The history of Telfair Museums is inextricably linked with that of Savannah. Founded by one of the city’s most prominent philanthropists, Mary Telfair, and initially nurtured by the Georgia Historical Society, Telfair Museums has grown into an institution comprising three architecturally significant buildings, over 6,300 works of art, and a proud history of educational programming and exciting exhibitions. Before there could be three sites, though, there was a long and, at times, difficult road to the creation of the Jepson Center.
The search for additional space to support the Telfair Museums’ growing operations began as early as 1963. By 1987, the matter had acquired some urgency. The museum, consisting at this point of only Telfair Academy and the Owens-Thomas House and Slave Quarters, was in need of a larger, more modern space for galleries and art storage, so the trustees recommended that an additional site should be sought right away. In 1989, the museum purchased a parking lot and abandoned structure on Telfair Square with the intention of building on the site. The same year, the board approved a long-range plan that prioritized the construction of a third site on that property. Additional parcels of land on York Street and Oglethorpe Avenue were donated in the spring of 1998, significantly expanding the footprint of the proposed building.
In 1994, a development officer was hired to coordinate fundraising efforts, and a campaign feasibility study was undertaken. The following year the board hired Diane Lesko, who shared their vision for the future of the Telfair. Lesko was charged with the monumental tasks of accomplishing the funding and construction of a new building on Telfair Square. The project would be the largest capital campaign ever launched in Savannah.
A new building planning committee, chaired by John V. Luck, was expanded in the fall of 1997 to select the architects for this project. That year, the museum hired J. Paul Hansen Architects as the local architects of record. In the spring of 1998, requests for proposals were sent to fourteen nationally recognized architects. Five were selected to deliver presentations for the trustees and new building committee, which chose Moshe Safdie and Associates from the finalists in July 1998. In selecting Safdie, the trustees announced their intention to create “an architectural landmark and an art legacy for Savannah.”
An Architect for Art
A graduate of McGill University in Montreal, Safdie’s reputation was established at age 29, when he appeared on the cover of Newsweek for his innovative residential building called Habitat, designed for the 1967 Montreal Expo. With principal offices in Boston and branches in Jerusalem, Montreal, and Toronto, Safdie is recognized as an architect of museums, libraries, and large public structures all over the world, including Canada’s National Gallery of Art, Ottawa; the Jean-Noel Desmarais Pavilion, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts; the Skirball Cultural Center, Los Angeles; Library Square, Vancouver; the annex of the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts; and a multitude of other projects. The recipient of four honorary doctorate degrees, Safdie is a member of the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects and has taught at Harvard, Yale, McGill, and Ben Gurion Universities. Having previously built structures in historically important and sensitive areas, Safdie proposed to design a museum that would be both architecturally distinct, and compatible with the surrounding historic buildings and square. The board unanimously approved his design concept for the Telfair’s new building in January 1999.
According to local ordinances, Safdie’s design for the Jepson Center had to be reviewed and approved by the Savannah Historic District Board of Review to ensure its compliance with the Chadbourne Historic Preservation Guidelines adopted by the review board to regulate height, mass, and general design. The review process began in March 1999. The review board voiced concerns over three aspects of Safdie’s original design: the sheer glass façade fronting Telfair Square, the lack of windows on the exterior at the pedestrian level, and the bridging of York Lane on the third floor of the building. Yet the museum’s trustees, director, and staff were committed to building a structure that would become a pivotal example of early 21st-century architecture—a building as important for its time as the Telfair mansion and Owens-Thomas House had been for theirs. To questions of whether a contemporary building had a place in Savannah’s Historic District, Safdie replied, “Surely a meaningful contemporary cultural icon must seek to go beyond the literal emulation of the old.”
Design and Revision
For well over a year, Telfair Museums and Moshe Safdie and Associates worked to address the concerns of the community and the Savannah Historic District Board of Review with regard to the design, which was gradually altered as a result of the process. The review board approved the modified design for height and mass in January 2000, and the design itself in July 2001. Safdie’s final design features a glass façade segmented by an architectural frame that provides scale and structure while maintaining a sense of transparency and openness. The building is essentially divided into two parts connected by a grand staircase and a narrow bridge joining the third-floor galleries, maintaining the full integrity of the lane below. The building’s design reflects Safdie’s intense interest in natural illumination and the ever-shifting patterns and varying degrees of opacity or transparency created as light interacts with the structure. Philosophically, the building’s design reflects the belief that the museum of the 21st century is communal, transparent, inviting—in short, it reflects “a new spirit which speaks of the openness that contemporary society aspires to.”
Originally planned as a three-story, 45,000-square-foot structure, the building was to open in the year 2000. But the project grew when additional parcels of property were donated. In July 1998 the Landmark Campaign was launched with a minimum needs goal of $15 million. By January 2003, that goal would be revised to more than $24 million. In 1997, the new building committee named the tri-chairs for the capital campaign: John E. Cay III, Robert S. Jepson, and Arnold M. Tenenbaum, each of whom worked diligently to secure the necessary funds for the building. Public funds allotted to the building included special local option sales tax monies approved by Chatham County voters and in-kind donations from the City of Savannah. Additionally, the museum received generous grants from the Kresge Foundation and the Lettie Pate Evans Foundation. Private contributions included donations, large and small, from many devoted trustees and supporters, foremost among them Mr. and Mrs. Robert S. Jepson, Jr., for whom the building is named. In May 2003, the Landmark Campaign goal was met.
Construction and Commission
Construction of the Jepson Center for the Arts began in July 2001, and the ceremonial groundbreaking was held on October 15 of that year. The Jepson Center, which opened in 2005, offers new benefits to the museum’s patrons, the local community, and the thousands of annual visitors to Savannah. The building contains six additional exhibition galleries, two sculpture terraces, a large atrium, an interactive educational gallery for families and children, a 225-seat auditorium, expansive art storage space, a library, and museum store. The firm of Hands On! was hired to develop the 3,000-square-foot, two-story educational gallery known as ArtZeum, the first of its kind in the Savannah area. This unique space explores broad concepts about art through the Telfair’s permanent collection, and through a focus on architecture and public art, which are so crucial to the character of Savannah. ArtZeum also features a contemporary art commission, Glass House by noted sculptor Therman Statom. The Telfair’s commitment to the new gallery signals a continuation of the tradition of innovative education and public access that have marked the institution’s efforts since its incorporation in 1920.
The oldest public art museum in the South, Telfair Museums has endured because of the devotion, hard work, and support of its trustees, staff, volunteers, and the community at large. The museum’s separation from the Georgia Historical Society, its acquisition of the Owens-Thomas House, its accreditation by the American Association of Museums, and the completion of the Jepson Center were significant milestones in the impressive history of this institution. The Telfair’s unparalleled growth in recent years is due to the generosity of local citizens who believe in its importance. Through them, Mary Telfair’s unique gift to the city continues to engage, enlighten, and educate.