The College of Lost Arts

Categories: Education

A small college in Charleston, South Carolina, seeks to revive the centuries-old fine building trades.

When Hurricane Hugo hit Charleston, South Carolina, in 1989, its Category 4 winds carried off nearly every roof in town, leaving homes and businesses to be flooded by torrential rain. Not since the earthquake of 1886 had the city seen such devastation, and as residents set about rebuilding, they soon realized they had another problem on their hands: a shortage of artisans trained in skills like masonry, ironwork, and plastering, necessary to repair the city's famous historic buildings.

These trades had traditionally been passed down by skilled craftsmen to their sons or apprentices, but that old system had long since been fading away. "It was a recognition that a generation of teachers had diminished," says Mayor Joe Riley, who has been in office since 1975.

The building trades had traditionally been passed down by skilled craftsmen to their sons or apprentices, but that old system was fading away.

Charleston would recover from Hugo, but city leaders, newly appreciative of high-quality craftsmanship, decided that something had to be done to prevent traditional building arts from disappearing for good. So Riley and a group of local preservationists worked together to found a college. It took a while—the first class graduated in 2009—but today the American College of the Building Arts (ACBA) is the only school in the United States to offer a bachelor's degree in traditional building trades.

Every student in the college majors in building arts, but can choose one of six specializations: architectural stone, carpentry, forged architectural iron, masonry, plasterwork, or timber framing. The college seeks to combine a traditional liberal arts curriculum with intensive crafts training, often teaching disciplines like history or math by way of the latter; for example, history is taught with an architectural history focus.


"The graduate here has learned both the art and the science of preservation and new construction," says Colby M. Broadwater III, a retired Army lieutenant general brought in as president in 2008 to apply some military discipline to the school's finances. "How to build a business, the drawing and drafting that underlies all of it … the language, the math that supports the building functions, the science of why materials fail—all of those things wrapped into a liberal arts and science education."

  Page Turn