05.16.16
Paula Wallace | Books

The Mayor vs. Mohawks


 SCAD's 2014 masquerade ball 

This week Design Observer has the pleasure of excerpting from the memoir of Savannah College of Art and Design President and Founder Paula Wallace. The Bee and the Acorn weaves together personal memoir, institutional evolution, and the urban history of Savannah. Wallace recalls the challenges and the discoveries made, the luck and good will rendered, and the reward in perseverance. 

Established in 1978, the Savannah College of Art and Design is a private, nonprofit, accredited university, offering more than 100 academic degree programs in forty-two majors in Atlanta and Savannah, Hong Kong, and Lacoste, France. The university s innovative curriculum is enhanced by professional-level technology, equipment, and learning resources, as well as opportunities for internships, professional certifications, and collaborative projects with corporate partners. 

The Bee and the Acorn traces the journey of Wallace and her family to the historic Georgia coastal town of Savannah, where they set about creating a new university for the arts. The tiny college would be a radically different kind of institution, buzzing with progressive ideas about what education could be and what it should do for students. Nearly forty years later, SCAD has become one of the largest and most highly regarded arts universities in the world.

See Part 1 here. 

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Savannah was a curious, lovely place, a city on the margins, at the edge of a continent, in between the New World and the Old, a safe place on a bluff on a river in the wilderness.

Within a decade of its founding, Savannah was home to the first Jewish congregation in the southern United States, with sizable communities of Salzburger Lutherans, Scots Presbyterians, Irish Catholics, and many others. Slavery was outlawed slavery, as well as the practice of law—at least for the first twenty years of the city's history—making the city distinct among colonial settlements. Where many early American cities were saturated with only a single Protestant denomination or a predominant ethnic group, Savannah was in between, a little bit of everything, an outlier. And yet, nearly 250 years later—by the late 1970s—Savannah resembled a number of other old American cities, embattled with economic distress, urban decay, and a general flight from city centers. At night it was bleak, empty, menacing.

"Downtown will never be the same," longtime residents said. So many Southerners have always flirted with the romance of lost causes, but I liked to think the idea of a revivified city was not lost, an ideal shared by several of our new friends in Savannah, friends like Lee and Emma Adler, and A. J. and Kelly Cohen—friends who believed in SCAD and urged us to tell more people about our ambitious plans. In those first years, I found myself sitting with so many different community leaders, listening, trying to learn what the city needed. We sat in parlors, climbed City Hall stairs, looked across desks at movers, shakers, bankers, business owners, the great Mayor John Rousakis himself, where his office overlooked the wide brown river in which the city’s founders had set anchor many years before.

By all accounts, Mayor John Rousakis was a character, tall and affable and determined to rejuvenate Savannah as a destina- tion city, including his harebrained idea to bring tourism to River Street, which in the late seventies was Skid Row. He was a great teller of jokes, and many locals considered his visionary riverfront revitalization plan a joke, too. But if Savannah was going to have a future, I thought, it was going to be through visionary ideas like the mayor’s. The mayor knew that Savannah needed more people, and we agreed. He wanted to bring tourists, which would bring business, while we wanted to bring students, which would bring whole new communities of residents, faculty, staff, and, of course, more business. The mayor and SCAD had a lot in common, I thought.

“We need to go introduce ourselves,” President Rowan suggested one day.
At the time, some in the community—really, very few—seemed to lump our students in with the criminal element, confusing outrageous hair with outrageous delinquency. There had already been efforts by this small minority of naysayers to block us from buying local properties, first the Armory and later a dilapidated rooming house we wanted to rehabilitate and turn into our first student residence.
“It’s a historic home,” this small clique of concerned citizens said. “Those art kids will just tear it up.”
Those art kids.

Those art kids were bringing life back downtown, I wanted to say. Those art kids were buying groceries, purchasing art supplies, and volunteering in local schools and hospitals.

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“So, you’re the folks who started that little art school?” people would say at cocktail parties, or when we were out around town Most long-standing Savannahians embraced SCAD. And yet a few local residents clearly did not understand the logic that would transform a historic downtown residence into contemporary stu- dent housing. Their thinking was, why take a dying property and reincarnate it into something it was never designed to be?

We thought Mayor Rousakis would see it differently. President Rowan made some calls, got a meeting. He asked me to join him.

The mayor, red-faced and grinning, a wing of silver hair over his forehead, looked the part of a Southern politician. As soon as we set foot in his office, he and President Rowan started talking sports, a language I did not speak.

“So, what can I do for you?” he asked.

“We just wanted to tell you about our college,” I said. “Oh, yes, the little school that could!”

There it was again. Little. The look on his face suggested that he believed we were there for a favor, a handout, free buildings, something. We chatted about our students, our mission, our hope for the college and the city.

“Ah, yes,” you could see him thinking. “Now it comes.”

“Our mission,” President Rowan explained, “is to prepare students for careers—”

“Careers?” the mayor said, cutting him off. “In art?”

“And design.”

“I thought art students had those mohawk things,” he said, “and the purple hair!” He let out a great big laugh, I suppose, at the thought of sleepy little Savannah being overrun with punks and hipsters and revolutionaries, clashing with locals in seersucker or pearls.

“They don’t all have purple hair,” I said, handing him a catalog. “We have an unofficial motto: 'No more starving artists. The mohawks are optional.'"





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