Food Feature: Scads of choices in Savannah

From old blood to new, Savannah College of Art and Design infuses city with life

Savannah is a longtime favorite destination for that masochistic sort of rootless modern tourist drawn to grand old houses and doddering aristocrats.

If you haven't been in a while, you'll probably remember the historic center as hauntingly beautiful — and creepily moribund. But, thanks to that relative newcomer and upstart the Savannah College of Art and Design, the city's center is alive and kicking.

SCAD has pioneered a unique sort of "campus." Rather than locating at a single site, the college acquired more than 40 existing buildings scattered through the city's oldest sections — many of them threatened landmarks — to be used as classrooms, studios, offices and dorms. They range from a five-bay Italianate mansion built in 1853 to a 1925 streamlined modern department store.

Thirteen contain galleries, open to the public with free admission. Some of these show student work, as you might expect, but some mount rotating shows that include nationally known artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol — and work that some Savannah fuddy- duddies probably wouldn't even consider art, such as Sheldon Moldoff's original drawings for Batman comic books, and anonymous animation cels for Archie cartoons. The college also operates several cafes, and a 1946 deco-style theater with a year-round calendar of films, lectures and performances.

All this means more than saving old buildings. It's lodged new little nodes of activity all through the picturesque historic areas: Young people hang out at all hours, seemingly everywhere. There's street life and spontaneity. A lively, contemporary sensibility has been injected where once only the formal and historic was revered. It makes Savannah a far more vibrant — and far less musty — place to visit.

Poetter Hall, which overlooks Madison Square, was built in 1892 as the Savannah Volunteer Guards Armory. A three-story brick castle in the Romanesque Revival style, it has massive corner towers and lacy wrought iron balconies, and massive, deep-set glassed archways along the sidewalk. You can imagine it in its former faded glory, brickwork crying out to be repointed and the interior exuding the sickly aroma of mildew. But as with all the buildings SCAD has rescued, moldy disuse has been replaced with the fresh air of activity.

Through one of Poetter Hall's arches, you can look into Exhibit A Gallery, which shows work of students, faculty and alumni, most of which is for sale. In the May Poetter Gallery, also located here, there's a different selection every quarter of outstanding student work drawn from all the college's various programs of study.

Denizens of contemporary loft culture will feel more at home snooping around Alexander Hall, a low-slung 1940s-era warehouse tucked under the Savannah River Bridge. At various times a grocery store and a beverage distribution center, it's now home to SCAD's painting and printmaking departments. The slightly acrid, unmistakable scents of linseed oil and turpentine waft through its halls, emanating from classrooms and from the 90 private graduate studios on the second floor.

The lobby area serves as an informal gallery, where in January you can see the annual "Big Picture" show of two-dimensional student works up to 8 feet long or tall, which are offered for sale at prices of $1,500 and under. Alexander Hall "Open Studio" nights are wildly popular events where you are liable to view cutting-edge canvasses, not Southern belles in hoops skirts. If you're serious about taking in what's on display at SCAD, catch the free shuttle during the monthly Gallery Hop, when all the galleries host simultaneous receptions. The next one is Jan. 9.

The traveler does not live on art alone, and even nourishment can be found at a historic SCAD-rescued facility. The Gryphon Tea Room occupies a circa-1920 pharmacy overlooking Madison Square. Fourteen original stained glass windows with a mortar-and-pestle motif convey the original purpose, and old-time furniture and crockery reinforce the ambience.

It's open day and evening, but is best for breakfast or a light lunch, and for its ambitious selection of teas. There are 24 varieties, all loose leaf, ranging from the traditional Earl Grey to the inspirational Monk's Prayer, a minty chamomile blend. Take advantage of the Gryphon's opportunity to merge a SCAD experience with a semblance of historic gentility and stop between 4 and 6 p.m. for afternoon tea. Scones, fruit salad and finger sandwiches of anachronistic combos like ham and butter, and cucumber with cream cheese, hark back to the days when artists knew that their proper place in the world was to paint broody portraits of the rich and mighty. SCAD also operates two classic chrome diners: Bobbie's, built in 1952, and the Streamline, from 1938.

Though the forced mixing of blue blood and new blood may have raised a few well-plucked local eyebrows, it has not, in the end, thrown this gracious old city into shock. Rather, it's quickened the metabolism of the place.

"We've always had blue-haired ladies in pumps," a Savannah friend observed. "Now we have blue-haired kids on roller skates, too."


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