The Savannah Cultural Arts Center

The Cultural Arts Center is a multi-purpose arts building located in the heart of the National Historic Landmark District. The center is a home for beginning and advanced creative studies for locals in Savannah. The center includes wonderfully large outdoor spaces and restoration of a historic lane and lane building as part of the exterior complex. On the interior, the building pulses out from a rotunda and consists of 5 visual studios for ceramics, metal welding and glass blowing, and visual arts. In addition to spaces for creation, there is a community performance studio and performing arts theater. The goal was for “a forum and not a temple”—a place for working artists to be able to interact with their audiences and other artists.

Design Challenge

The greatest challenge we faced as designers stemmed from the extremely unusual context within Savannah’s Historic District. Due to “urban renewal” in the 1950’s and the development of the existing Civic Center, there was almost no surrounding historic fabric remaining. The only structure from the 1800’s that survived was a small garden shed along what was once Oglethorpe Lane. On this site, one of Savannah’s finest mansions – built by Augustus Wetter – was demolished in 1950 to create the surface parking area that covered the entire area for a used car lot. For this reason we looked to the west across Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard to the historic railroad buildings for inspiration. To overcome this challenge, we selected the strategy of “Abstract Reference” formulated by Steven Semes. This approach “makes reference to the historic setting while consciously avoiding literal resemblance or working in a historic style.” We chose to leave the site of the former Wetter House as open space to allow a small park at the entrance to Savannah from the Talmadge Bridge. We identified the old house footprint with a sidewalk outline. By preserving the garden shed lane building, we re-established the western side of Oglethorpe Lane. This allowed entrances on Montgomery Street and Turner Street and required that Montgomery Street be restored to 2-way traffic. Hopefully this will lead to the restoration of the lost Elbert Square in the future.

Physical Context

The interior of the Cultural Arts Center was conceived as a place for “pollination” between artists and patrons, buzzing with activity! Like a hive, it radiates from a center and that idea is expressed in the radial double height visual studio spaces that face north for daylight and let the traffic passing by on Oglethorpe Avenue to see the artists at work. Most importantly, the program for the project was for education, not just entertainment. Designed more like an arts-oriented vocational school, the interiors are durable and curated industrial. The project budget was very challenging, and multiple reductions in funding and delays in starting construction cost the project dearly. The final design employed polished concrete floors, exposed masonry and open ceilings along with imaginative lighting and creative mechanical systems to give the building its character. Finally, the main theater was carefully designed to have maximum flexibility (retractable seating, full space sprung floors, pipe grid throughout) and perfect acoustics. Located on an extremely busy corner the traffic noise was eliminated through double-wythe 12” CMU walls, concrete roof, variable acoustic draperies and super low-velocity ductwork in a biophilic patterned layout to eliminate dampers. The result is a space that has complete silence. Also, the entire building, including the theater stage, is fully ADA accessible. Although this is the best small theater in South Georgia, and an excellent performance venue, its primary mission—that of allowing generations of young creatives to learn how to have creative careers—has been achieved.