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.”
As with the slow food and craft beer movements, appreciation for traditional building skills has been revived in a world of inexpensive flat-pack furniture and cookie-cutter houses.
“I think craft is just another indicator of a cultural shift, that nostalgia we have for the human touch,” said Patrick Webb, adjunct professor of plaster. “We want our products to come from someone.”
Mantelpiece carver James, from New Palestine, Indiana, had set out to learn carpentry, but instead fell in love with stone.
“I was blown away by how the stone is carved,” he said.
Students don’t have to look far for inspiration and hands-on experience.
The college purchased the Old Charleston District Jail, built in 1802 with Romanesque Revival details added later, from the city and used a federal grant to convert it into classrooms, workshops, drawing and drafting studios, and offices.
Students “not only work in the building, they work on the building,” said college development officer Stephen Hanson.
Charleston’s historic houses and nearby plantations are also used as a laboratory for restoration as well as new work.
Further afield this summer, students are helping to restore the Gothic-style Lincoln Cathedral in England and 16th-century Schloss Hundisburg, a German castle damaged by Russian soldiers in the 1940s, college president Colby M. Broadwater III said.
Graduates find plenty of opportunities to put their new-found ancient skills into practice, finding jobs at construction, restoration and product companies.
They have also worked at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw and at the Coubertin Foundation, an advanced building arts academy outside Paris.
Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Jill Serjeant