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Georgia Historical Society reopens after $5M renovation

W. Todd Groce is standing beneath the soaring, 36-foot high ceilings of Hodgson Hall’s Reading Room, brilliant from the mid-January sun streaming through the arched windows and the new lighting that illuminates the culmination of a three-year, $5 million restoration and expansion effort of the Georgia Historical Society’s complex at the corner of Whitaker and Gaston streets.

“Anyone can come and visit the Georgia Historical Society,” says Groce, GHS’ president and CEO, “only you’d have to have a question. A question about the past. How did we arrive at this point? Because, that’s what history does. It helps us understand the present and gives us a context for the present, so that we can make better decisions going forward.”

He’s visibly delighted to reintroduce GHS’s Research Center not only to the 60,000 historians, scholars, documentarians, researchers, students and journalists who visit annually, but also — and perhaps more so — to the many Savannahians who may not be as aware of the treasures preserved here.

As Groce puts it, sometimes “a prophet is not honored in his own country. You don’t realize just what’s happening here and the national impact.”

That impact encompasses people from every county in Georgia, 43 different states, and 11 countries: researchers who’ve written bestselling biographies, genealogists who’ve solved the missing piece of a family mystery, architects who’ve restored homes, and filmmakers who’ See produced works for the BBC, Discovery, and the Smithsonian.

“The city is known as a center for historical research because of what has happened here and the nature of this collection, and I think most people in the city just don’t know it.”

A BRIEF HISTORY

This graceful space was first dedicated as the repository of Georgia’s pre-colonial and revolutionary history in 1876, at a time when Savannah, not Atlanta, was the state’s most culturally and economically relevant city. The property was a gift by Mary Telfair and her sister de ella Margaret Telfair Hodgson to memorialize her late husband William B. Hodgson, a scholar of Middle Eastern studies and an American diplomat, who had died five years earlier.

A portrait of Hodgson, painted by German-born artist Carl Ludwig Brandt, oversees the three-story Reading Room from the other end of the library as it has for the past 145 years. It, too, was restored along with the building, revealing details not seen in modern times, such as the intricate pattern of the fabric on the chair, the spectacles he holds in his hand, and the writing in Arabic on the paper. The look on his face of him seems both honored and awed by this legacy.

The $5 million restoration of historic Hodgson Hall and the expansion of the 1970s-era Abrahams Annex are the most visible results of a 10-year, $23 million capital campaign that launched in 2008 after years of GHS staff growing concerned about space to viably store the blossoming collection, which had been passively growing for decades. Groce says the decision to actively seek the collections of living Georgia legends so that they wouldn’t be lost forever made the campaign all the more urgent.

In 2014 the acquisition and renovation of the Jepson House Education Center, across Gaston Street to the north of the Research Center, was completed. This move created an expanded office and workspace for GHS staff, freeing up a room in Hodgson Hall and the Abrahams Annex so that the renovation of those spaces could move forward.

In 2019 GHS closed the Research Center for what was planned as a one-year construction and renovation project. But then, the COVID-19 pandemic and supply chain issues stretched that period to three years. The wait, though, has been worth it.

Fire suppression, security, and environmental systems have all been upgraded to protect the valuable artifacts and facilities. Storage capacity for the archives has doubled to accommodate the “more than 5 million manuscripts, 100,000 photographs, 30,000 architectural drawings, 15,000 rare and non-rare books, and thousands of maps, portraits, and artifacts representing the sweep of Georgia history.” A new treasure vault holds the most valuable possessions, such as an original draft copy of the US Constitution, one of only 13 known to exist.

Expanded and modernized processing rooms allow archivists to assess and catalog incoming material, and an upgraded collection management system affords researchers better access to archived materials both in person and online. There’s also a pot of money to purchase important collections.

DOOLEY FELLOWSHIPS

Two collections came from that initial push in 2008 to acquire the papers of living legends: the papers of Griffin Bell, a native of Americus who rose to the position of US attorney general from 1977 to 1979 under the Jimmy Carter administration, and the papers of Vince Dooley, the venerated championship football coach for the University of Georgia for 40 years — and a master historian.

Following a two-year stint in the US Marine Corps, Dooley was hired as an assistant football coach in 1956 at his alma mater, Auburn University. During the off-season, I have pursued a master’s degree. Although he had studied business as an undergraduate, he says he always preferred history classes.

“It was a long route to take,” Dooley, now 89, says, “but the best advice I got was that if it’s what you really like, you’ll have a better chance of getting a master’s in history than you will in something where you have to force yourself to study.”

He’s written books on southern and military history, using GHS’ archives for research. In 2016, he was elected as chairman of the GHS Board of Curators. When his second term ended in 2020, the board surprised him with an endowment, the Vince J. Dooley Distinguished Fellows Program.

Dooley Fellows fall into two categories: research and teaching. Research Fellowships support emerging historians outside of Savannah who are pursuing graduate-level, post-doctoral, and independent research toward publication. Distinguished Teaching Fellows recognize national leaders who have “changed the way the public understands the past.”

Dooley was surprised and honored. “I’ve always had an appreciation for learning. I’m still learning.”

Now, a photograph of Dooley hangs in the study, a former kitchen just off the Reading Room fashioned during the renovation into a quiet and contemplative carrel lined with books.

‘HISTORY AND THE PAST ARE NOT THE SAME THING’

The reopening of GHS’ research facilities comes at a critical time as our nation and state grapples with how to tell its complicated history, where its founding ideals and the reality of its actions have not always fulfilled its promise.

A Georgia House committee recently passed a bill to eliminate the teaching of “divisive concepts” in public school classrooms that could cause a person to feel “discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race.” In a city such as Savannah, which is nearing its 300th anniversary, that complicated history is often personal — even for GHS.

John MacPherson Berrien, the founding president of GHS in 1839, served as a US senator and attorney general under President Andrew Jackson. Berrien was also a slaveholder.

Groce does not shy away from this history. “I don’t think we have anything to fear from the past. We have nothing to fear from telling the truth. The facts are what they are. History and the past are not the same thing. History is the meaning that the present gives to the past. It changes, because we change. We find ourselves in a different place as we grow and evolve over time, we ask different questions of the past.”

“The story of the past is complex,” he continues. “One of the challenges that we have, then, is understanding that history changes as we look at the past in different ways. History is not just a set of facts. History is an ongoing debate. That’s part of who we are as a democracy. Democracy is all about debate.”

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