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The Jail Birds and the Building Artisans

Education, Event, Uncategorized

Posted by Phoebe Willis, Educator

staffMost people want to break out of jail, but some members of the Drayton Hall Interpretation staff wanted to break into the jail –that is the Old City Jail in Charleston, SC. So, we asked Tim Chesser, a part-time interpreter at Drayton Hall, and full-time professor of English and Communications at the American College of the Building Arts (ACBA) in Charleston to arrange a tour of the jail. ACBA is the only school in the United States which offers a degree program in traditional building arts.

jailNow, this is not your average old jail. The current building was constructed in 1802 and has housed a few pirates, lots of Union and Confederate prisoners of war, your standard and hardened criminals and even black sailors who, between 1822 and 1865, were housed there while in port. During the 1886 earthquake, the doors were opened and the prisoners were given an “early release”. The Work House, which was on the eastern side of the present structure, was demolished after the quake due to structural damage. As punishment, owners would often send rebellious slaves to the workhouse.

This illustrious old building now serves as one of two campuses for the college and is a work-in-progress for the students who are engaged in obtaining a Bachelor’s or Associate’s degree in Applied Science in one of six building arts. They are learning how to frame, plaster, join and shape wood, metal and stone using almost forgotten techniques. Not only did we receive a guided tour of the building, but the second year students demonstrated their individual crafts and explained their academic schedules.

ironwork2The metal workers explained their project of restoring the gates on the front side of the building. We learned that iron is no longer used in ornamental metal working – steel has taken its place.

stoneworkStone masons demonstrated how they prepare measured drawings and then create templates before beginning to carve. We saw a mantelpiece so delicate that you might have thought it was a pencil sketch. Of course, “eggs and darts” were there too.

carpentryCarpenters begin by learning to frame with modern lumber and then branch out into traditional methods of framing and joining. The students showed us two methods of constructing a log structure and an example of framing created using salvaged timbers and traditional tools.

Plastering is another area of study and the day before our visit to the jail, we enjoyed a brown bag presentation by ACBA students about the replication of the ceiling in the Great Hall at Drayton. This presentation is the subject of a previous blog.

Our final student, who is studying architectural metal working, explained the academic side of the course work. Yes, they have to study English Literature, history and geometry, but they also must take drawing and drafting, preservation and Spanish.

All of the hard work on crafts projects and hours of study paid off for eight students on May 1, 2009, when seven received bachelor’s degrees and one received an associate. This was the first graduating class and the ceremony was held in Washington Park whose fence the students had helped to repair.

We are grateful to the students and faculty of ACBA who shared their studies and the Old Jail with us. If you would like to stroll by the jail, it is located at 21 Magazine Street in downtown Charleston, SC. The building is not open to the public during the day, but is included on ghost tours offered by some tour companies. For more information about the college, please visit their web site.