Upon her death in 1875, Mary Telfair left her family mansion, designed by the noted English architect William Jay, to the citizens of Savannah for the purpose of creating an academy of arts and sciences. With this gift Savannah was the fortunate recipient of one of the first art museums in the country. The Telfair Academy legacy grew with the gift of the Owens-Thomas House, also designed by William Jay and considered to be one of the finest examples of English Regency architecture in the country. After a century of collecting, exhibiting, and educating Savannah and its visitors about regional, national, and international visual arts and early American architecture, the Telfair’s Director and Board of Trustees identified the museum’s need—the community’s need—or a new, larger facility. Their primary objectives were to increase the capacity for traveling exhibitions, continue an emphasis on education and community involvement, and increase archival storage for a growing collection. They addressed the new building’s aesthetics with a philosophical approach. A new millennium was approaching and they felt the pull towards the future. They envisioned a building representative of its time, but also open, welcoming, and inviting. They also understood that, in a National Historic Landmark District, these ideals expressed in architecture could pose a challenge in the real world.
Five internationally recognized architectural firms presented their ideas to the trustees in 1998. The line-up of architects included James Stewart Polshek and Partners, Graham Gund Architects, Pei Partnership Architects, and Moshe Safdie and Associates. The trustees unanimously chose Moshe Safdie and Associates. He offered an outstanding international track record of responsible, compelling designs in historic settings and he excited them with his passion about the possibilities of the new project. Safdie also offered a clear and stimulating vision of a building that would harmonize with its surroundings and welcome the community.
What nobody envisioned was a two-year controversy surrounding the proposed project as the design team made its case before Savannah’s Historic Review Board. Only the passion and dedication of countless individuals enabled the grand vision for the Jepson Center for the Arts to endure unprecedented public scrutiny and overcome innumerable construction challenges to culminate in the building you stand in today. Their commitment has provided Savannah with a truly iconic structure that, in the words of Moshe Safdie, is “vital, contemporary, appropriate to the expression of art to come… and a building you cannot conceive of anywhere else but Savannah.”