By Brian Sherman
Where can a student serve what amounts to an apprenticeship, gaining valuable training in the building trades that helped mold and remold the historic image of Charleston, and at the same time earn a college degree?
That unique combination of hands-on experience and education is offered at the American College of the Building Arts, an institution of higher learning now housed in a building that in some ways is a symbol of the Holy City’s storied past.
The college moved into its new and permanent home in September 2016, shortly after Labor Day. Constructed in 1897, the building at 649 Meeting St. was originally the maintenance facility for Charleston’s bygone fleet of streetcars. When the fleet was retired, the facility served for a while as the city’s bus barn.
Since its inception in 2004, the school had been housed on the old Navy base in North Charleston, then at the former Charleston County jail on Magazine Street on the peninsula. Until the new building was move-in ready, the college also rented space on James Island for its timber framing and architectural iron hands-on classes.
The move from the Navy base to the jail was a decision based on finances, according to Lt. Gen. Colby M. Broadwater III, who has been president of the American College of the Building Arts since 2008.
“We needed to use the jail. We owned it. It was a business decision,” he said.
The school paid the city just $10 for the Meeting Street property, then spent almost two years and $5 million to totally renovate the 38,000-square-foot building to fit its specific needs. Much of that money came from donors who saw the need for the specialized workforce the school could produce, according to Broadwater.
“It was a good use of money. The school was designed for exactly what we need,” said Broadwater.
The school purchased the property in November 2014, and, after the old, damaged roof was removed and lead paint and asbestos were eliminated, ground was broken in the spring of 2015. The outward appearance of the structure didn’t change; the school was built inside the old building’s shell, not only to preserve its historic features but also to protect it from future harm.
“It’s a building inside a building. The weight of the work is not on the historic structure,” Broadwater said.
Broadwater explained why the school was established. He pointed out that there simply weren’t enough people with the proper training to repair and renovate the historic buildings that were damaged when Hurricane Hugo blew through the Lowcountry in 1989. A group of local citizens got together and started the School of the Building Arts. Its name was changed to the American College of the Building Arts in 2004.
Broadwater, who finished high school in Columbia and graduated from The Citadel, spent 34 years in the Army. After he retired in 2006, he worked briefly in the world of corporate America, with Northrop Grumman. In 2007, some friends asked him to serve on the board of the American College of the Building Arts. He agreed, just about the time the school was looking for a new president, and he accepted the position in 2008.
Today, the American College of the Building Arts has around 60 students who earn a bachelor’s or associate degree in applied science by completing courses in subjects such as English, math, foreign languages, science, leadership and history. They take an average of 12 academic hours per semester, but they also spend 10 to 15 hours a week mastering one of six trades that are critical to preserving the buildings that help tell the story of Charleston: timber framing, carpentry, architectural iron, plaster, masonry and stone carving.
“There’s an educational component and a hands-on component,” Broadwater said. “It’s all designed so they complement each other.
“When students leave here, they have multiple job offers,” he added. “Many of them start their own business within three to five years, and almost all of them are working in the area they studied. We’re proud of that.”
Though many ACBA students stay in the Charleston area, the school’s graduates are spread across the country and around the world. Broadwater pointed out that students and alumni have participated in several projects in Europe. Some have done work on the Lincoln Cathedral in London, while others traveled to Magdeburg, Germany, to help restore a castle bombed by the Allies during World War II. Broadwater said former ACBA students helped with the timber frame of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which was built on the site of the renowned Warsaw Ghetto in Poland.
Broadwater estimated that when the school opened its doors, it served 10 to 15 students. He said there were 25 to 30 students when he took over the presidency in 2008. His goal is to reach an enrollment of 180 to 200. There are currently around 25 instructors, a number he expects to grow as the school expands. There are no more than 25 students in a classroom, and there are no more than eight students for each instructor for the hands-on work.
Every student at ACBA takes two semesters of drafting—in the traditional manner. They don’t use computers until their second year at the school.
Broadwater said the college will probably add other trades in the next few years. Possibilities include classical architecture and interior design, and finishes such as marbling, graining and gilding.
According to Broadwater, ACBA’s model is unique.
“There’s no other school like this in the country. There are some preservation programs, but none are blended—hands-on and academic—like we are,” he said. “We’re a little out in front. I don’t think we’ll remain the only one, but we are right now.”
The first floor of the building is staff offices and classrooms, while the shops where students learn the building trades cover all three stories.
The third floor houses a state-of-the art computer lab, along with a library, a collection of more than 6,000 books on building, the decorative arts and fine arts, among other subjects, many of them from Norway, Sweden and Finland. Some of the books have been donated, including 2,000 volumes that were given to the school by a Virginia resident. The oldest item in the collection, a math book written in French, dates back to 1725. Another book of interest is “The Art of the Locksmith,” written by the lock maker who served Louis XIIII and published in 1767.
The library also includes a collection of old tools and ironwork.
So now that it has a permanent home, what does the future hold for the American College of the Building Arts? The next major step for the school is accreditation, which could take 16 to 18 months, according to Broadwater. Once the process is complete, students will be able to apply for government-backed loans, and other schools will accept transfer credit from ACBA.
Meanwhile, the American College of the Building Arts, now in its permanent home, designed by architect Bill Monroe, will continue to replenish the workforce necessary to maintain Charleston’s historic structures.
“It’s a beautiful building,” Broadwater commented. “We kept as much of the original fabric as we could.”