Change has come to the heart of Savannah, where the arms of our shadiest oak shelter inquisitive students and embrace a practice that was once prohibited. Allison Hersh explores the ambitious renovation of the Savannah Law School. Photography by Richard Leo Johnson.
We’ve all seen the vacant, dilapidated buildings near the corner of Drayton and Gaston streets. On the drive downtown from points south, we’ve eyed the crumbling plaster, deteriorating brick and boarded-up windows facing Savannah’s legendary Candler Oak.
Once the site of the old Savannah Hospital, these structures lay abandoned for decades. This prime swath of real estate—including four buildings totaling nearly 100,000 square feet—has been largely empty since Candler Hospital moved to midtown in 1980. Today, however, this two-block site opposite Forsyth Park is teeming with life, welcoming aspiring law students from across the country.
The Outlaws Next Door
Savannah Law School president Michael C. Markovitz appreciates the irony of opening a new law school in a city that once prohibited the profession.
When Gen. James Oglethorpe founded Savannah in 1733, he banned lawyers from settling in the 13th colony. Georgia was to be “free from that pest and scourge of mankind called lawyers” because Oglethorpe and the trustees funding the new colony believed each colonist was capable of pleading his own case.
“I suppose General Oglethorpe had his reason for not liking lawyers,” Markovitz concedes. “However, in today’s modern world, lawyers are essential. It may sound corny, but lawyers are what stand between the people and tyranny. We take it for granted here in America, but just look at those societies around the world that have no rule of law. Lawyers protect our individual rights.”
A Place for Us
A branch of the American Bar Association-accredited John Marshall Law School in Atlanta, the Savannah Law School officially opened its doors in August 2012.
“It took more than two years to identify a suitable location for the law school,” Markovitz says. “A suburban big-box or office plaza didn’t quite convey the character of our vision for the law school. When the Candler property became available, we all knew it was the ideal home.”
For Markovitz and the law school’s leadership team, the historic site and the emerging institution are a perfect match.
“Law is imbued with tradition,” he says. “Housing the law school in a structure that has itself seen so much history seemed appropriate.”
Of course, “so much history” takes its toll. But thanks to a three-phase, $10 million renovation project, masterminded by Andy Lynch of Lynch Associates Architects, the former Candler Hospital buildings are on the mend.
Phase One of the renovation, which modernized the 38,000-square-foot north wing, is already complete. Forty-five students from 25 states and numerous cities in Georgia—including Atlanta, Athens, Jesup, Dublin, Valdosta and Albany—now attend classes and study in the interim law library at this four-story building, originally constructed in 1955 as a 77-bed hospital.
“This group has a pioneer spirit,” says associate dean Rose Anne Nespica. “They really want to get in on the ground floor of something exciting.”
Phase Two, which is currently underway and expected to be completed this fall, involves renovating the original Warren G. Candler Hospital building, a once-opulent and now-dilapidated Italianate building originally constructed in 1819 and dramatically expanded in 1879. The hospital was funded by a barrel tax on shipping signed into law by President George Washington in 1791. Over the centuries, the site served as a field hospital during the Civil War, treated victims of Savannah’s yellow fever epidemics and provided a home for the magnificent Candler Oak—now widely known as Georgia’s oldest oak tree.
Phase Three includes strategic updates to the 1942 hospital wing. All the windows on the south elevation will be replaced and deteriorated masonry details will be repaired before the project is complete in December.
On a sunny afternoon, I join architect Andy Lynch for a tour of the campus.
“This is kind of a dream project,” Lynch says as he strolls through the renovated halls of the north wing building, now bustling with student activity. “It’s one of the largest preservation projects happening in Savannah in the last 10 years. To be part of something so exciting has been amazing.”
The original overhang at the entrance, which once sheltered ambulances, now welcomes students with a sleek, modern façade of plate glass windows, a restored porte-cochère and anodized aluminum planters. The building is rife with midcentury accents, including restored terrazzo floors and mod green-glazed tile walls.
“We wanted to have a ‘50s modern style that’s a little more contemporary,” Lynch explains, surveying the interior’s Mad Men atmosphere. “We didn’t want it to be hospital-dreary.”
Workers with J.T. Turner Construction Co. ripped out old drywall, opened up the interior spaces, preserved original casement windows and repointed the brick exterior with fresh mortar.
“It was such a dark, dreary abandoned building,” Lynch recalls. “It was chopped up into all these small spaces, and everything was covered up with drywall. We wanted to take the building as close to the original layout and finishes as possible.”
Best of all, Lynch and his team razed a poorly-designed concrete building that has blocked pedestrian access between Drayton and Abercorn since its construction in 1968. That structure was demolished in March, restoring the urban flow that was a key component of Oglethorpe’s original city plan.
“Opening up Huntingdon Street is having a positive impact on the surrounding neighborhood,” Lynch enthuses. “This is one of the biggest contiguous blocks in downtown Savannah where you had no pedestrian access.”
The crown jewel of the project is the Warren G. Candler Hospital building, aka Phase Two: a long-vacant Italianate mansion with weeds and vines growing up the side of the building, snaking between cracked plaster stucco and exposed brick.
Lynch and I don yellow plastic hard hats and walk through the basement level of the 35,000-square-foot structure, where crumbling walls speak to decades of neglect.
“This building has been such an eyesore for decades,” Lynch admits. “But it has great bones and a lot of character.”
Lynch plans to capitalize on that character by restoring the building’s dramatic brick arches, elegant bay windows and original heart pine floors. Upon completion, this historic structure facing Huntingdon Street will house the school’s permanent law library, a mock courtroom, classrooms and offices.
A Good Neighbor
Shady study breaks in Forsyth Park are a likely perk for the 300 students and 50 faculty and staff members the law school plans to accommodate when the renovation is complete. But Markovitz and his team aren’t content to benefit from Savannah’s charm without giving back. They plan to offer a low-cost community law clinic, staffed by students under supervision, to assist area residents with various legal issues.
In the meantime, the members of the class of 2015 attend classes, study for exams and work toward future law careers.
“The atmosphere is collegial, collaborative—rigorous and serious, yet friendly, warm and spilling over with Southern charm,” Markovitz says. “Savannah itself is a perfect backdrop for the atmosphere we seek.”
Despite his initial reservations about attorneys in Georgia’s First City, General Oglethorpe would no doubt be proud.
SAVANNAH LAW SCHOOL REFERRALS>>
Architects/interior designers: Lynch Associates
Contractor/builder: J.T. Turner Construction
Flooring: Terrazzo flooring by Sheehan
Tile: Prestige, furnished by Garden State Tile
Paint: Miller Painting
Wall covering: Culver Rug Co.
Carpet: Culver Rug Co.
Windows/doors: J & L Glass
Landscape/hardscape design: Wolverton & Associates
Electrician: CS Hurd Electrical
Carpenter: Mark Crapse
Plumber: Hutson Plumbing
Landscaper: The Nelson Group
HVAC: Southeastern Air