Freed and Flourishing: Charleston’s Old City Jail

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Tucked away in the heart of historic Charleston, the Old City Jail stands as a reminder of the city’s past. Operational from 1802 to 1939, the walls of the jail still bear the marks and inscriptions of the city’s most infamous criminals, 19th century pirates and prisoners from the War Between the States. The walls also reflect the architectural significance of the period, including an addition to the facility designed by Robert Mills, America’s first native-born architect. Today, the Old City Jail is an official “Save America’s Treasures” project of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the White House Millennium Council.

In 2000, the American College of the Building Arts (ACBA) acquired the Old City Jail after it sat vacant for 61 years. While most of the facility’s original structures remain intact, the college immediately initiated an emergency stabilization program to meet the most urgent needs of this historic property. 

“These bars held some of Charleston’s infamous criminals, including the city’s most notorious serial killers, John and Lavinia Fisher, who were held there until their hangings on February 18, 1820.” Patra Taylor

ACBA began in 1998 when an enthusiastic team of community leaders led by Charleston native John Paul Huguley created the School of the Building Arts (SoBA) in Charleston. Inspired by legendary Charleston master artisan Philip Simmons, SoBA was established to solve the growing problem in building preservation that became evident in 1989 when Hurricane Hugo swept through Charleston, severely damaging many of the city’s historic structures.

Even though the city sought to restore these building to their historic glory by using traditional building methods and materials, it was soon discovered that despite Charleston’s commitment to historic preservation, there were only a few local craftsmen trained and qualified for the task. The lack of master craftsmen is not unique to Charleston, as quality design and craftsmanship training have been steadily declining throughout the nation. 

After the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education licensed the school to begin recruiting on July 8, 2004, the name of the institution was changed to the American College of the Building Arts to reflect more accurately its place in the American educational hierarchy. ACBA offers a four-year liberal arts education with majors in one of the construction trades-architectural metal, finish carpentry, timber framing, plaster working, masonry or architectural stone carving-taught at the college. 

ACBA also serves as the guardian of another historic property, McLeod Plantation, located across the Ashley River from historic downtown Charleston on James Island. This 40-acre remnant of what was once a large plantation will one day serve as the main campus for the college.

~Patra Taylor, Charleston Mercury

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