Privilege has always been a big part of Savannah. James Edward Oglethorpe’s entire plan for the new colony of Georgia was based upon the idea that the privileges of birthright and slavery could be eliminated if the community was organized around an agrarian economy and the merit earned from hard work. It was utopian, and the Trustees changed the rules soon after he left. Since then, Savannah has been defined by a constant struggle among various groups for privilege over others that continues even today. For example, the current trend for local governments to privilege local, minority and women owned businesses in the award of contracts is an attempt to undo the privilege of the majority and male dominated economy. Until recently, many of Savannah’s most prestigious institutions excluded women and minorities, and one actually used General Oglethorpe’s name!
With all that as background, I want to talk about about what I believe is Savannah’s greatest privilege. It is the privilege of adding to this amazing place. For all of its drawbacks and eccentricities, our fair city remains a living testimony to the ideals of General Oglethorpe, and the beauty of carefully planned urban living. Being allowed to add or subtract anything to this cultural and historical icon is an enormous challenge, and something that my firm takes very seriously. We don’t get to decide what the functions or economic purpose of our designs are–our clients do. Our job is to take their vision, whether it is a cultural arts center, or a fine hotel, or a new look for a shopping street, and make it be a worthy addition to Savannah’s legacy. Not many others have been so privileged.
Our designs aren’t just trying to fit in, they are also trying to explore new ways to expand Savannah’s “brand”. Whether it is by rehabilitating an old ice factory into a top chef’s organic food restaurant, or a hotel covered with vegetated roof gardens and solar panels, we try to make things “of Savannah” and yet new. We respect our past, while embracing the challenge of our future. This isn’t easy, and sometimes leads to struggles among ourselves, but in the end, we work through the difficulties and keep focused on the prize: adding to Savannah. Simply stated, it is our privilege.