This Liberal Arts College Teaches You to Work With Your Hands

Wikipedia // CC BY-SA 3.0
Wikipedia // CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikipedia // CC BY-SA 3.0

Some people are more suited to working with their hands than burrowing their noses in books all day. Sadly, these individuals are in short supply today, thanks to a lack of institutions that offer the proper training—and historic cities suffer as a result.

According to Amy Crawford over at The Atlantic's CityLab blog, Hurricane Hugo ravaged many of the old buildings in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1989. During the rebuilding process, however, locals soon realized that there were few professionals trained in traditional building trades like masonry, plasterwork, and ironwork. Who was going to repair the buildings? And what would happen if a similar disaster harmed other structures in the future?

Artisans once taught these time-honed, hands-on skills to family members or apprentices. But by the late 20th century, this vocational system had grown scarce, and advocates for historic conservation needed to conjure a solution. So in 2004, officials such as Charleston’s mayor, Joe Riley, teamed up with preservationists to found the country’s only institution of higher learning to offer students a bachelor's degree in traditional building trades.

Today, the American College of the Building Arts (ACBA) is a four-year liberal arts college that mixes practical vocational training with a broader liberal arts curriculum. Students can choose from six hands-on concentrations: architectural carpentry, plaster, timber framing, architectural stone, masonry, and forged architectural iron. Meanwhile, the “liberal arts” aspect is provided with courses such as math or history, which are taught through an architectural lens. Fittingly, the institution’s main campus is located in Charleston’s old 19th-century brick jail, which had been unused for nearly half a century until the college purchased it in 2000. Eventually, the ACBA plans to relocate to the city’s historic 1897 Trolley Barn, which once housed the city’s electric trolleys and is in the process of being restored.

The college is still finding its legs. It's brand-new—the first class graduated in 2009—and still very small. As of last spring, the ACBA had only 43 students; many of them were individuals in their early 20s who swiftly came to the realization while at other schools that they weren’t cut out for cubicle life. Meanwhile, the Post and Courier reports that the institution has encountered multiple obstacles, including budget problems and lawsuits filed by professors who said they were owed hundreds of thousands of dollars in back wages. 

But the ACBA has high hopes for the future. The school aims to attract about 180 to 200 students and gain accreditation from the National Association of Schools of Art and Design. However, one thing the school will never lack is a free—and rich—source of educational material: the many beautiful historic buildings that line Charleston’s streets.

[h/t The Atlantic]