Charleston seems to have some misconceptions about the American College of the Building Arts, headquartered in the supposedly haunted Old City Jail downtown. It's not a school for construction workers. And it's not a school for ghost hunters. It's a four-year liberal arts college focused on teaching master craftsmen — and it's on the cusp of becoming much more recognizable in this city and beyond.
Founded by John Paul Huguley in 1997, it took organizers nearly a decade to put together a curriculum, raise funding, and secure a home for the school. Its first class graduated last May, with skilled iron-workers, carpenters, and masons among their ranks. And now it's on to the next step in the young school's development: accreditation.
"Accreditation is a critical step to assure that the college will be here for a very long time," Huguley says, as we sit in President Colby Broadwater's dark office in the historic jail. "It's an outside party putting up a bar and saying, 'OK, jump this bar.'"
Working under the U.S. Department of Education, accrediting agencies ensure that institutions of higher education are meeting acceptable levels of quality.
The school's tight-knit community — including 40 students, 16 professors, and several staffers — has been prepping for the big jump for some time now. They began the accreditation process last year, and the agency's first visit resulted in a list of criteria for the school to meet. Now, months later, they've worked their way down the checklist, and they're ready for the agency to return.
The school has faced more than its share of challenges since 1997, when it was just a concept in the minds of Huguley, Mayor Joe Riley, preservationist Nancy Hawk, and a few others.
"It's not like setting up a law school or a business school that's been done over and over," Huguley says. "We were setting up something that's completely new, a curriculum that had never been seen before in the United States, a completely new curriculum in the building arts and liberal arts. As Colby [Broadwater] calls it, it's the educated artisan. The head is smart, and the hands are skilled. They have to work together."
In fact, approximately half of the students' time is spent hitting the books. They study everything from the typical subjects — like English, math, and economics — to subjects that apply to the artisanal building field — like historic preservation, architectural drawing, and building conservation.
Huguley says this is what separates an artisan from a common contractor. "If a craftsman cannot communicate and articulate and write and think and study Shakespeare, how can they actually be inspired?" he says.
When their noses aren't in the books, their hands are busy learning to master their crafts. Students choose a building arts major the day they enter the school — choices include architectural metal, architectural stone, carpentry, masonry, plaster working, and timber framing. During their freshman and sophomore years, students learn the foundation skills needed to work and create with the materials — say, a stone worker will learn how to carve a sphere and spend a semester doing it. In the last two years, students are encouraged to take the skills they've learned and "push the boundaries of their chosen fields."
The fruits of their labor are spread throughout the sprawling rooms of the beautiful old jail. Some work on projects together, led by an upperclassman project manager — such as the collaboration between Mimi Conlon, Megan Shogun, and Rob Stevens. They're building an elaborate stone archway that will eventually crown the entryway into the stone house. While first-year Stevens has been whittling away at a smooth cylindrical column and its bases all semester ("He's really fast," Huguley says), sophomore Shogun has been carving the top of the archway, and Conlon oversees, working on the stone's more intricate carving.
Downstairs, senior plaster student Cody Donahue explores the nearly extinct English art of pargeting, sculpting into wet plaster. He's creating several panels, inspired by illustrations in antique Shakespeare books. His work is part of the senior class' capstone project, which is contributing to a replica of the Globe Theatre that is proposed to be built in Staunton, Va.
But these students aren't confined to their jail cells every day. Essentially, all of Charleston is ACBA's classroom, supplementing the students' education with its rich history and finely preserved architecture. They've also got a temporary campus on James Island, and plans are in the works to make the historic 1897 Trolley Barn on Upper Meeting Street the school's headquarters at some point in the near future.
As they gain better mastery of their crafts, the students go out and do apprenticeships around the country and the world during the summer. They've put in time everywhere from a Shaker village in New York to an English medieval cathedral to Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater in Pennsylvania.
In essence, ACBA graduates are set to enter the workforce at the very top of a field that the Department of Labor says is one of the most vital in the country. And while construction is an industry that will always need skilled workers, the level of their mastery is on a completely different plane. After all, if craftsmen don't exist to properly preserve our country's historic treasures, we might as well take a picture and kiss them goodbye.
See for yourself what ACBA students are up to at their open house on Sat. April 17 from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. at the Old City Jail. Additionally, they're hosting a wine and cheese reception and book signing of Ingrid Abramovitch's new book, Restoring a House in the City on Thurs., April 15 from 6-8 p.m. ACBA trustee Harriet McDougal, widow to Wheel of Time author Robert Jordan, will host the garden party at her historic home at 129 Tradd St. $10.