 years,” she says. “I created the environment for my students in Atlanta, and I always wanted them to look around and see something exciting, interesting and inspiring.”

Wallace carries the same attention to detail and hands-on engagement to the layout and interior design of SCAD facilities. She’ll often use a bright color paint to highlight a room, or decorate older buildings with student art to make them more modern and lively. She works with the spaces, usually historic buildings with high ceilings, and given them a sense of beauty and excitement, mixing historic and contemporary touches.

A slight update can make all the difference. Inside Arnold Hall, a former junior high school that houses the SCAD School of Liberal Arts, Wallace and others found a vintage ‘30s mural created by the Works Progress Administration that included pictures of famous Georgians. Being the ‘30s, there weren’t any women or minorities on the wall. SCAD designers added medallion portraits of a more diverse class of famous Georgians and added to the mural, creating a distinct piece of public art.

The greenest buildings are the ones that are already built

SCAD has remodeled and repurposed a vast array of structures, from jail and electric factories to old synagogues and even a railway complex, now the award-winning SCAD Museum of Art building. The private nonprofit university has even expanded beyond Savannah, with campuses in Hong Kong (an old colonial home) and Lacoste, France (a farmhouse once owned by the Marquis de Sade).

Wallace believes it’s great for a new campus to to have old buildings, since it imbues it with an instant sense of character and history, and is a much most sustainable means of expansion.

“If you can use something that’s part of a community’s history, you reinforce the value of that history,” she says. “Utilizing those principles of sustainability are important.”