The American College of the Building Arts

The American College of the Building Arts (ACBA), located in Charleston, South Carolina, was founded in 1999 to educate student-artisans in the preservation and restoration of historic structures. Students complete a liberal arts curriculum that comprises academic courses with hands-on work in the traditional trades of blacksmithing, plaster, masonry and stone, architectural carpentry, and timber framing. Without these artisan skills being passed along, many of our nation’s historic structures would deteriorate beyond salvation or be damaged by poor repairs.

In 2018, 2019, and 2020, ACBA faculty and students worked on several projects that preserve South Carolina’s architectural and cultural heritage. These include:

 

Preservation of Hutchinson House, Edisto Island, South Carolina
From January through May 2018, twenty-six sophomores under the direction of Professor Christina Rae Butler, M.A. created a preliminary preservation plan for the Hutchinson House on Edisto Island. This house, built circa 1886 by former enslaved island resident Henry Hutchinson, is one of the first and most intact houses associated with the African American community on Edisto Island after emancipation. Hutchinson House is on the National Register (1987) because it is a rare intact vernacular cottage constructed by newly freed people during Reconstruction. Never modernized, the house represents its time period well. In 2016, the house was purchased by the Edisto Island Open Land Trust (EIOLT), which hopes to use it as a museum. The students did comprehensive research, including conducting chains of title and biographical research on the owners, and compiling historic plats and maps to document the evolution of the site. They then made construction/repair assessments and created a preservation plan.

 

Obstacles to their work: Hutchinson House’s design is based on local traditions, not professional design, so there are no construction drawings and fewer documents than are typically found for elite-owned or high-style buildings. The students had to think critically about the region’s context and carefully analyze the construction and materials to enable EIOLT to understand its history and evolution. Second, this house is a rural property, so public records such as building permits don’t exist. Third, Henry Hutchinson and other freed slaves were generally left out of written records. This forced students to look for information in many places, for example, the Freedmen’s Bureau bank records.

 

Informed by the students’ plan, a group consisting of architect Simons Young, preservationist Hillary King, structural engineer John Moore and historic preservation builder Guyton Ash(former ACBA faculty member) set out to address the challenges of restoring such a fragile building. The main challenge for the on-site team—ACBA interns and graduates—was to figure out a way to stabilize the building and avoid taking it apart. They sought to leave as much as possible of the historic fabric in place. Ash took the innovative approach of installing a protective exterior halo and interior temporary walls that enabled exterior restoration around them. The exterior restoration was completed in November 2020.

Gravestone Restoration Project, Circular Congregational Church, Charleston
From 2017 to 2019, students majoring in architectural stone masonry worked under the direction of then-faculty member Simeon Warren to repair graveyard structures for Circular Congregational Church. Its graveyard is Charleston’s oldest burial ground, with monuments dating from 1695. Many were at the point of failure. Earlier repairs done with improper techniques or materials had done more harm than good. This graveyard has several examples of well-intended but failing repairs done a generation ago.

Warren and his students overcame numerous obstacles, including financial (a grant was obtained to pay for materials), safety while working around failing crypt walls and broken marble tops (Warren used a temporary frame to jack up a marble slab so the brick walls could be rebuilt) and ensuring historically accurate repair (students assessed which materials were original and which were later repairs, then used traditional-arts materials and techniques to stay as true as possible to the original structure).

 

In one project, two students rebuilt a crumbling pre-Revolutionary War crypt from its foundation to the brick walls to the broken marble roof. The students also repaired a marble box crypt that had been damaged by Halloween vandals. In another, four students repaired a tomb made of pre-Revolutionary War limestone. Damaged by water and sinking into the ground, the tomb had to be dismantled and rebuilt from foundation to top using historically accurate materials (lime mortar) but also stainless-steel pins to achieve longer-term stability. In a third project, students repaired a slate dated 1760 and rebuilt its foundation. This slate marks the grave of a member of the family of Richard Hutson, who became Charleston’s first intendant (mayor) in 1783.

In addition, Warren presented a workshop for the public in grave preservation and began a website for the church that will share its gravestone information. All of these projects were completed no later than the Fall of 2019.

 

Other restoration projects:

Fort Sumter National Monument (1829). In the summer of 2018, students worked along the fort’s gorge wall and right flank, moving Portland cement repairs from the 1990s that had ultimately caused even further damage to the exterior brick. They then repointed the joints using a more historically sympathetic natural cement mortar that will be less damaging to the brick while still easily withstanding the wear caused by ocean and weather.

Historic Brattonsville. 2020 Student Guild President and Valedictorian Jennifer Sustar designed masons’ scaffolding for Historic Brattonsville in McConnells, S.C., showing how scaffolding was used to build historic brick structures. She also wrote a paper on late 19th century sanitary and technological developments impacting Wisconsin dairy barns that she hopes will be the impetus for a larger survey project.

 

Conclusion:

ACBA was founded for the purpose of training highly skilled, educated artisans who can preserve, repair and restore our nation’s architectural and historical treasures, while creating new work for future generations to come. These are just a few examples of the projects on which they have been working during the period outlined in the Preservation Awards Call for Nominations.