National Trust director stops by Charleston’s trolley barn

The exterior of the Trolley Barn looks largely finished, and the American College of the Building Arts hopes to move in by late summer.

One of Charleston’s emerging preservation successes was visited recently by one of the nation’s top preservation officials.

Stephanie Meeks, director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, toured the old Trolley Barn at 645 Meeting St. to see how it is being renovated to house the American College of the Building Arts.

The college hopes to complete the $3.5 million renovation around the time its classes start this fall.

“I love seeing these big industrial buildings,” Meeks said, adding that the adaptive reuse reminded her of a recent renovation of Howard Hughes’ former airplane hangar in Los Angeles — a space now leased by Google.

She praised the city’s partnership with the school to find a new use for the long-vacated building where the city’s streetcars were once maintained.

“That’s not completely unique to Charleston, but we certainly want to see more of that public-private partnership,” she said.

College President Colby Broadwater showed Meeks how the current work essentially involves building a new building inside the old one. The weight of the new floors and walls will be supported by the ground underneath — not by the historic brick walls.

Meeks was interested not only in the building’s preservation but also the school, the nation’s only college where students focus on learning either masonry, stone carving, timber framing, carpentry, plasterwork or ironwork.

“There continues to be concern nationally about the availability of crafts people,” she said. “We see time and again that traditional crafts people are getting older, and there isn’t necessarily the formal training programs to mentor the next generation.”

She noted the National Trust for Historic Preservation created an initiative to work with disadvantaged youth on preservation crafts — an initiative known as the “HOPE Crew” for “Hands-On Preservation Experience.”

The college is working from the old city jail and a James Island warehouse, but its new home is expected to help it receive its long-sought accreditation through the National Association of Schools of Art and Design.

The eastern portion of the trolley barn, which is closest to Meeting Street, will have three floors of classrooms, meeting rooms, offices and a library. The rear portion of the building will be work areas for the six building trades.

During her visit, Meeks did more than tour the trolley barn. During an earlier address at the College of Charleston, she discussed new pathways in preservation that will guide the movement in the future.

The National Historic Preservation Act turns 50 this year, and Meeks said she expects the movement to evolve over the next 50 years in ways that extend far beyond saving older buildings.

She said future preservationists will grapple with the livability of cities, broadening the movement to ensure all stories are told and confronting climate change.

Meeks noted among the 400 units of the National Park Service, one quarter of them already have documented climate-related impacts.

“I think the preservation community is just starting to get our arms around the scale of the threat, but what do you do?” she said. “It’s clearly going to be a big issue, and I know it already is in a city like Charleston as you face flooding.”

Reach Robert Behre at (843) 937-5771 or at twitter.com/RobertFBehre.