Savannah’s history extends back to the 1733, when General James Oglethorpe founded the then capital of Georgia (Pinkerton, Burke 7). Oglethorpe designed a geometric grid filled with squares covered in lush vegetation, many of which still exist today. This forms the oldest city plan in North America (Pinkerton, Burke 7). Savannah was called the “forest City” during the 19th century. Savannah’s sense of heritage was threatened in the latter half of the 20th century due to a bad economy and mis-placed urban development caused the loss of several landmark buildings. Among them were City Market in 1954, and the Beaux-Arts Union Station in 1963. These losses together brought forth the formation of the Historic savannah Foundation in the 1950’s (Pinkerton, Burke 7).
The strongest catalyst for the restoration of downtown historic Savannah has been Savannah College of Art and Design or otherwise known as SCAD. The Savannah Volunteer Guard Armory was the first project SCAD undertook soon after their founding. SCAD founders acquired the 1892 Savannah Armory in 1979 to serve as the main hub for SCAD in the Savannah area (Pinkerton, Burke 8). The founders of SCAD found they were dealing with building in ruins. The immense armory had been run down past the point of rescue in the eyes of the previous owners. There was no heat, the plumbing was replaced, and the majority of the building was without electricity
A large effort on behalf of the SCAD administration was made to preserve Preston’s original floor plan, and detail while modernizing the building for classrooms, studios, and office spaces. SCAD opened in 1979 and received an award from the Historic Savannah Foundation the next year (Pinkerton, Burke 7). The building was originally called Preston Hall after the building architect. . SCAD now owns more than 60 historical buildings that serve 6,600 students in a unique downtown urban campus (Pinkerton, Burke 8).
The Savannah Volunteer Guard Armory was built in 1892 by William Preston, from Boston, a graduate of Harvard and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris (Pinkerton, Burke 15). Preston originally was invited by George Baldwin, the first president of Savannah Electric (Pinkerton, Burke 15). Preston was originally contracted to build the Savannah Courthouse. Hogan’s fire of 1889 demolished the previous armory at Whitaker and President Streets. The replacement was originally meant to be a two-story building, but after the first floor was built the builders decided to add a third floor. The total cost of the project was estimated at $100,000. Officials chose the location of Bull Street alongside Madison Square which was the former site of the Savannah Female Orphan Asylum. The Volunteer Guards closed on this site in 1890 they selected Preston to undertake the project. Building on the new Armory began in 1892. The original plan was to attach a drill hall/armory behind the building, however a last minute decision was made to demolish the original building in favor of a single building with a larger drill hall and company rooms. Also attached to the structure was a bowling alley and rifle range on Charlton Street.
The Armory was decorated with floral arrangements in the Romanesque revival stage, particularly in the clubhouse found on West Bull Street. The detail of floral arrangements designed into the columns suggests the original appearance in its splendor which was deteriorated after the fire of 1928 (Pinkerton, Burke 10). The view of two elegant interior columns in the clubhouse’s lounge room gives a glimpse of the buildings ornate detail. The two columns, one fluted, and the other a simple pillar are unified by the floral design at the apex of the columns. The cast plaster and wood elements hide the large iron girder and interior iron columns.
The iron wrought balconies above Bull Street has a detailed repeated scroll pattern of heavy iron, with a circle pattern in the lower section. Also, the corner balcony in Poetter Hall’s southwest corner shows the dramatic effects of light contrast of brick against the iron. The riveted structural steel used to support the balconies at the towers, but within the walls are found integral iron ties that support the structure.
The western side of the clubhouse on the second floor is the library. This room would be later known as the Tomochichi Room. The Tomochichi club, a local Savannah political group met at Poetter Hall during the early years (Pinkerton, Burke 20). Native American pictures are decorated in the centerpiece of the mantle above the fireplace. This relief depicts Yamacraw chief Tomochichi. His assisting General Oglethorpe and the new settlers of Savannah helped pave the way to an establish Savannah (Pinkerton, Burke 20). His feathered headdress as depicted in the relief is not a normal headdress worn by the Yamacraw and he is flanked by cross spears and arrows. This represents a triumphant chief and is also reflected by the laurel leaves associated with triumph and the ivy represents associated with fame and eternal life Pinkerton, Burke 21).
The beautiful old staircase that leads up to the Old Tomochichi room is now green instead of woodgrain brown. At eight feet wide, and leading upstairs the now green staircase is the first thing a visitor sees when entering Poetter Hall. An old infirmary and storage room at the apex of the staircase has now been turned into the May Poetter gallery.
This gallery is named after May Poetter, one of the founding members who served many years as vice president. The gallery now serves as a display for student artist from a variety of art studies. The windows run all the way down the wall, but the windows were covered with an artificial wall when the room was converted. This allows the visitor to see the display without all the outside glare.
Savannah College of art and Design has been a leader in the Savannah community concerning revitalizing historic architecture in downtown Savannah for the last three decades. What is now Poetter Hall and once the Savannah Volunteer Guard Armory is the most prime example of SCAD’s commitment to Savannah’s historic district. Students and the public are always welcome to take a look around this historic landmark in Savannah.