An Education Carved in Stone
For most schools, establishing a campus in a former trolley barn would be enough to distinguish it from other colleges. But that’s not the real differentiator for the American College of the Building Arts (ACBA). The Charleston, South Carolina-based institution is the first in the country to offer four-year degrees in traditional craft specializations, including architectural stone carving.
In a world of bytes and bites, the next generation of artisans is still studying with mallets and chisels and doing its part to carry over an ancient trade to another century. In training students, ACBA is helping to preserve America’s architectural heritage while elevating the stature of what some say is an underrated profession.
An early iteration of the school was as a nonprofit, offering a series of classes and workshops in response to the devastation left by Hurricane Hugo in 1989, a category four hurricane. By one account, more than 2,000 historic structures in Charleston alone were damaged or destroyed, and it immediately became clear the armies of trained artisans needed to handle the rebuilding and restoration in its aftermath were in short supply.
The program later evolved and expanded into a degree-granting college. Seven students made up the inaugural graduating class of 2009. For the better part of its young history, most classes took place at the Old Jail in downtown Charleston. Built in 1802 and decommissioned in 1939, the jail served as a training lab in which students studied restoration and preservation methods and put them into use on parts of the building itself. The school eventually outgrew the jail and last year moved into another historic structure, a renovated trolley barn.
Enrollment is small—roughly 20 full-time students. About half skew slightly older. “They’ve been and done something,” says Simeon Warren, an architectural stone carver, dean emeritus, and teacher. “They’ve figured out what they want to do with their lives and are now coming back.” Students hail from all parts of the country but they share a belief in the worth of the work and a passion for mastering the kind of skills that leave a lasting legacy, Warren says.
ACBA offers six craft specializations including carpentry, timber framing, and architectural iron. Stone carving falls within the traditional masonry program, which provides freshmen and sophomores a foundation in the three subject areas of architectural stone, masonry, and plaster. Juniors and seniors then go on to specialize in one of the three preservation trades.
Students working in stone use largely the same methods and hand tools as those used in the original construction of Charleston’s 18th and 19th century buildings. They also master new techniques and technologies that have made the trade faster, more precise, and more efficient. Classroom and studio learning is supplemented with real-world experience by way of summer internships, both in the U.S. and abroad.
Students learn soft skills, too. Stone carving is as much about patience, concentration, and critical thinking as it is about the ability to manipulate materials.
“You can’t rush through it,” says 2017 graduate Daniella Helline. “You have to take the time, get to know the material and learn how to use your tools the right way.”
Helline, originally from Rock Hill, South Carolina, was a senior in high school when she first toured the ACBA campus. “I fell in love with it. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I’d always been creative, but I didn’t have any experience in any of the trades. I loved the fact that you could go to school where you did something with your hands every day,” she says.
One class project Helline worked on is coming to fruition, the stone carving of a double infinity window, which will be installed in the ACBA library. The design was inspired by a large stained glass rose window called the Bishop’s Eye at the Lincoln Cathedral in England, where her British-born instructor Simeon Warren once apprenticed and Helline interned.
Ask Helline what goes through her mind while she’s stone carving and she doesn’t hesitate: “Don’t mess up. Carving is a reductive trade. You’re taking away material.
You can’t mess up because you’ll see the mistakes.”
As for the future, Helline has her sights set on the past. “I love restoration. I love old buildings and the idea of being able to keep buildings alive.” She’ll be doing that in Charleston, contributing to the preservation of the city’s historic building stock.
Helline is also part of a “cultural shift that recognizes the importance of the manual labor trades,” says Warren. “Until very recently, society assigned manual work less value. But we’re coming full circle.” Handcrafted is in. Maker industries are in. And the job outlook looks bright. Warren says, “We’re losing the last generation of artisans skilled at handling restoration of the country’s aging housing stock. If we train people to build quality new work and also conserve our historic fabric at same time, not only are we building structures that will become valuable, but we’re maintaining of the legacy of what we believe in as human beings.”