As with any trend, certain movements take time to catch on.

Such has been the case with historic renovation, as well as the need for artisan workers who can bring the skills needed to restore city gems to their once illustrious heyday.

In this way, the American College of the Building Arts (ACBA) in Charleston, S.C., is seeking to stand out among other institutions of higher education by turning out skilled artisans who can become leaders in historic preservation.

To understand the college as it is today, one has to go back to its roots. In 1989, a category 4 hurricane named Hugo slammed into Charleston, destroying many of the city’s 18th- and 19th-century buildings. Not since the earthquake of 1886 had Charleston seen such destruction. When it came time to restore the city’s beloved buildings, it became apparent craft professionals trained in skills such as masonry, ironwork and plastering were lacking.

Fast forward 15 years, and the ACBA was born.

The school, which has a student body of 65, was started as a nonprofit organization in 2004, and is proud of the program and skills it is trying to instill in its students. Currently, the college offers two- and four-year degrees in architectural stone carving, timber framing, carpentry, masonry, ornamental plaster work and iron work.

“As a college, we educate in the trades and also in the skills that artisans need to be successful professionally,” says Ted Landsmark, ACBA academic vice president. “Our students learn entrepreneurship and work in internships around the globe to be able to put artistry into a global preservation context.”

As interns, students have put their considerable skills to use by helping restore the Lincoln Cathedral in England and a 16th century German castle damaged by Russian soldiers in the 1940s.

“There’s an increased appreciation of our historic artifacts that goes beyond beauty or historical meaning and really speaks to how we identify as a culture,” Landsmark says. “I’m not sure that was appreciated 10 years ago, but it is now.”

Harking back to the history it is trying to restore, the college recently moved from a 19th century jail that was home to Union prisoners during the Civil War to a historic trolley barn that it purchased from the city for a mere $10.
With a $3.5 million renovation, the building has been turned into classrooms, a library, offices and work areas that will teach students all the skills necessary to preserve historic buildings nationally and
globally.

Along with its new digs, the college recently applied for accreditation to the National Association of Schools of Art and Design, which would help its students become eligible for federal loans. For both of these reasons, the school believes it is now positioned to reach its goal of enrolling 200 students.

“We need to enable people to protect and preserve their histories through meaningful hands-on work,” Landsmark says. “More people are coming into this field because it’s very satisfying to work on cultural preservation projects.” 


Cindy O’Hara is a contributing writer to Construction Executive. For more information, email cindy.ohara@yahoo.com.