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South Carolina College Teaches Old-School Trades

Modern US College Teaches Ancient Craftsmanship
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South Carolina College Teaches Old-School Trades
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The sounds of artists at work fill workshops at the American College of the Building Arts in Charleston, South Carolina.

In the college’s Iron shop, Alex Fisher is busy making the surface of an iron door handle smooth and shiny. Nearby Jeremiah Price and others use heat to soften the metal in their door handles and bend them into shape.

In another area, a group of young men measure, cut and sand wood to build workbenches for future projects.

A disappearing art

The students at this private, one-of-a-kind college all want to be employed as artisans one day. Working in a building that once housed streetcars, they are part of an intense, hands-on program that trains them in traditional European building trades.

Steven Fancsali had earned a college degree in architectural design and worked as a designer for four years before he learned about the school on a television program.

“I saw the school on a TV show and my thought was ‘well I wish I had known about this 10 years ago when I was actually looking at schools.' And I decided to just make a change and come here.”

So Fancsali asked about studying at the non-profit school, got accepted, and moved from Chicago to Charleston.

Rising phoenix

The school was founded after Hurricane Hugo hit the southeastern United States in 1989. The storm damaged or destroyed many of Charleston's historic homes and buildings.

After Hugo left, there was an urgent need for experienced artisans who knew how to rebuild the city. But there were not enough of them.

So in 1999, a group of South Carolinians laid the groundwork that led to the founding of the American College of the Building Arts (ACBA). It is the first -- and only -- four-year college in the country to offer such a program in traditional craftsmanship.

Building arts skills

ACBA’s president is Colby Broadwater, a retired lieutenant general. He says the school is one of a kind, “because we have blended a liberal arts education -- the critical thinking aspect of that -- with a skill set that we teach of six different skilled areas.”

Students get to work with people like Arnaud Le Rouzic. He trained at Les Compagnons du devoir, a French organization made up of craftsmen and artisans who learn skills dating from Europe’s Middle Ages.

He told VOA, “I came here to share my knowledge and my experience with the younger generation of artisans.” ​

Community involvement

Students also have chances to work outside the college, on local community projects.

Broadwater says a sense of community is important to the college.

“We touch so many places and so many people. Public projects that enhance the beauty of this city or state. The students are proud of actually producing something.That's why they came here. And so they can sit there and say, I made that!”

He, too, is very pleased with what his students have done and the school's 100 percent job placement record.

Historic treasures

ACBA students have built seats and shelters for local bus stops. They have made large ovens for cooking pizza. And they even repaired the ironwork on gates created by Philip Simmons, a Charleston ironwork artisan and one of the school’s founders.

Restoring historic treasures

ACBA student Stephen Clark spent two months of his summer working in Washington, D.C. He helped to repair the home that former President Abraham Lincoln used as a summer getaway during America's Civil War.

Clark says he will never forget working on the home of one America's most famous presidents.

ACBA students also work overseas. One person who completed the program is now working at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France. He is helping to rebuild the 850-year-old building, which suffered major damage in a fire earlier this year.

Thirty years after Hurricane Hugo, the city of Charleston is growing. But should disaster strike again, members of its artisan community are well prepared to help rebuild and restore.

I’m Jonathan Evans.

Julie Taboh reported this story for VOA. George Grow adapted the story for Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.

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Words in This Story

workshop – n. a place where things are produced or repaired

degree – n. an honor awarded by a college or university after completion of a study program

blend – v. to combine; to join together

enhancev. to improve in value or quality

proudadj. feeling or showing great satisfaction with something