Capturing the Tower

An archetype of post-war promise, iconic Drayton Tower may finally realize its full potential in a new era under new ownership. Photography by Richard Leo Johnson.

 At first glance, it appears out of place in downtown Savannah: a polished box—neat as hospital corners with alternating bands of blue-green glass and white concrete—situated on Liberty Street between a circa-1920 Beaux-Arts apartment complex and a series of 19-century Federal-style townhomes.  Sans Savannah’s storied ornamentation, Drayton Tower’s arched and tilted base walls convey the feeling that the sleek building is ready for takeoff at any moment.

That moment may have arrived at last.

Now under new ownership, Savannah’s most striking specimen of International Style architecture is poised to transcend the fits and starts that have plagued its renaissance since former owner DrayProp began whole-scale rehabilitation in 2005.  The economic downturn, allied housing bubble and costly structural repairs stymied DrayProp’s progress toward converting Drayton Tower’s original 188 studios into 88 luxury condominiums.

Drayton Tower is now under contract with Flank Inc., a New York firm specializing in acquisition, architecture and redevelopment that’s noted for a number of high-end projects around the Big Apple.

Tim Crowley, Flank’s managing director, explains his firm’s plans to restore this mid-century marvel to its former glory as the epitome of urban living in Savannah’s Landmark Historic District.  Instead of condos, Flank will redevelop the remaining raw spaces into luxury rentals—a mix of one-bedroom lofts and two-bedroom apartments—with contemporary appointments and elegant finishes.  The building will also offer 24-hour door staff.

“High-end services are a given in a major metropolitan market, and Flank is bringing them to Savannah,” says Crowley, who has family roots in the city.  “We conducted extensive research, and we know there is a market for high-end rentals here.”

A Storied Past

Designed and built between 1949 and 1951, Drayton Arms, as the building was known then, soared 12 stories and provided housing predominantly for returning World War II veterans who’d moved to the city looking for work and an affordable place to live.  The Sandbar, which occupied the southwest corner on the ground level, served fresh, steaming cups of coffee in the morning, hot meals throughout the day and cocktails at night.

Drayton Tower’s streamlined aesthetic captured the American spirit of the time, explains Savannah native John Deering, a principal designer with Greenline Architecture—the firm that developed the plans for Drayton Tower’s revitalization.

“Its fresh look was forward-thinking,” explains Deering.  “It said, ‘Let’s put the past behind us and move into the future.’  It was about America’s hope after years of war.”  It was also the first building in Georgia to feature air conditioning in residences.

Drayton Tower is one of few examples of post-war International Style architecture in the Deep South.  Think Bauhaus, Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier—a European aesthetic of unfussy, repetitive planes and technical perfection adapted for U.S. consumers as the physical manifestation of capitalism.  Between the 1950s and 1980s, International Style became the design du jour for U.S. corporations (the Seagram building in New York, for example) because of its nod toward efficiency and productivity.  The U.S. government adopted the spare lines and scale for subsidized housing and educational facilities.

Homebuilders transformed the concept of neighborhood, ditching front porches for fenced-in back yards.

Urban planners, sociologists and preservationists, however, derided International Style as the death knell of the American city as historic structures throughout the country’s core were demolished to make way for “renewal” projects.  Drayton Tower sparked no small amount of controversy at its inception.  The tenor of the debate has quieted little through the decades.

During most of the 1960s, when city residents decamped to the suburbs, the building’s small apartments continued to serve as a layover for young people on their way to somewhere else.  The building experienced a bit of a revival in the 1970s, reportedly as the go-to bachelor retreat for newly divorced dads.  It fell into disrepair through the 1980s and 1990s as its infrastructure aged and its fixtures grew outmoded.  By the early 2000s, Drayton Tower was known less for its singular design and more for the smells of curry and five-spice wafting onto Liberty Street, indicative of the international students who called it home during the academic year.

Excavating Cool

By the time Deering was hired to work on the building in 2005, he found faux-marble wallpaper and stick-on ionic columns covering the original walnut paneling in the lobby.  Traditional crown moldings stood at odds with their surroundings, and vinyl tile coated the hallways.  Many of the original specialty-glass windows had been replaced with Plexiglas, and renters had hung foil in them to deflect heat.  What had once stood as an expression of America’s white-hot promise had devolved into a peeling gray façade and patchwork.

“It looked like a set out of ‘Blade Runner’ or ‘Joe vs. the Volcano,’” Deering recalls.

There were signs of hope amid the neglect.  Beneath the lobby’s dropped popcorn ceiling, Deering’s crew discovered the original amorphic light cove—a luminous metal apostrophe.  With a polish, the authentic black terrazzo tile floors glistened again.

During the next two years, Deering and the developers renovated the storefronts to prescribe a uniform appearance from the street.  They revitalized the lobby with sleek mahogany panels and pink Italian marble.  They replaced 900 of the street-view windows with the original heat-absorbing glazed glass, imported from Hungary.  The HVAC system was upgraded, and the exterior was repaired and cleaned.  New commercial tenants—Harris Baking Co., Rob’s Salon—set up shop.  The remaining nine residential floors were gutted into raw spaces and conceptualized into larger apartments.  Some have languished ever since.  Others, like the Perkins-Lyons loft, were developed into shining examples of the building’s potential.

A Man’s Castle

In 2006, Bob Perkins, a friend of Deering’s, bought one of the first corner spaces available on the fifth floor.  Perkins, a Virginia native and New York resident, had fallen head over heels in love with Savannah the first time he visited the city more than 20 years ago.  As his travels southward increased in frequency, he and partner Keith Lyons thought it was time to buy a second home in their adopted city.

“I was always drawn to Drayton Tower,” Perkins says.  “I was born in 1953, and I’ve always loved mid-century—before it was cool.  Buying a condo in the building let my mid-century fantasies run.”

Perkins called upon another friend, interior designer Sim Harvey with Arcanum, to help create a space that reflected his passion for the clean elegance of the “Mad Men” era.  Beginning with two Eames chairs that came from Perkins’ parents, Harvey gathered new but iconic pieces—such as the ebony-and-glass Noguchi coffee table in the conversation bay—from the firms still producing modern and functional furniture.

“We went mid-century sympathetic,” says Harvey, referencing the wooden sculptures and exotic accents he employed to mirror the graphic sensibilities of the time.  Vibrant, textured paintings by Savannah College of Art and Design alumnus Aaron Hoskins fill the walls.

Pointing to the abstract above the sleeper-sofa, Harvey chuckles.

“Bob commissioned Aaron to paint that one in honor of one of his favorite artists. We call it the Faux-dinsky.”

But before they could hang the paintings, they had to build the walls.

Drayton Tower’s curtail-wall construction, where essential services—plumbing, electricity, heating and cooling—are amalgamated in the building’s core, dictated Perkins’ open loft concept.

“We had to work around the central support columns and chase walls,” explains Harvey, who was able to incorporate two private sleeping areas and two ample baths into the 1,200-square-foot layout.

To establish a sense of seamlessness, Harvey had custom walnut cabinetry, walls and built-ins constructed on-site to maximize storage and to hide appliances, utilities and clothes behind pressure-release doors and drawers.  He and Perkins selected durable and sustainable cork floor tiles to warm and unify the spaces, and they used curtains and area rugs to create intimate settings for relaxation and entertaining.

Today, touches of avocado on accent walls and in fabrics, and hints of cantaloupe, russet and gold give the space a decidedly authentic appeal.

Creamy quartz countertops and window sills recede, so as not to compete with the “jaw-dropping” scenes of the dazzling sunrise in the morning, the bustling cityscape by day and the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist lighted at night.

Discussing the building’s colorful history and the advent of Flank Inc., Deering recalls, “The joke in Savannah was always that the view of Drayton Tower was better from the inside looking out.”

Now, no matter where you stand, things are looking up.

The Perkins-Lyons Stats >>

Owners: Robert Perkins and Keith Lyons

Year built: 1951

Year purchased: 2006

Square footage: 1,247

Accommodations: 1 bedroom, 1 convertible guest room, 2 baths

Time to complete remodel: 1.5 years

The Perkins-Lyons Referrals >>

Planners/project managers: Sim Harvey, Scot Hinson and Meghan Woodcock, Arcanum

Interior design: Sim Harvey, Arcanum

Contractor/builder: Thomas Ulig

Tile/flooring: Garden State Tile

Paint/wallpaper: Sherwin Williams

Windows/doors: Restored originals

Lighting design: Meghan Woodcock, Arcanum

Carpenter: On-site custom builds by Thomas Ulig

Furniture: Hive Modern and Arcanum

Appliances: SubZero/Wolf

Accessories: Arcanum

Art: Aaron D. Hoskins and ModeLiving.com

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