Tailgate: Colby M. Broadwater III, College President
This retired army officer now leads the American College of the Building Arts, which trains the next generations of craftspeople.
Web Extra: Extended Tailgate Interview
I find the presence of a school like yours encouraging. How did it begin?
After Hurricane Hugo slammed into Charleston, S.C., in 1989, qualified artisans to work on the city’s historic structures were not available. City leaders and others were determined to do something, and that’s what led to this college. The skilled workers in this country are aging, and no one is replacing them.
If you go back two or three hundred years, the guild houses of the various trades were some of the finest buildings around. A hundred years ago, mass production and assembly lines took the glamour off that.
Our point of view is that some of that glamour needs to be restored. We all appreciate the beauty and long-lasting quality of fine old homes and craftsmanship, but if we don’t have a new generation of skilled artisans producing that work, there won’t be anything left to appreciate in the future. We’re trying to do our small part to ensure that the skills learned over thousands of years are maintained so that we can continue to build to those standards for people who demand it.
How have you engaged your community?
The iconic Charleston ironworker of the 20th century was a gentleman named Philip Simmons. Years ago, he wondered who would be there to repair his ironwork. In the early 1960s, he made the Christopher Gadsden House gate, which features a distinctive rattlesnake detail that was inspired by Gadsden’s design of the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag from the American Revolution. Our students are now restoring that gate, and it’s fitting that Simmons played a part in forming our school.
What’s the curriculum like?
Our students—about 50 at present—all have the same academic curriculum, and they major in one of six areas of building arts: ornamental ironwork, timber framing, carpentry, plasterwork, masonry, and stone carving. They study the hands-on skill for four years, which includes three summer internships that give them exposure to the business side of being a working craftsperson. This blending of an academic degree with the skills learned in the shops and laboratories brings their education to life.
Not only do students learn the art of preservation and construction, but they also learn the science of it. When they master both, they come out of here not only knowing what solution is appropriate for a particular building challenge and why, but also how to implement it.
The Compagnon system in France, which dates back to the Middle Ages, helped us develop the hands-on approach we use. It gave us a historically grounded way to meet the challenges of today. Its techniques are as applicable to new construction as they are to preservation.
Describe the typical ACBA student.
Our students tend to be a little bit older than the average college freshman, and they all have an artistic leaning. Some of them may not even know the full extent of that capacity, but it really comes out of them when they’re here. They have a deep commitment to learn how to make something that is lasting. That is the real draw.
Do your graduates go on to become home builders?
Most of our graduates are subcontracted for timber framing or to build components that will be used in homes. Some of them are employees, and some have started their own businesses. In each discipline, they have restored historic work, and they have produced what will someday be historic work worthy of preservation.
Is there an arc to the typical student experience?
With good training, people can do just about anything. With the education and training our students get here, they motivate themselves to get better by being exposed to these classic building materials and techniques. What we try to do is give them the skills and the opportunities to do that.
We forget that the recipe for cement was lost after the fall of the Roman Empire.
People forget that at least half of those alchemists in medieval Europe, who were said to be trying to make gold, were actually trying to make porcelain—they called it white gold. Somebody’s got to sustain those skills.
Recently there was a workshop here on scagliola, which involves making plaster that looks like marble. You could see these young men and women arrive at an understanding of how the marble formed through pressure and so on, and that the veining was caused by natural sediments being forced in different ways. Watching them re-create that out of plaster was amazing. It is almost a lost art.