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Just past the College of Charleston, a short stroll from King Street’s tourist hordes and the recently restored City Market is Charleston’s historic Old Jail – a rambling, 2,040 sq m Romanesque Revival fortress built in 1802. In the early 19th century, the jail housed slaves and during the American Civil War both Confederate and Union soldiers.

A century and a half later, the building – decommissioned as a jail in 1939 – is home to a far more respectable cohort: the unusual student and faculty-body of the American College of Building Arts (ACBA). Founded by architect and preservationist John Paul Huguley, the ACBA was conceived in the wake of Hurricane Hugo in 1989. The storm, along with its 225km/h winds, battered the city, with devastating consequences. Hundreds of landmark buildings were damaged, many requiring the types of specialised restoration techniques nearly lost to mechanisation and modernity. With so few skilled artisans still working in these fields, qualified talent had to be imported from Europe, resulting in a civic soul-searching (of sorts) across Charleston, which was founded in 1670 by English settlers from Bermuda. “Hugo made folks question why and how we lost this knowledge of quality craftsmanship in such a short period of time,” says Huguley, who worked for London-based architect/preservationist Alan Baxter early in his career. “Led by Charleston mayor Joseph Riley, we realised there was a strong need to reclaim these traditions, not just in Charleston but in historic cities across the country.”

Funded by start-up grants from both the US Department of Labor and the World Monuments Fund and backed by politicians, preservationists and business leaders, Huguley envisioned – and eventually established – the ACBA in 1998. From its beginnings, the school has served as the US’s only institute of higher education offering a formalised, four-year liberal arts degree in the traditional trades of pre industrial-era Europe and the US. Using both the jail building and the more than 1,400 historic structures in Charleston itself as a laboratory, the school teaches its body of students nearly-lost building arts using stone, iron, timber, masonry, carpentry and plaster.

Early faculty members included ACBA “inspirational founder” Philip Simmons, honoured by the Smithsonian Institution and US National Endowment for the Arts as the most influential blacksmith in contemporary American history and credited with more than 200 iron gates in Charleston alone. A local and national cultural treasure, Simmons – who died in 2009 aged 97 – embodies “the ACBA’s innovative concept of retaining the skills that produced the historic fibre of Charleston”, says mayor Riley, the longest-serving mayor in the country, re-elected in November to a 10th term.

Almost a decade after conducting its first lecture, the ACBA has graduated three classes of students – some two dozen in total – now mostly working in their specialised fields. While emphasis is on both preservation and new-build architecture, the ACBA stresses Old World craft over 21st-century flash. “We don’t reject modernism, we just feel there is an equal place for tradition in the 21st century,” says professor of architecture and design David Payne, during a break between classes. “We are far more about Andrea Palladio here than Rem Koolhaas. I guess you could call Palladio the patron saint of the ACBA.” Despite passing away in 1580, Palladio would likely feel at home on the ACBA campus. The school’s spiritual roots are in Europe, specifically France, and the 600-year-old compagnon system of craftsmen and artisans’ guilds that has trained talented young people since the Middle Ages. Still active throughout France – and stressing communal living as strongly as carpentry or cabinet-making – a clutch of contemporary compagnons were conscripted by Huguley to establish the ACBA’s initial structure and curriculum.

More than a decade later, many, such as Alsace-born professor of timber framing Bruno Sutter, are still there, helping maintain the links between the two institutions. From France, compagnon craftsmen are sent to Charleston to improve their English during year-long stints as visiting professors. Come summer-time, ACBA students travel in the opposite direction to participate in hands-on internships throughout Europe, from St Alban’s Church and Lincoln Cathedral in Britain to medieval German Schlossen and Norwegian wood-work restoration projects.

“The way in which the school has successfully motivated young people to take their trade to a higher level has been very impressive,” says compagnon international director Koen Grieten, who’s advised and partnered with the ACBA almost since its inception. “We know the kinds of investment this demands, because we see the challenges ourselves here in Europe.”

Indeed, much as in Europe, ACBA coursework is anchored around a trade, which students select upon admission and master over four years. Yet, whereas French compagnons are trained solely in technique, ACBA students receive an equally intensive academic education. Literature, maths, economics and foreign language courses comprise half of the students’ schedules. But unlike “conventional” colleges, academic subjects are holistically integrated into the ACBA’s mission to develop professional, proficient, modern-day craftsmen.

“If the topic is Ancient Greece, for instance, we might focus on the history of the Parthenon in literature class, Doric column structure in drawing class and geometric temple proportion in maths class,” says Payne. “Our students learn the words for tools and equipment in French or Spanish class, not how to read a restaurant menu. We want our academic themes to span across the entire curriculum.”

And that’s where the jail comes in. Abandoned for six decades and facing demolition, the jail’s purchase in 2000 provided the ACBA with both a permanent home and immediate large-scale preservation and restoration project. Crumbling and uninhabitable – and improperly stabilised after Charleston’s 1886 earthquake – the jail today displays the results of more than a decade-worth of ACBA-led improvement schemes.

Plaster students helped restore the foyer’s crumbling ceiling; a team of iron-workers recreated missing staircase railings; masonry students meticulously re-stitched cracked mason-work; and a wood and carpentry crew built much-needed windows throughout the entire (and formerly windowless) structure. Meanwhile, in the former prison cells themselves, students studied the theoretical aspects of their handiwork.

“Working on the jail gave students an immediate understanding of the real-world applications of their studies,” says William Bates, a professor of architecture and design who’s been with the ACBA almost since its beginnings. “In a typical college environment academics and practical experience happen separately,” adds Bates, a practising architect with offices in both New York and Charleston. “But here they take place simultaneously.”

While the Old Jail remains, the ACBA’s institutional home base, its students now work throughout Charleston. Out on James Island, for instance, is a three-year-old satellite campus used as a workshop for the ACBA’s carpentry, timber framing and architectural metal programmes. Once an industrial site 20 minutes from downtown Charleston, this sprawling warehouse complex quakes with the sounds of freshly-cut wooden planks being transformed into sturdy support beams and fiery iron being welded into delicate metal grills. As Richard Guthrie, professor of forged architecture ironwork shows Monocle round, a trio of blow-torch-wielding first-year students are pounding molten metal to literally make their own tools-of-the-trade. “We want our students to master self-sufficiency,” says Guthrie, who came to the ACBA from Colonial Williamsburg. “Tools are expensive but when properly made can last forever.”

Over on Meeting Street, meanwhile, 22-year-old Ben Smiley and Emily Gillett, 26, are applying the final touches to a ceiling rose in a Georgian Revival townhouse in Charleston’s Historic District. The pair inlay almost 100 hand-crafted leaves around a central ellipse produced for their final project. The duo’s design is modelled after a long-demolished ceiling at Drayton Hall, a Palladian-styled plantation house 24km from Charleston built in 1738 and an important ACBA study site. Like many ACBA endeavours, the Meeting Street project blurs the lines between education and enterprise. Smiley and Gillett are employed – albeit without compensation – by a private contractor sourced through the ACbA’s work-study programme. For Gillett, a North Carolina native who came to ACbA after brief periods at two different colleges, commissions like the roof medallion encapsulate the unique intimacy and intensity of the ACbA programme. “We fight, we’re constantly together; we’re really like a family,” says Gillett, whose sibling-like scolding of Smiley is nothing if not familial. “But to see the work you’ve researched and designed finally completed is truly rewarding and really reflects the interrelated nature of everything we do here.”

More than 10 years after it was established virtually by mayoral decree, the ACBA finds itself at a crucial crossroads. Eager to expand its student base and solidify its financial footing, the school recruited a new president, Lt General (Ret) Colby Broadwater III, as well as a first-ever director of institutional advancement, former television producer Kerri Forrest. A former ACBA board member, Lt Broadwater came to the presidency after a lengthy military career including a final posting as chief-of-staff of the US Military Command in Europe.

Broadwater’s most immediate goal is to secure the school’s formal accreditation by the National Association of Schools of Art and Design just outside of Washington, DC. While the ACBA is formally licensed on the state level, NASAD accreditation is required to qualify for most national financial aid schemes, without which students must fund their entire tuition. Broadwater says the school is in the final stages of qualifying for accreditation, which could be achieved as early as this spring. Once in place, Broadwater hopes to grow the ACBA to between 90 and 100 students, increase the faculty size and further explore partnerships with like-minded academic intuitions both in Charleston and regionally. Plans are also in place to restore and redevelop Charleston’s century-old Trolly Barn into a permanent home for ACBA’s trade programme.

Broadwater concedes that achieving his vision, much like the military strategies of his former career, will take patience and perseverance. “This is not going to be a perfect process,” he says. “But our desire is to create an institution that will truly be long-lasting.” Sounds like a preservation plan spoken like a true preservationist.

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