Building for the Future

by W. Todd Groce, Ph.D.

As Yogi Berra famously said, “It’s deja vu all over again.”

Six years ago from my corner office on the ground floor of the GHS Research Center I watched as renovation began on what is now the Jepson House Education Center, the Georgia Historical Society’s administration building. Now from my new office in Jepson House I am witnessing similar work begin on the Research Center.

The task we undertook in 2013 was big. But the current job is even bigger. Then, we were renovating an 1856 private residence and transforming it into offices and work space. Now we are renovating two buildings—an 1876 library along with a 1970 archives—and expanding the overall footprint, doubling the current archival storage space.

The work we now undertake is the second chapter in a complete and historic transformation of the Georgia Historical Society’s campus.

For nearly 145 years, GHS has had a dominating physical presence on the northwestern corner of Forsyth Park in downtown Savannah. Atlanta had just become the new state capital and was emerging from the ashes of the Civil War when in 1876, with the philanthropic support of sisters Margaret Telfair Hodgson and Mary Telfair, Hodgson Hall was completed, today the oldest purpose-built library building in the American South.

By the mid 20th century Hodgson Hall could no longer contain the growing archival collection, reference room, and staff offices necessary to effectively fulfill our mission. To meet this need, GHS built the Abrahams Archival Annex in 1970. Within a few decades it, too, was reaching capacity, as was the office space in Hodgson Hall.

Solving the problem and preparing for new challenges required us to stretch in new directions. Acquiring and renovating Jepson House was the first step toward our total campus transformation. Relocating our offices here meant we could take the next step.

After four years of intensive planning and fund raising, that work is finally underway. A Research Center “Renovation Launch” was held on August 19 attended by Board members and major donors, including our partner The Delta Air Lines Foundation, whose generous $500,000 gift has pushed us close to finishing the $4 million capital component of the overall $15 million Next Century Initiative. When it is completed, GHS will have a new and larger center for the study and preservation of our state’s ever-growing and continually revised history.

The transformation of the GHS campus will allow our institution to fulfill its mission to collect and teach Georgia history on an unprecedented scale. That means more students learning history, more scholars writing books and articles that create new knowledge and insights, and more historical markers offering new interpretations of our past. It means finding new and expanded ways to use history to understand the present and generate public conversations about who we are as Americans and where we are going as a nation.

There is a direct connection between a renovated and expanded Research Center and a better educated, more engaged citizenry. It may look like we are building a new campus, but in reality we are building something grander and more crucial—a better future, not just for GHS, but also for our state and nation.