Exhibiting a cutting-edge contemporary design, the limestone-clad Jepson Center for the Arts links historic Savannah, Ga., with a new tradition. The 64,000-sq-ft Jepson Center is an expansion of the Telfair Museum of Art, which for more than a century has been housed in an 1819 stone mansion nestled in an urban center that dates back to 1733.

The Savannah Historic District Board of Review might have rubber-stamped a more traditional design, but museum officials wanted a forward-looking, architecturally significant structure that would reflect its progressive stance. In addition, though the original mansion is an ideal venue for 18th- and 19th-century collections, it does not easily accommodate large modern works. Telfair engaged Moshe Safdie, an internationally renowned architect with experience designing museums in historic cities, to create a building that would integrate with the local Georgian, Greek Revival, and Gothic architecture.

It took 18 months to develop a design that met the review board's rigorous criteria. The proposal had to comply with rules based on the 300-yr-old city plan for what is now the Historic District, a two-square-mile grid of small streets and town squares. For example, a lane bisecting the property had to be retained, the façade designed in visual segments no longer than 60-ft each, and the structure had to be similar in height and mass to neighboring historic buildings.

Design concept

Situated adjacent to the Telfair mansion, the $30 million Jepson Center consists of twin buildings sculpted in modern geometric shapes that capture light and shade to evoke components of 19th-century Southern plantation architecture. The two new structures are divided by the protected historic lane and bridged by a grand staircase rising from the ground floor of the north building to the third floor of the south building.

Undulating concave, convex, and conical stone walls blur the lines between interior and exterior and protrude through the museum's glass ceilings. A dramatic three-level atrium, visible from the square outside, houses the grand staircase surrounded by curved limestone walls. Odd-shaped walls also enclose the Center's 10 high-ceilinged galleries.

Golden Beach limestone flows from inside to outside, blending the building's modern geometry with the color palette of historic Savannah. Dan J. Sheehan Co. worked with the architects, general contractor, and stone consultant to obtain limestone that would meet specifications cost-effectively and gain the approval of the review board. Quarried in Portugal and fabricated in Italy, the selected stone was strata-cut and sandblasted for the walls to provide a vertical feeling, and fleuri-cut and honed for a softer effect on the floors and grand staircase.

Construction challenges

The intricate geometry of the Jepson Center made unusual demands on the stone installers. For example, one four-radius wall is 250-ft long x 55-ft tall. Another wall is shaped like “an inverted half of an ice cream cone,” said Dan Sheehan, president of Sheehan Co. With a radius change at every course, the conical wall leans out nearly 7 ft.

“The tolerances were very tight for getting everything lined up and making everything work together,” said Leo Sheehan, vice president. “The corners and windows were critical. They couldn't be off by even 1/16 in. Perhaps the most challenging task was positioning two massive pieces of hand-fabricated stone at the corners of the grand staircase.”

With so many curves and sharp angles, and at 40 - 55 lbs/panel, the 690,000 lbs of stone required an unconventional installation process. The engineers designed a system consisting of vertical struts, custom brackets, and individual anchors. The exterior stone was anchored by a clip with a dowel pin and installed on the stainless steel vertical strut system. The cost of this framing system was offset by the resulting speed and accuracy of installation.

Following numbered shop drawings, stone masons mounted 22,000 sq ft of 16-in. x 24-in. limestone pieces, 3 - 5-cm thick, and installed an additional 11,000 sq ft of stone as flooring. “It took about 25 container loads on a very restricted site and a crew of 8 - 20 workers to complete the $3 million masonry contract,” according to Dan Sheehan.

The Jepson Center for the Arts received the Marble Institute of America's 2006 Pinnacle Award of Excellence and Pinnacle Award of Merit.

Project Participants

  • Stone Fabricator and Installer: Dan J. Sheehan Co. Inc., Savannah, Ga.
  • Design Architect: Moshe Safdie and Associates, Somerville, Mass.
  • Architect of Record: Hansen Architects, Savannah, Ga.
  • Stone Consultant: Jeffrey Matthews, Trade International, Atlanta
  • Stone Supplier and Fabricator: Henraux S.p.A., Lucca, Italy