Sure, Savannah, Georgia, isn’t known for its collection of International Style masterpieces, but the Drayton Arms Tower is a pretty stunning example of midcentury modernism. See more on today’s claass HAUS.
Situated among the architectural artifacts and tree-lined squares of Savannah, Drayton Arms Apartments seems a bit like an anomaly within the city's well-preserved historic district. Unlike its classically-inspired neighbors, the twelve-story tower expresses the clean lines, industrial materials, and efficient plan of the International Style. One of the earliest examples of Modernism in the state of Georgia, the building may not be one of the city’s most beloved landmarks, but it does survive as one of Savannah's most significant works of the postwar period, a lively blue and white tower overlooking the city’s picturesque landscape.
Designed in 1949 by prominent local architects (and brothers) Cletus W. Bergen and William P. Bergen, the towering glass box embraces a basic geometric form. The gridded façade with alternating rows of blue-tinted Solex glass windows and white limestone spandrels is simple and stark, a rebellious departure from the historical references of Savannah’s older building stock. With its bands of continuous horizontal windows, neat unsupported corners, sleek tilted concrete walls, and a projecting cantilevered canopy, the building exemplifies the streamlined aesthetic of the period- modern, efficient, and looking to the future.
Modernism arrived to Georgia relatively late, so it seems like no surprise that the local population greeted the design for the new apartment tower with a mix of local curiosity and resentment. Financed by the Federal Housing Authority’s Section 608 program, the Drayton Arms Apartments project was just a small part of the larger effort to remedy the dramatic housing shortage in Savannah (and really all of the United States) following World War II. The federal program informed the building’s modern style and economical plan with guidelines that dictated specific design requirements (the FHA believed that returning veterans would prefer a more modern aesthetic) and provided incentives for efficiency units in established neighborhoods. Containing nearly 200 small apartments and ground-floor storefronts, the Drayton Arms Tower maximized interior space while utilizing modern materials and technology (it was the first building in the state to be fully air-conditioned). By employing the International Style, the Bergens designed a building that projected innovation, efficiency, and affordability, a vehicle for modern living in a sleepy, colonial town.
Following low-vacancy rates in the first decade after the tower's completion in 1951, the growth of Savannah's suburban areas led to a decrease in tenancy during the next decade, and by the 1990s, the Drayton Arms Apartments had fallen into disrepair. In 2012, the building's owners completed an extensive rehabilitation of the modern landmark, ensuring that Savannah's polished glass box would remain a centerpiece of the city's twentieth-century architectural heritage for years to come.
The Drayton Arms Apartments was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2013.
Image at top:
Drayton Arms Apartments, Savannah, Georgia. Savannah Postcard Collection, MS 016, Jen Library Archives and Special Collections, the Savannah College of Art and Design, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
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