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Behre: How Charleston’s American College of Building Arts thrived through COVID

American College of the Building Arts

The lobby of the American College of Building Arts, which occupies the old trolley barn on Meeting Street in Charleston. Robert Behre/Staff

The American College of the Building Arts made a wrenching decision last May, as schools and colleges all over the world struggled to find their way forward during the pandemic.

It became one of South Carolina's first schools to bring its students back to campus. The decision was controversial; after all, while the pandemic's first wave had ebbed, it was far from over.

But the decision was also understandable: The college's entire reason for being is to develop not only students' minds but also their hands — more specifically how minds and hands can work together to create something unique on our landscape. Videoconferencing apps such as Zoom can teach only so much if the lesson is how to bend metal over a coal fire, join timbers so they properly fit or perfect a plaster cornice.

While the college traces its history to Hurricane Hugo in 1989, after which preservationists realized how few crafts people were around to do proper historic repairs, others had foreseen this problem coming two decades before, specifically in the 1968 Whitehill report on professional and public education submitted to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Most modern instruction can occur in a distanced fashion, provided teachers and students are motivated. But this college was founded to teach something tactile: the art and technique of historic building trades such as working with wood, plaster, timber, iron and stone.

Its relatively small size and lack of a dormitory made it easier to massage COVID concerns among students and faculty, and it returned to in-person teaching without any outbreak or significant quarantines.

Let's face it. It's an institution used to struggling — and prevailing. Its first decade was marked by low enrollments, an Odyssean search for a permanent campus and a struggle to develop and market its novel academic brand. In recent years, however, things have fallen into place as the college moved into Charleston's old Trolley Barn on Meeting Street, a vast, historic, flexible space that in turn helped it achieve accreditation.

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One of COVID's challenges was that it delayed perhaps its most significant piece of national publicity so far. The PBS NewsHour put together a 7-minute-long feature of the college before the pandemic began, but the piece didn't run until last fall.

After it finally aired, inquiries poured in from across the country, even from Europe. "I got calls from people thanking me for the college's existence, basically," says Chief Academic Officer Wade Razzi. "It's just a dynamic process: The more people find out about you, the more they find out about you."

The office of the architect of the U.S. Capitol has sent a delegation to tour the school. Like many involved in preserving significant historic buildings, its officials are well aware of the difficulty in finding a new generation of skilled artisans. And Canada recently forged a partnership with the school that's expected to bring in its first international students.

Meanwhile, its students and graduates are helping to preserve important structures in Charleston and beyond, most recently the historic Henry Hutchinson House on Edisto Island.

The college's enrollment is up to 92; the school had hoped to hit 100 already and feels it's certain to this fall. Still, the college is even more eager to tout the number of its graduates working in their chosen field. When it last checked, 46 of its 47 graduates were working in their fields.

The other? She was on maternity leave.

Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771. Follow him on Twitter @RobertFBehre.

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