There it is, a great green monolith rising like a tectonic plate pushing out of the earth’s crust.
In this flat city of few views, its 12 stories might as well be a mountain. My urge to climb it is primal, as if I am a giant gorilla instinctively seeking out the highest point to survey my surroundings.
Except instead of scaling the windows, I plan to take the elevator.
Love it or revile it, you can’t deny the drama of Drayton Tower. All clean lines and cool glass, it has dominated the corner of Liberty and Drayton since 1951, when father–and–son architectural team Cletus and William Bergen slapped sleepy Southern sensibilities upside the head with their chromed concrete box.
Originally built to answer the call of the 1946 Veterans Emergency Housing Act, its European–influenced International Style was meant to convey progress and slick modern living. But the city’s nascent historical preservation movement decried the sparse design as soulless, aloof as an android in reflective sunglasses amongst the lacy porches of its elderly neighbors.
The tower has not aged well in the last decades, some of its 4000 Solex windows broken or replaced with Plexiglass, giving off the impression of a once–handsome gent with missing teeth. Its cantilevered portico is edged with rust, one end of its ground floor commercial space boarded up.
When the building turned 50 in 2002, it was entered into the National Register of Historic Places, much to the chagrin of its detractors. But bigger minds see its value as part of Savannah’s overall story.
“People need to understand that this is a great example of International Style, one of the only ones in the South,” Historic Savannah Foundation president Daniel Carey reminds the haters.
“History, like architecture, is a continuum. You don’t just pick the parts you want to preserve. The tower should be, even begrudgingly, embraced.”
That means a hug for the tower’s “trailer park in the sky” days when rent was cheap, as well as its floundering redevelopment by DrayProp, a group of businessmen who acquired the tower in 2005 for $8.35 million and sold it a few weeks ago to New York–based Flank, Inc. for $3.8 million.
I call Flank principal Ken Copeland to ask how it feels to own Savannah’s most maligned edifice.
“We see a huge opportunity here,” explains Copeland. “The whole mid–century, Mad Men aesthetic is enjoying a comeback, and once our redevelopment is finished, people are going to see the beauty in this building again.”
He admits that there’s a “decent amount” of work to be done to make 100 plush one– and two–bedroom units out of the mostly–raw space, but promises by next spring “it’s going to be a modern, luxury apartment building when we’re done.”
Flank plans to market big city amenities to its new tenants: Concierge, 24–hour doorman, the works. The commercial spaces downstairs, already occupied by Harris Baking Co. and ROBS salon, will surely fill up once again. It’s going to be fancy.
Which means is if I ever want to take in a renegade vista from the top, I’d better get in before the construction crews.
I have a real estate groupie friend who spends many evenings exploring our city’s urban rooftops, because like me, sometimes a girl just needs an eagle eye view of things. (I may or may not have climbed the bell tower of Mickve Israel synagogue last year, only to find that there is no bell.)
More than a decade younger than me and unencumbered by familial responsibilities, my friend has spent lots of time roaming Savannah’s forgotten places. She’s driven around the ancient racetrack on Hutchison Island and laments that creepy old Candler Hospital is no longer accessible since its reclamation as Savannah Law School.
She can slip through small spaces and bullshit her way out of just about anything, making her the perfect guide of the unfinished top floor of Drayton Tower.
And since she is accompanying me on my gonzo journalistic fantasy, I shall heretofore refer to her as Lazlo.
We meet just before sunset on the longest day of the year under the tower’s shadow. Through the lobby doors, Lazlo and I see the restored lush walnut paneling and stunning art–deco light fixture, exhumed during DrayProp’s hopeful attempt to restore the building before the economy tanked.
But Lazlo’s friend who lives in the tower does not answer the text.
Ever the resourceful one, Lazlo mentions something about picking the lock. Not sure if she’s serious, I point to the security cameras and whisper I’d rather use my gonzo Getting Arrested column on something more poignant than trespassing.
We leave the lobby and walk around back, where an older gentleman is standing next to an open door. He introduces himself as Kenneth, a resident of the fifth floor, and waves a notebook at us.
“Y’all got a pen I could use?”
I hand one over, explaining that my associate and I would like to go up and look around.
“Well, come on in!” he cries, and begins busily scribbling numbers in his book.
As Lazlo and I start down the hallway, Kenneth calls after us.
“The right elevator’s only for Jews, Greeks and Italians. And Sicilians. Other one is for whites and blacks.”
Lazlo and I look at each other. Kenneth must’ve been living here a long time.
“We’ll take the service elevator,” Lazlo calls back.
That’s when I realize he didn’t give me back my pen.
The service elevator creaks and groans its way up, and it occurs to me that taking a creaky elevator to an abandoned construction site 12 stories off the ground may not be the wisest choice I made this week.
Still, as I supposed, the view is stupendous. The space is naked, the windows dusty but unfettered. The sun has melted into the horizon behind the Talmadge Bridge, the lights along the river beginning to blink on. We walk around and around the open, concrete floor, taking in 360 degrees of Lowcountry.
Looking out onto the spires of St. John the Baptist Cathedral, I spy a gorgeous rooftop garden along Drayton. Below the bustle of downtown Savannah is ensconced in leafy canopy. All above is quiet and serene.
Actually, it’s a little too quiet. And it’s getting dark.
“Did you bring a flashlight?” I ask.
Lazlo informs me that flashlights are for sissies but scoots back to the elevator anyway and punches the button. Nothing.
This is the point in the horror flick where the two plucky–but–stupid protagonists get raped by zombies.
She pokes the button two, three, four more times. The elevator stays mute.
“Oh that happens sometimes,” Lazlo says breezily, walking around the corner. “We’ll just take the stairs.”
No, we will not. Apparently the new owners have put a shiny new padlock on the door to the stairwell.
Lazlo shakes her hair. “No big deal. Just call your husband. Kenneth can let him in.”
My head begins to sweat. I would rather spend the night up here with the spiders before I’d call my worrying husband. My dear soulmate doesn’t even like me riding my bike at night, but he knows he cannot keep an adventurous spirit down.
He can’t comprehend my King Kong compulsion for great heights and is not impressed about my intimate knowledge about the bell tower.
He was definitely nonplussed about this particular exploit, but I was all, “Dude. It’s for work. You knew I wanted to be Hunter S. Thompson when you married me.”
So even if we don’t get eaten by monsters, it looks like Lazlo and I will be starving to death on the top floor of the storied Drayton Tower.
I’d write my last will and testament, except, of course, I don’t have a pen.
I make a promise to my Maker that if I get out of this one, I’ll take up a collection at synagogue for a bell.
Just then, we hear the exhausted grind of the elevator. Lazlo grins like she knew it all along. “You weren’t really scared, were you?”
I will admit here that yes, yes I was. And I may be cured of my urge to climb to the tops of abandoned buildings. At least at night.
As we step out into the posh lobby, Kenneth is sitting on one of the deep couches, still at work on his columns of numbers. He eyeballs us.
“You came down the wrong elevator,” he says, tapping my pen on his knee. He holds it out, ruefully.
I don’t imagine that Kenneth, who seems harmless but is likely dependent on a host of public services, will continue to live in Drayton Tower after it’s spruced up to its new glory.
“Keep it,” I say.
Lazlo and I head across the street to McDonough’s for a beer. I look back up at the tower, pocked with the light of its few current residents, glad to have a tiny piece of its once and future story.