Hands-on history at the Savannah Children’s Museum
The most exciting way to enter the sunken courtyard of the Savannah Children’s Museum is to take the giant purple slide — though most grown-ups just use the stairs.
No matter your age (or preferred mode of transport), a sense of wonder awaits among the colorful outdoor installations and secret gardens on the west end of Tricentennial Park. Surrounded on all sides by ancient brick archways, it’s a setting that feels less like a museum and more like a favorite storybook, enriched by a gentle symphony of birds chirping, leaves rustling and kids giggling as they explore in the open air.
It sounds a lot different than it would have 150 years ago, when this building had a roof and housed the woodshop for the Central of Georgia Railroad. Back then, a visitor might have heard the clanging of tools, the clatter of stacking lumber and probably — considering the hard, dangerous work housed within — a few choice words.
“Anything made of wood was built here; desks, framing, you name it,” says Savannah native Becki Harkness, a Savannah College of Art and Design graduate in historic preservation who now serves as Historic Resource Specialist for the Coastal Heritage Society, the nonprofit organization that oversees the site. “The arches allowed for ventilation and light for the carpenters.”
Built in 1836, the woodshop was originally part of a massive complex on the edge of the city that also included a passenger station and the roundhouse for the burgeoning railroad company. The City of Savannah provided the land, which had lain in a state of disuse since Revolutionary War hero Casimir Pulaski was mortally wounded here during the Siege of Savannah in 1779. The woodshop survived the 1852 fire that consumed several other Central of Georgia buildings, and it dodged destruction again after the city’s surrender to the Union Army 1864, when General William Tecumseh Sherman decided to present an unravaged Savannah to President Abraham Lincoln as a Christmas gift. (Sherman and his men did manage to wreak quite a bit of damage to the Confederate-friendly railroad tracks along the way, however.)
While another fire in 1923 left charred marks in the woodshop’s window frames, it was the winds of progress that finally closed down operations. Diesel locomotives began replacing steam in 1939, and the Central of Georgia was eventually acquired by another railroad company that shut down the site for good in 1963.
By this time, historic preservation had become a battle-cry in Savannah. In 1965, a civic activist named Adrienne Roberts founded Revolutionary Battle Park, Inc. to protect and preserve the historic battlefield and railroad sites for “patriotic, educational and cultural purposes.” Its first act was to commit $20,000 to stop the dismantling of the brick buildings by Savannah Salvage & Supply, whose owners saw great profit in selling the handmade Savannah Grey bricks — to this day still some of the most coveted building materials in the South. (Roberts was too late for some parts of the park: look for the mismatched blocks at the top of the now-restored smokestack at CHS’s Georgia State Railroad Museum that adjoins the Children’s Museum.)
“We owe the existence of all of this to Adrienne Roberts,” reminds historic resource specialist Harkness, sweeping her hand from the roundhouse to the woodshop and beyond. “She wrote so many letters to state and local officials on behalf of Savannah history.”
According to “Saving the Shops: The Fight to Preserve the Savannah Railroad Complex,” a meticulously researched 2017 paper by high school student Thomas Bordeaux, the City of Savannah sued the Central of Georgia in 1972 to reverse the ownership of some of the property given to the company for its inception. The battlefield and railyard were not part of that suit, and that same year Roberts helped facilitate the acquisition of the sites from Central of Georgia to the Savannah-Chatham County Historic Site and Monument Commission—a division of the city’s Metropolitan Planning Commission, of which Roberts officiated as secretary at the time. The price: Ten dollars. The commission sold the site to the City of Savannah for another ten dollars in 1976.
Roberts also brokered the sale of the battlefield and railyard back to the city, consolidating with acreage won in a 1972 lawsuit that reversed ownership from the railway. The whole Central of Georgia Railroad complex was designated its own National Landmark District in 1978 and is considered the most complete antebellum railroad complex in the United States. “Most people aren’t aware that Savannah has two National Landmark Districts,” says Coastal Heritage Society CEO Sandra Baxter. “There’s all of downtown, and then there’s us.”
Development of the Children’s Museum began in 2003 in the overgrown ruins of the former woodshop, a metamorphosis requiring no small amount of heavy lifting.
“It had basically sat untouched for 70 years,” recalls Harkness. “We literally had to use machetes to get down here.”
After the site was dug out and shored up, international children’s museum designer Lee Skolnick installed the wooden mazes and cozy nooks of the magical, alfresco environment that holds up to the elements and hard use by little hands — perhaps no better testament that the historic masonry of the 1800s was built to last.
An instant favorite among local and visiting members of the Goldfish-and-juice-box set, the revamped woodshop is only the first phase of the Children’s Museum: The site will soon expand into the old Coach and Paint shop next door, another cavernous railroad building that dates back to the 1920s. Funded by sales-tax dollars that go directly to infrastructure, the project adds ADA-standard restrooms and an air-conditioned hall to host CHS’s robust educational programming led by education specialist Elisabeth Chappell, who oversees a packed calendar of indigo dyeing workshops, rocket launches and more at the museum and via a well-equipped mobile classroom.
“More than anything, we are a resource for families and educators,” says CEO Baxter, adding that CHS will raise private funds for additional exhibits in the new building. “Everything we do relates back to that educational mission and making it accessible.”