New Life for an Old Depot

Remnants of an 1853 railroad depot contribute to a major expansion of a Savannah museum

Savannah College of Art and Design, Museum of Art

Modern meets historic at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Ga., where on October 29, the campus’ Museum of Art opened an expansion that incorporates surviving elements of an 1853 railroad depot. The depot, built to serve passengers and freight traveling on the Central of Georgia Railway, had deteriorated beyond repair. Long abandoned and lacking a roof, its beams were exposed to the elements; only two brick walls remained intact.

Rather than discarding the brick, however, architect Christian Sottile integrated the depot into plans for 65,000 feet of additional exhibit and classroom space.

“I’m interested in the dialogue between the past and future, and what that can mean for the built environment,” says Sottile, whose firm, Sottile & Sottile, executed the $26 million project, which included indoor and outdoor performance spaces, a courtyard, events space, several galleries, and a conservation lab. The new building was then joined with the existing museum, housed in the 1856 Greek Revival structure originally built as the Central’s headquarters.

The Central shuttered decades ago, and what’s left of the rail system today forms the most complete antebellum railroad complex in the country. Despite its designation as a National Historic Landmark, its buildings—including the depot and headquarters—were largely abandoned until 1992 when SCAD purchased the complex.

“[The college] became an engine of preservation at the same time Savannah’s historic preservation districts took off,” says Sottile. “The message of SCAD is interwoven with saving buildings, saving the city.”

SCAD restored the headquarters building and dedicated it as Kiah Hall in 1993. In 2002, the space was converted to the art museum and SCAD’s Newton Center for British-American Studies. Three years later, Walter Evans donated an extensive collection of African American art to the museum, spurring talk of expansion. Before long, SCAD was collaborating with Sottile, an alumnus and the dean of SCAD’s School of Building Arts. 

“[But the depot] was no longer a building—walls had fallen in, the ceiling had fallen in. It was a series of fragments,” he remembers.

The Central of Georgia Railroad Depot before renovation.

Beginning in 2008, Sottile’s firm spent more than one year planning the museum’s expansion. They discussed how to link the past, present, and future together for a museum that would span not one, but two historic buildings.

The project broke ground in January 2010. Sottile’s team undertook what he calls a “preservation rescue mission” to reclaim the depot’s prized Savannah gray bricks.

“We made a commitment that no brick would leave the site,” says Sottile.

The soft clay bricks are larger, more robust than modern bricks, and handmade by people who had been enslaved in the area. As many as 70,000 of these bricks were scattered on the ground that surrounded the depot’s surviving walls.  

For six months, masons cleaned and repaired each brick. Some bricks were reused as supplementary exterior support, but most were incorporated as courtyard and sidewalk elements. A cast-concrete sleeve was designed to fit inside what remained of the depot’s exterior. Other materials, such as original timbers of old-growth heart pine, were also salvaged.  

The original structure, as Sottile says, “sets the tone” for the new structure, so he made certain that elements of the old building were visible throughout the modern addition. An 86-foot-tall glass and steel lantern, for example, complements the columns in the headquarters’ Greek Revival portico.  

Says Sottile: “The proportion of the lantern is a classical way of seeing … It’s a beacon of light for a re-emerging district.” 

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