The Gift That Keeps on Giving

A chorus performance at the Yamacraw Center for the Performing Arts. Photo by Geoff L. Johnson

Spanning 27,000 square feet, the Yamacraw Center for the Performing Arts is home to a rehearsal hall, a piano lab, several classrooms and a theatre—with 589 seats and a stage designed to accommodate a full symphony orchestra. Better still: Every bit of it was created expressly to be used by kids.

Built for the Esther F. Garrison School for the Arts and completed in November 2017, the Yamacraw Center was a major public undertaking, with most of its $8.4 million cost funded by ESPLOST (Educational Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax). In fact, the building is a top-to-bottom local effort. Savannah-based Greenline Architecture designed it, Statesboro-based Lavender & Associates constructed it and hometown audio-visual firm Stage Front was brought in to get the acoustics just right.

While Garrison’s principal, Jim Heater, oversaw the venture since its early plans in 2014, even he was awestruck upon its completion. “I’m so proud every time I walk in, and so are the kids—you should see their faces,” Heater says. “The best part is the experience they’re receiving. When they go on to high school and college, getting on a big, impressive stage will feel old school to them.”

This space is a beautiful culmination of our community coming together.

While the space is in constant use by Garrison and Savannah- Chatham County Public School System students—for classes, rehearsals, recitals and exhibitions—it’s also frequently rented by external organizations, with fees going right back to SCCPSS. So far this year, the Yamacraw Center has been booked for nearly 20 non-SCCPSS events, including four Savannah Philharmonic concerts and six Savannah Music Festival shows.

The theatre also presents an opportunity to celebrate a key element of Savannah’s melting-pot history. In the 1720s, Yamacraw Bluff was the name of Tomochichi’s Lower Creek Native American settlement, which later relocated further west near what is now Bay Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. That site was the home of significant immigration of Russian Jewish and Irish populations in the 1800s, and was among the first areas in North America to establish an African-American church. Now, a few blocks southwest, the Yamacraw Center is a monument to educational enrichment and continued urban renewal.

As Heater puts it: “This space is a beautiful culmination of our community coming together.”

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