SAVANNAH, Ga. - Hired to design an annex to the South's oldest public art museum, architect Moshe Safdie envisioned a marriage of contemporary style and antebellum grandeur - a 21st-century twist on Scarlett O'Hara's Tara.
The $24.5 million Jepson Center for the Arts, which opens Friday, is a shockingly modern addition to both the historic downtown of Georgia's oldest city as well as the annex's 138-year-old sister museum.
Across Telfair Square from the white-columned English Regency mansion that's housed the Telfair Museum of Art since 1868, the new annex faces oak trees and park benches with a three-story facade of transparent glass.
Passers-by on the street get a clear view inside of the sweeping atrium with white walls of Portuguese limestone and the curving grand staircase that ascends through its center to the main galleries.
"I had a sense of the South as a place of great parties and celebration, and there is something about my own romanticism of the South in it," said Safdie, a Boston architect whose designs include Jerusalem's Holocaust History Museum that opened in 2005.
Not everybody in Savannah saw Safdie's design as romantic, nor did they celebrate, when the Telfair Museum pitched his 64,000-square-foot annex to city leaders in 1999.
The Historic Review Board, guardians of the 2.5-mile National Historic Landmark District where Savannah was founded in 1733, saw the glass-and-stone structure as a jarring intrusion on the city's Old South landscape.
"The Telfair will be the loser if it builds a new museum that is detested because it violates the town plan," the late Mills B. Lane, a prominent preservationist and review board member during the Telfair proposal, told the Savannah Morning News in 1999.
It took the museum a year and a half to win approval for construction. Compromises made to the design, namely construction of six concrete columns across the glass facade to add a sense of mass, seem simple considering the controversy.
The columns solved concerns over how the museum annex would complement Telfair Square, one of the 22 small parks considered the masterpieces of Savannah's city planning. City guidelines call for the squares to be framed by solid buildings on all sides. A glass facade wouldn't do that.
"This would have been like having a gap in a picture frame," said Mark McDonald, executive director of the Historic Savannah Foundation. "It was a major issue in town. There were talks of lawsuits. Thank goodness it didn't come to that."
McDonald called the finished building "beautifully crafted."
The annex's stark interior of white stone and blond maple floors gain a sense of drama from walls that curve and lean with few right-angle corners. Ceilings of glass panes hanging from cables beneath steel trellises cast a mixture of sunlight and shadows into the atrium.
The transparent facade, containing 6,264 square-feet of glass, was intended to give visitors a panoramic view of Telfair square as well as to appear inviting to those who see contemporary art as standoffish.
"Museums sometimes look like fortresses and they look unwelcoming to people who don't know anything about art," said Diane Lesko, executive director of the Telfair Museum. "When you're in Telfair Square, you see the activity and that makes you want to go in and see what's going on."
Attracting more visitors is a must for the museum.
In a tourism-driven city visited by about 6 million people annually, the Telfair in 2005 had only 150,000 visitors - many drawn to see the Bird Girl, the cemetery statue photographed for the cover of the popular book "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," on display at the museum since 1997.
The new Jepson Center annex - named for the project's top donor, businessman Robert S. Jepson Jr. - will feature exhibits as contemporary as their surroundings.
The main gallery will show new paintings by Robert Rauschenberg, known for collage-based works assembled from random, commonplace images.
A gallery named for the late Kirk Varnedoe, a Savannah native and director of painting and sculpture at New York's Museum of Modern Art from 1988 to 2001, will feature works donated to the museum's permanent collection by artists Varnedoe championed, including Richard Avedon, Jasper Johns, Annie Leibovitz, Roy Lichtenstein and Frank Stella.
"The building itself, being of its time, needs some art of its time," Lesko said. "We think that we are really offering something else in Savannah besides our beautiful architecture."
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