Written by Terri O'Neil
Savannah's W.W. Law House (710 W. Victory Drive) is a landmark in every sense of the word. It is a place that matters and a building worth saving. The 1940s bungalow was home to Westley Wallace Law for five decades, and it was the de facto repository of Mr. Law’s books, papers and art collection. A collection so large that, before it was moved to the W.W. Law Foundation offices on MLK, Jr. Blvd., it was sinking the building under its sheer weight.
Mr. Law died ten years ago, but his legacy lives on. One of the most important and tangible reminders of Mr. Law is his house - the one he purchased for his mother on a postman’s wage. To lose the house in the Cuyler-Brownville Historic District would be to lose a real place that we can point to when we talk about W.W. Law and the contributions he made in pursuit of Civil Rights for Savannahians.
In the 1950s, Law bought the house for his mother, who had never owned a home, and they lived together until her death. Over time, Law’s house became an archive of the Civil Rights Movement and the events in his life. Since his death in 2001, many have worked to ensure that Law’s collection is safe. The City of Savannah, with support from the community, will soon build a cultural arts center to house Law’s collection of art, artifacts, memorabilia and manuscripts. In the meantime, Law’s house sits empty with structural scars from the weight of his collection. With no means or plans to rehabilitate the house, there is concern that the home of Savannah’s greatest Civil Rights leader could be lost.
Historic Savannah Foundation (HSF) has explored saving the W. W. Law House for more than a year, but it has been unable to reach an agreement with the current owner of the property. HSF recently participated in a national contest sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Through the This Place Matters Community Challenge, HSF put forth the Law House as a “place that matters” and we campaigned for votes. Although we initially received great support from the community (5,000 votes cast), we did not acquire enough votes to secure prize money for the Law House.
As we campaigned it became clear that, regardless of the contest outcome, we should move ahead with doing the right thing with this property. The Law House brought diverse people from all over Savannah together with a single shared goal - to save it. Out of respect for the 5,000 votes cast and the groundswell of community support, HSF wants to make lemonade out of lemons and proceed with repairs and stabilization of the Law House. We want to show that Savannah’s votes were not cast in vain.
Estimates for stabilizing the house range from $12,000-$19,000 depending on the scope of work. With at least 5,000 residents behind the cause, HSF pledged a dollar for every vote cast. We presented this pledge as a matching challenge grant to the W.W. Law Foundation, and they accepted. We also turned to the Savannah Community Foundation to also pledge $5,000. They accepted, providing the W.W. Law Foundation could meet the original matching funds challenge. With our original pledge, followed by W.W. Law Foundation’s matching funds and Savannah Community Foundations pledged grant we were successful, giving us $15,000 in hand. HSF will undertake repairs and show the people of Savannah that no matter our differences, there are reasons to come together and do something good for the community.
Terri O'Neil is the Development Director at the Historic Savannah Foundation.