Work begins to convert trolley barn to building arts campus

American College of the Building Arts student Daniella Helline, a junior, splits a ceremonial stone as Mayor Joe Riley, the Rev. Alma Dungee and Lt. Gen. Colby Broadwater look on during the Charleston Trolley Barn groundbreaking ceremony Thursday.

The American College of the Building Arts is no stranger to odd campuses: During its 11-year history, it has worked from a former navy storehouse, a 19th century jail and a modest warehouse on James Island. It even once planned to move to a historic cotton plantation.

But the vacant trolley barn at 645 Meeting St. is what the college soon hopes to convert into its spacious, permanent new home — one that will open the way for its accreditation and a significant expansion of its student body.

On Thursday, College President Colby Broadwater and board chair Pierre Manigault joined Charleston Mayor Joe Riley to mark the start of a $3.5 million renovation that will convert the cavernous but leaky brick building into a mix of classrooms, offices, a library and work areas for teaching masonry, plaster, stone carving, carpentry, timber framing and ironwork.

Manigault also is the chairman of Evening Post Industries, which owns The Post and Courier.

As rain poured through a few sections of the roof and puddled around the feet of more than 100 onlookers, Broadwater said HITT Contracting Inc. is expected to finish work in about a year, and that will allow the college to consolidate its campus in the city.

Riley alluded to the school’s difficult past but noted that many successful institutions today had humble, often difficult beginnings.

“The American College of the Building Arts will give to America something that does not now exist,” he said. “And that’s what a great city does. You give things to others and to the country.”

Riley also credited the school’s supporters, including the Manigault family, and noted the new campus also was made possible by a complex set of real estate deals between the city, the college and a private developer, Parallel Capital.

The developer gave the college $1.75 million and will retain the northern portion of the trolley barn site, which it eventually plans to use for offices, dormitory housing and business space. It also received a dilapidated school office at 11½ St. Philip St., and the Old City Jail property once the college moves into its new home.

Broadwater said the college has raised about $2.5 million toward the building project and hopes to raise another $1 million soon. Once complete, the trolley barn will look largely like it does now, except for a glass wall facing Meeting Street and filling the massive opening where trolleys once entered and exited.

Aside from helping the college, the trolley barn rehabilitation will help breathe new life into a part of the city that has seen relativity little new development.

The need for the college was noted shortly after Hurricane Hugo, when preservationists became alarmed by how few craftsmen had the knowledge to repair the city’s historic buildings. The college was licensed in 2004 but is still seeking accreditation through the National Association of Schools of Art and Design.

Broadwater said the new campus will greatly help the college’s accreditation application, which he expects to submit in February. “They don’t like our facilities in the old jail,” he said. The barn’s 39,000 square feet also is several times larger.

Currently, the college has about 43 students and is graduating its seventh class soon. Broadwater said he expects 55 to 60 students in the fall, but with a new building and accreditation, which will make its students eligible for federal loans, it soon could reach its goal of teaching about 180 to 200 students.

Meanwhile, Riley also announced a new program to provide unskilled workers — but not college students — basic training in carpentry, masonry and plastering. The program will start in September and will be run by the Greater Charleston Empowerment Corporation, the college and the Historic Charleston Foundation.

Broadwater said during his early years at the college — around the start of the Great Recession in 2008 — the goal was simply to ensure the institution survived.

“Now the goal is building the college,” he said.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.