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South Carolina school offers degree in classical building trades

Nov. 1, 2005
Charlotte Observer
By Dan Huntley
CHARLESTON - The prerequisites in this college class are simple: steel-toed boots, safety goggles and natural-fiber clothing that won't burst into flames.

Emily Waugh has the right gear -- and attitude -- for Ornamental Ironworking 101.

While her forearm is sore from beating a 2-pound forging hammer on an anvil, she's getting used to it.

"If you have the passion, it will get you past being tired. I can carry my load," she says as she watches her teacher, Jay Close, use pliers and tongs to twist a band of tomato-red iron like a stick of gum.

Waugh, 19, is one of 15 students in the inaugural class of the American College of the Building Arts -- the nation's first and only to offer a four-year degree in the classical building trades. Along with classes in architectural stone and metal, timber framing, masonry, plaster working and carpentry, students take traditional college courses in math, science and English.

But there are few things conventional about this newest college in the Carolinas: It has no dormitory or gym, and the campus consists of a warehouse/office at the former Charleston Naval Base, an 18th-century plantation and the former Charleston City Jail.

"If you're looking for a college to drink beer and go to football games, this isn't the place," joked college President David AvRutick.

The college opened at a time when there's a demand for highly skilled workers because of the resurgence of historic preservation and new construction with natural materials, such as stone.

And the school -- with its $20,000-a-year tuition and four-year curriculum -- is not for everyone.

"If your goal as a high school graduate is to not further your education and to simply lay brick in a straight line, you need not apply," said AvRutick, a former lawyer who was once an executive with HarperCollins Publishers in New York.

"However, if your goal is to get a college degree while learning the artisan skills to restore historic homes and buildings, as well as the latest construction methods for new construction, this could well be where you belong."

His goal: to have graduates build "the National Cathedrals, the universities and hospitals, the buildings that will be here for hundreds of years."

`I couldn't be happier'

Dusti Pearson, 28, of Charlotte enrolled to learn how to restore historic buildings. Three years ago, her appetite for restoration was fueled by refurbishing the portico fašade of the old Ratcliffe Building on South Tryon Street."There's just very few places nationally where you can learn the skills I was looking for; it's not something you can pick up in a book," said the West Charlotte High graduate. "I'm majoring in ornamental plastering and I went right to work in the classroom with pros here. I couldn't be happier."

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said the need for a college teaching artisan construction skills became apparent after Hurricane Hugo damaged thousands of Lowcountry historic homes and businesses in 1989.

"We just couldn't find the people with the right skills, and we ended up having to fly in skilled workers from Boston and from Europe," said Riley, a longtime preservationist and one of the college's biggest boosters. "If these skills are not taught and preserved, they die out when these older craftsmen die out."

Artisans are in short supply.

"There's a reason there's so many old buildings still standing in Europe. They were built well to begin with,'' said Marjorie Hunt of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, who is co-producing a documentary called "Good Work: Masters of the Building Arts."

"And we're beginning to emulate that tradition here in America. We need young people with the skills to build structures that last, as well as restore our historic homes and buildings,'' she said.

Longtime career goal

Waugh has known what she wanted to do since she was 16. Her epiphany came when she saw the intricate filigree iron gates of St. Michael's Episcopal Church in Charleston.

Two weeks later she met the man who built the gates, master ironworker and the college's inspiration, Philip Simmons.

Her goal after graduation is to run an iron gate business in downtown Charleston, just like her mentor.

"He doesn't brag; he just takes ordinary black iron and turns it into a thing of beauty," she said. At the college's convocation in August on the grounds of the 330-year-old McLeod Plantation and the school's future home, Waugh and Simmons helped split a stone block to celebrate the school's opening. It was a symbolic act that harked back to the European artisan schools of the Middle Ages.

The Charleston college is affiliated with Les Compagnons Du Devoir, a French tradesmen's program that dates to the 1600s. Several faculty members are graduates of Les Compagnons.

Iron artist

Simmons is a throwback to the Old World artisans who helped shape the character of this port city.His signature wrought iron gates, fences and window grills are a marriage between home security and art -- gates with elegantly designed egrets with delicate necks that seem more feather than iron.

He says he wishes there had been a trade school for him when he was a boy.

"Didn't have no school when I learned to work iron at age 13. Came here on a boat from Daniel Island," Simmons said between hammering a rhythm on his anvil -- ping-ping-BONG; ping-ping-BONG.

When he began his craft, "you just had to find someone who had the skills and work with them long enough to learn how to do it yourself. It was hard."

Simmons' work has been the subject of several books, as well as an exhibition at the Smithsonian. He has built more than 500 gates, fences, window grills and balconies along the streets and backyards of Charleston.

Atop the 10-foot driveway gate at 329 E. Bay St. is a carefully coiled iron snake, complete with a viper's tongue.

"I'm kind of proud of that one. It took me about eight days and most of that was just doing that snake; had to make it look alive and that's a hard thing," he said.

And in Charleston, it's not just an ordinary snake -- it commemorates the home of Christopher Gadsden (1724-1805), a Revolutionary War patriot whose flag carried the words of a young nation struggling for independence: "Don't Tread on Me."

`A heck of a market'

Alan Simonini, president of Simonini Builders in Charlotte, said he wished he didn't have to wait four years for the college's students to graduate, because he'd hire them today.

"There's a heck of a market for educated tradesmen; you can't get enough of them," he said.

He's had two jobs where he had to bring in workers because no one locally had the skills.

"Try to find a good wood carver who can do the millwork and trim," he said. "For high-end homes, we can get the resources to build the home; that's not the problem. The trick is finding the skilled workers to build it."

Want to Build Your Knowledge?

Call the American College of the Building Arts at (877) 283-5245
or visit its Web site at
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