The College of Lost Arts

A small college in Charleston, South Carolina, seeks to revive the centuries-old fine building trades.

Image Stokkete / Shutterstock.com
Stokkete / Shutterstock.com

When Hurricane Hugo hit Charleston, South Carolina, in 1989, its Category 4 winds carried off nearly every roof in town, leaving homes and businesses to be flooded by torrential rain. Not since the earthquake of 1886 had the city seen such devastation, and as residents set about rebuilding, they soon realized they had another problem on their hands: a shortage of artisans trained in skills like masonry, ironwork, and plastering, necessary to repair the city's famous historic buildings.

These trades had traditionally been passed down by skilled craftsmen to their sons or apprentices, but that old system had long since been fading away. "It was a recognition that a generation of teachers had diminished," says Mayor Joe Riley, who has been in office since 1975.

Charleston would recover from Hugo, but city leaders, newly appreciative of high-quality craftsmanship, decided that something had to be done to prevent traditional building arts from disappearing for good. So Riley and a group of local preservationists worked together to found a college. It took a while—the first class graduated in 2009—but today the American College of the Building Arts (ACBA) is the only school in the United States to offer a bachelor's degree in traditional building trades.

Every student in the college majors in building arts, but can choose one of six specializations: architectural stone, carpentry, forged architectural iron, masonry, plasterwork, or timber framing. The college seeks to combine a traditional liberal arts curriculum with intensive crafts training, often teaching disciplines like history or math by way of the latter; for example, history is taught with an architectural history focus.  

"The graduate here has learned both the art and the science of preservation and new construction," says Colby M. Broadwater III, a retired Army lieutenant general brought in as president in 2008 to apply some military discipline to the school's finances. "How to build a business, the drawing and drafting that underlies all of it … the language, the math that supports the building functions, the science of why materials fail—all of those things wrapped into a liberal arts and science education."

An ACBA team crafts a new plaster ceiling on Sullivan's Island, South Carolina. From left to right: Daniella Helline, Prof. Patrick Webb, Jacqueline Urgo, and Alex Joyce (ACBA)

Broadwater acknowledges that the college had a rocky first few years, with budget shortfalls and administrative upheaval, but its educational program has won wide praise from preservation advocates. In the long run, he argues, the school's mission is about environmental conservation as much as it is about historic preservation, since graduates will be able to sustain careful craftsmanship in an era of aesthetically identical strip malls and vinyl-clad McMansions.

"Most of the work they're doing is new construction,” he says. "If you're building new buildings that aren't designed to be torn down in 50 years, you're not filling up landfills."

The college's current main campus is Charleston's 1802 jail, a handsome, crenellated brick structure where the Confederacy used to hold Union prisoners during the Civil War. It had been vacant for almost 50 years when administrators bought it in 2000, and over the years, students have helped rehabilitate it. This year, if all goes as planned, the college will move into the derelict 1897 Trolley Barn, a much larger space that the city sold to ACBA in November for a nominal $10.

But the symbiotic relationship between the college and its city extends further than donated real estate. "Of all the cities that would have a building college, it makes the most sense that it would be Charleston," Mayor Riley says, noting that the city was an early locus of historic preservation. The city also serves as an open classroom for students, who write case studies of historic structures around town.

"I didn't know much about architecture when I started school," admits senior James Hess. "But after four years, I find myself constantly wandering around looking at buildings. This is a wonderful city for that. You would be hard-pressed to find a place as perfect as Charleston."

Hess is typical of the college's 43 students, whose average age is 23 and who often come to the college after a previous stint in higher education. After graduating from high school in Sumter, South Carolina, Hess followed a path well trodden by smart middle-class kids who aren't sure what they want to do with their lives—he enrolled in a conventional liberal arts college.

Four years later, he graduated with a degree in English and German, along with the certainty that he never wanted to work in an office. He learned about ACBA through a friend and enrolled the very next semester, choosing as his major the challenging trade of timber framing.

James Hess at work during an internship at Lincoln Cathedral in the UK (ACBA)

Hess, who doesn't graduate until this spring, already has three job offers. Although graduates are in demand, the college has struggled to attract as many students as it needs for long-term stability. That is in part because ACBA is still working to gain accreditation from the National Association of Schools of Art and Design, a lengthy process that Broadwater hopes will be resolved this year. The next goal, he says, is to grow to about 180 to 200 students, a population that the renovated Trolley Barn will easily accommodate.

"The Trolley Barn gives them a future," Mayor Riley says. The city wanted to create an institution that would last, and he's confident that it will. "We'll continue to support them, but I think they're on their way."

About the Author

  • Amy Crawford has written for Boston magazine, the Boston Globe, Slate, and Smithsonian. She lives outside Boston.