CHARLESTON, S.C - The sounds of artists at work fill the spacious workshops at the American College of the Building Arts in historic Charleston, South Carolina.
In the Iron shop, Alex Fisher grinds down an iron door handle while Jeremiah Price and others use heat to soften the metal in theirs and hammer them into shape. In an adjacent space, a group of young men measure, saw, and sand wood to make custom workbenches.
A disappearing art
The students at this private, one-of-a-kind college are aspiring artisans. Working in a building that was once a trolley barn, they immerse themselves in an intense, hands-on program that trains them in traditional European craftsmanship – which many believe to be a vanishing art form.
Sophomore Steven Fancsali had already earned a degree in architectural design and worked as a designer for four years doing residential architecture before he learned about the school on a television program.
“My thought was ‘well I wish I had known about this 10 years ago when I was actually looking at schools’, he said. “I didn't like being behind a desk, I couldn't stand being cooped up...so I decided to just make a change.”
So he applied to the non-profit school, got accepted, and moved from Chicago to Charleston.
The school was founded in the wake of Hurricane Hugo, which ripped through the southeastern coast of the United States in 1989. The Category 4 hurricane damaged or destroyed many of Charleston's historic homes and buildings.
In the aftermath, there was an urgent need for experienced artisans who knew how to rebuild the city. But there weren’t enough of them.
So in 1999, in response to this shortage of skilled artisans, a group of local movers and shakers laid the groundwork that led to the founding of ACBA, which is the first -- and only -- four-year college in the country to offer such a program.
Building arts skills
School president retired Lt. Gen. Colby Broadwater says the school is unique, “because we have blended a liberal arts education -- the critical thinking aspect of that -- with a skill set that we teach of six different skilled areas.”
The school offers a Bachelor of Applied Science in Architectural Carpentry, Architectural Stone, Classical Architecture, Blacksmithing, Masonry, Plasterwork and Timber Framing
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Students get to work with instructors like Arnaud Le Rouzic, who trained at Les Compagnons du devoir, a prestigious French organization made up of craftsmen and artisans who learn skills dating from the Middle Ages.
“I came here to share my knowledge and my experience with the younger generation of artisans,” Rouzic said.
Students also have opportunities to work off campus, on local community projects.
Broadwater says a sense of community is important to the college.
“We touch so many places and so many people,” he says. “Public projects that enhance the beauty of this city or state.”
Students have built seats and shelters for local bus stops, created giant pizza ovens, and restored the ironwork on gates created by Philip Simmons, renowned Charleston ironwork artisan and one of the founders of ACBA.
Stephen Clark, a junior, spent two months of his summer on a paid internship, helping to restore the home in Washington, DC that former President Abraham Lincoln used as a summer retreat during America's Civil War.
Clark says he'll never forget working on the home of one America's most revered presidents.
“Standing out looking over the balcony or looking out of a window that he was also looking out, it's one of those things that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up,” he says. “It's just an experience that I couldn't get anywhere else.”
ACBA students also work overseas. One graduate is part of a restoration team at the iconic Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, where he's helping to rebuild the 850-year-old landmark after a devastating fire tore through its roof and spire earlier this year.
A sense of pride
“The students are proud of actually producing something,” Broadwater says. “That's why they came here. And so they can sit there and say, I made that!”
He, too, is proud of what his students have accomplished and the school's 100% job placement record.
Thirty years after Hurricane Hugo, Charleston is a thriving coastal city. But should disaster strike again, members of its artisan community are well prepared to help rebuild and restore.