Georgia's 1st welcome center, in Screven County, turns 50

In the decades before interstate highways forever changed American travel, U.S. Highway 301, which slices through South Carolina’s Allendale County into rural Georgia, bustled with Northern tourists bound to and from vacation venues in Florida – and many of them stopped at the Georgia Welcome Center, just across the Savannah River bridge.

Built in 1962, that venerable and architecturally significant Screven County landmark turns 50 this year – and is being added to the National Register of Historic Places because of its well-preserved features and tenure as the state’s longest-serving welcome center.

According to the Department of Natural Resources’ Historic Preservation Division, welcome centers were conceived under the administration of Gov. Ernest Vandiver from 1959 to 1963.

Vandiver believed the state should actively promote its tourist attractions, which he saw as a way to boost economic development. His efforts led to the construction of a series of welcome centers for visitors, with the first one on U.S. 301.

Its opening date was 50 years ago this month.

Today, the welcome center looks much like it always has, complete with a picnic area, restrooms and other “mid-century modern” architectural features from a design created by Statesboro, Ga., architect Edwin C. Eckles.

The design included unusual arched concrete shells forming the roof, ceiling and canopy. On the outside, the concrete vaults have a scalloped edge above a lightweight glass-and-aluminum façade. Load-bearing concrete block walls are on the less-visible sides and rear. Inside, the original aluminum chandeliers and terrazzo floors still greet visitors.

Today, there are 11 welcome centers, now known as “Visitor Information Centers,” in Georgia, of which all but two are along interstate highways. In addition to the Screven County site, the other non-interstate facility is on U.S. Highway 280 near Plains.

The U.S. 301 center is 16 miles from Sylvania and is open Tuesday through Saturday. Its listing in the National Register will be acknowledged during Tourism & Hospitality Day, Jan. 24 at the Capitol.

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