Renewing Craftsmanship in Charleston

The latest chapter in Charleston’s long history of contributions to the preservation movement is unfolding inside the town’s Gothic-style Old City Jail. First constructed in 1802 and later rebuilt in 1859, the jail’s structure is now in the process of being restored; but that’s the least of the story. Inside the building, the staff of the American College of the Building Arts (ACBA) is working feverishly to prepare for the August arrival of 48 students who are slated to begin one of the most unusual and ambitious educational programs in America. ACBA is the country’s first four-year school dedicated to teaching artisans by combining contemporary and traditional techniques. Its mission is not only to educate America’s next generation of craftsmen and women, but also to raise the visibility of craftsmanship nationally. Beginning this fall, the college will instruct students in six trades: architectural stonework, carpentry, masonry, ornamental ironwork, plaster working, and timber framing—the art of joining timbers without using nails. Master artisans will teach eight students in each of the six trades, combining intense hands-on training with classwork in subjects like math and English.

Ten-week apprenticeships in the summer will round out the curriculum. The college is being launched at a time when the quality of American craftsmanship and the prestige of the building arts are in precipitous decline across the country. The trend has particularly troubling implications for preservation. Bonnie Burnham, president of World Monuments Fund, which is supporting the ACBA through a grant from The Florence Gould Foundation, says she first became aware of the problem in the late 1980s, when WMF became active in the restoration of the Church of St. Ann and the Holy Trinity in Brooklyn. “The craftsman doing the exterior stone restoration work had died, and it was very difficult to replace him,” says Burnham. “The United States has no system comparable to the European systems that can train students in the essential arts of the craftsperson. There is a real lack of qualified craftsmen, in contrast to Europe where restoration crafts experts are trained in formal schools supported by guilds.” Charleston itself has felt the lack of highly trained craftspeople. On September 22, 1989, just after midnight, the now legendary Hurricane Hugo made landfall in South Carolina and devastated Charleston’s historic district, leaving many significant structures in a severe state of disrepair. As the city mobilized to restore the damaged buildings, the number of qualified craftsmen and women available to preserve structures built two centuries ago fell far short of the task at hand. French craftsmen had to be brought into the city to help.

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