CURRENTLY OPERATING out of the Old City Jail in downtown Charleston, S.C., The American College of the Building Arts (ACBA) graduates its first class, of 11 students, next spring. The new accredited college teaches the crafts of architectural stonework, timber framing, plaster work, carpentry, masonry, and ironwork. Hatched in the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo in 1999, ACBA aims to rebuild the ranks of building artisans. “We're creating craftspeople not just for historic, but for contemporary building as well,” says Simeon Warren, who is dean of the college and also teaches architectural stonework.
ACBA wants to build a new campus on McLeod Plantation, a 38-acre site on St. James Island in Charleston, and a team of 17 students from the Preservation Studio at the University of Miami School of Architecture has proposed how the college could occupy the site. In the New Urbanist tradition of their school (led by dean Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk), the students' plan marries adaptive reuse with historically sensitive new construction and a mixed-use urban village.
The University of Miami students proposed that ACBA students would use their expertise to preserve McLeod's historic buildings and construct new ones, modeled on the Carolina vernacular, on the southern edge of the property's fields. Six original slave cabins would open as museums to the public. Restored fields and gardens would recall the agricultural history of the region with live crops. Restoring the path to the main house would reestablish the original main entry to the property. New workshops would resemble barns, but with a steel frame (to meet seismic and hurricane requirements), corrugated aluminum, and glass. Parking lots now on the west side of the property would become McLeod Village, a New Urbanist community with a historic character similar to downtown Charleston.
It's uncertain whether much from the students' plan will get built, given the sensitive nature of the site and the strong preservation culture in Charleston. “There are a lot of people who love McLeod Plantation just the way it is, and they don't want to see anything happen to it,” says Robert Miller, one of the architects working on developing the site with the college. He admits the controversy sounds strange, given the college's preservation mission. “People from all around the country would have a hard time understanding the peculiarities of the preservation culture in Charleston,” says Miller.
ACBA purchased McLeod Plantation in 2004, after the McLeod family bequeathed it to the Historic Charleston Foundation. Surviving from the 19th century are the six slave cabins, a burial ground for former slaves, farm buildings, a main house that was updated in the 1920s, and landscaped gardens. Despite the site's intact historic buildings, the Historic Charleston Foundation deemed it unsuitable for use as a public museum, in part because of its incongruous surroundings: on one side is Wappoo Creek, but on the others are a country club, busy Folley Road, a strip mall, and the parking lot of a Piggly Wiggly grocery store.
The U. Miami students were drawn to McLeod Plantation by their studio professor, Joanna Lombard, who heard about ACBA's expansion plans from her former student William Bates, now a professor of architectural drawing and design at the college. The U. Miami students started their project two years ago by visiting McLeod, on their own dime, and documenting existing conditions. “You try to tell a story with a map,” says Lombard, who led the project. “It's not just showing you the site, it's showing you what happens when you cross the creek.” Lombard estimates that, if the drawings had been done by an office, billable hours would hover around $100,000.
“This is a beautiful plan, but the goal is never for this college to be huge,” says Bates. In fact, since 2006, ACBA has decided to locate only part of its campus at McLeod Plantation. “Because it's a historic site, we're not going to impact it that much,” says Warren, adding that the students' plan has “allowed us to see the possibilities.”
In the year ahead, Miller and architect Glenn Keyes will be developing a master plan for the site, to be followed by public discussion through the Board of Architectural Review in Charleston. After that, the college will enter a capital campaign to raise about $20 million. “That will probably take five, 10, maybe even 20 years,” says Warren..