Savannah Poorhouse Rehabbed for Modern Senior Living

6 min read

National Church Residences expands extensive historic portfolio  

Little Sisters of the Poor formed as a Roman Catholic order for women to serve the impoverished elderly on the streets of France. The movement reached the United States by 1870 and still continues to serve the needy elderly around the world. The Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged in Savannah, GA opened in 1896, replacing a temporary home that had been opened in 1890. By the 1950s, the Savannah home was one of 52 Little Sisters of the Poor locations in the U.S. With nursing home regulations and mandated safety codes of the 1960s, these homes were facing expensive renovations or, more commonly, outright closure.

The Savannah Little Sisters of the Poor Home was sold and shuttered in 1971 and remained underutilized for decades. In 1998, it was rehabilitated as Sisters Court Apartments, an affordable senior living community, and in 2014 was acquired by National Church Residences, the nation’s largest nonprofit provider of affordable senior housing and services.

National Church Residences is not new to historic rehabilitations. They own and operate several historic properties around the country, including the Harvard School in Cleveland, OH completed in 2003 as their first historic property. The school opened its doors a century earlier in 1903 and now provides affordable senior housing to residents in an established community setting. National Church Residences’ historic portfolio also includes rehabilitations of the Renaissance Hotel in Toledo, Imperial Hotel in Atlanta and the Battery Park Hotel and Vanderbilt Apartments in Asheville, NC. The Washington & Biggs House Hotel in Portsmouth, OH and Mary Telfair Hospital for Indigent Women in Savannah are currently under construction.

In addition to the Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTCs) used for most of National Church Residences’ developments, Historic Tax Credits (HTCs) have played a large part in the success and feasibility of these rehabilitations.

“Our strategic plan includes a strong and growing Georgia footprint, which currently includes ten properties with more than 1,300 units,” says Sarah Branch, director, Affordable Housing Development of National Church Residences in Savannah. “In Georgia, the State Historic Tax Credit, paired with the Federal, provided nearly ten percent of the funding sources for the Sister’s Court rehabilitation, making historic projects like this a viable and unique opportunity for our expansion in the marketplace.”

The Georgia HTC program was paired with the 20 percent federal HTC to generate much-needed capital for Sisters Court Apartments and the neighboring Telfair Arms Apartments, formerly the Mary Telfair Hospital. This program offers a 25 percent tax credit for certified historic structures. A revised bill in 2016 increased the per-project cap from $300,000 to $5 million. (National Church Residences applied for the HTC prior to the change and did not benefit from the increase.)

Utilizing both the HTC and LIHTC programs often works with relatively few difficulties, but occasionally regulations within each program conflict. At Sister’s Court, the majority of work to the historic building seemed simple: repair of existing windows, roof and brickwork and replacement of non-historic finishes and mechanical equipment with similar materials. However, changes in the LIHTC requirements added square footage to incorporate medical facilities, new units and additional community needs. Since there was no additional buildable area on the parcel, the rehabilitation plan included demolition and rebuilding of a 1990s annex building at the rear of the property which would include another floor level. That extra height of the annex initially caused an impasse with the historic process.

MacRostie Historic Advisors (MHA), historic consultants for the Savannah National Church Residences projects, became involved to work out a solution with the ownership and regulators. Working closely with project architects Foley Design, the roof for the new building was reshaped and lowered slightly with the additional floor level included, allowing the project to move forward.

“National Church Residences continues to use this historic property for the same reason it was developed over 100 years ago, providing the aging population of Savannah with affordable housing,” says Richard Sidebottom, director of MHA Southeast in Charleston, SC. “The project clearly meets the purpose of both tax credits, and we are happy that the programmatic needs for the LIHTC program and the design issue with the HTC program could be resolved.”

For Sisters Court, the rehabilitation of the turn-of-the-century structure included retaining much of the building’s historic fabric, from roof materials to original terrazzo flooring in common areas. A chapel wing located off the center of the I-shaped building retained the original interior volume, Gothic arch windows and heavy wood wainscoting. During the 1998 renovation, this space was converted to a community room for residents and was retained as such for the National Church Residences rehabilitation. The 57 units of affordable senior housing created during the 1990s work were retained and the units updated with new flooring, fresh paint and modern kitchen appliances and fixtures. An additional 21 units in the newly constructed building will bring the total units for Sisters Court to 78.

Telfair Arms, just blocks from Sisters Court, is an 1884 Queen Anne-style building and contributes to Savannah’s Victorian National Register District. It served as a hospital facility for nearly a century before it closed in 1980. It is currently under construction and will undergo much the same sensitive historic rehabilitation treatments as Sisters Court. Fifty-three units are being updated from a previous rehabilitation that converted the former hospital into affordable housing in 1985 and a subsequent rehabilitation in 1998. In addition to improvements and modernization of the living spaces, plans include a new community room, wellness suite and a computer center.

A focus on modernizing existing affordable housing and improving the quality of life for residents also includes a more sustainable outlook for the properties. Sisters Court is a LEED Silver project.

The focus of any National Church Residence project is a promise at the heart of their operation: Excellence that transforms lives. In Savannah, that promise is driving these historic rehabilitations for a community of people that values their historic city. The uniqueness of these and other National Church Residences historic properties provide something familiar to residents that is often hard to recreate in new construction and appealing to long-time members of local communities. In the case of Sisters Court, a legacy of serving seniors in Savannah for more than a century continues.

Story Contacts:
Sarah Branch, National Church Residences, [email protected]

Richard Sidebottom, MHA Southeast, [email protected]