U.S. building arts college draws young blood to ancient trades

Sat Jun 21, 2014 8:25am EDT
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By Harriet McLeod

CHARLESTON S.C. (Reuters) - In the bowels of what was once a jail in Charleston, South Carolina, Cody James, 22, is carving limestone blocks into a mantelpiece for one of the city's historic homes.

The 19th-century jail that housed Union prisoners during the Civil War serves as James' classroom at the American College of the Building Arts - the only U.S. institution that confers bachelor's degrees in centuries-old trades.

The college, licensed by the state in 2004, offers a four-year academic program in applied science for architectural stone carving, timber framing and carpentry, masonry, ornamental plaster work and forged architectural iron work.

Ten years on, and having sent graduates around the world to apply their skills at historic castles and cathedrals, it is trying to boost its prestige, quadruple enrollment and make students eligible for federal loans by winning accreditation from the National Association of Schools of Art and Design.

Although a decision on accreditation was recently deferred for two years to give the college more time to address finances and record-keeping standards, school officials say they are determined to continue the process.

"They have applauded our progress and have consistently said we are doing a good job with academics," Pamela Niesslein, a consultant for the school, said of the accreditation application. "This is a lot like starting up a company, and we face all the challenges that any new company faces."

The school, which currently has about 50 students, was started as a nonprofit after Charleston officials and benefactors found there were few skilled workers available to repair hundreds of 18th- and 19th-century buildings that were damaged when Hurricane Hugo slammed into the city in 1989.

"The collective knowledge about maintaining our historic treasures in America is dying out,” Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said. “The college is a very important national initiative.”   Continued...