Colby Broadwater: The Military Man Who Took Charge of the Building Arts

Retired Army Lt. General Colby Broadwater is president of the American College of the Building Arts, where there is evidence of past and present meeting, even in classrooms that are lined with lead left from when the building housed the Old City Jail in Charleston.
Photo by: Grace Beahm/staff/The Post and Courier

The American College of the Building Arts, which had made the Old City Jail on Magazine Street its base, couldn’t manage its $3 million budget. It owned too much property. It was stuck in expensive service contracts it couldn’t afford. It was struggling to pay salaries. And all the while, it was trying to improve its academic position so it might become an accredited institution.When he got there, retired Army Lt. Gen. Colby Broadwater faced a few problems.

“All of that is just business in a different context,” he said.

So in April 2008, he took command. The Building Arts board figured it would take two years to turn things around. Five months later, the Great Recession struck, slowing down Broadwater’s efforts to achieve stability.

But he and his team did it. The budget was slashed to $1.5 million and has remained balanced since 2010, contracts were canceled, new partnerships forged. Accreditation is well under way (it’s needed to qualify for government funding), and the school has received high marks for its mixed curriculum. The freshman class is the biggest it’s ever been, with 25 recruits eagerly pursuing a variety of crafts such as plastering, masonry, stone carving, ironworking, timber framing, carpentry and more.

“This year should be a high point,” Broadwater said.

Simeon Warren, dean of the college, said it has taken a decade to reach the cusp of accreditation. The school had its beginnings in 2001 and opened its doors in 2005. In seven years, enrollment has grown to about 50 students. (It takes at least 80 students before tuition can cover operating costs, Broadwater noted.)

Most of the staff and faculty are young and likely to be around for a while, Warren said.

“It’s good to have a leader who provides a stable influence on the institution,” he said. “It’s good to have an experienced leader at the top.”

White Gold

Broadwater, 62, was born at Fort Benning, Ga., and graduated from The Citadel in 1972 with a field artillery commission. His father was a career Army officer who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, retiring as a colonel. His grandfather served, too. His son, Marshall, a captain in the Green Berets, just returned from Afghanistan.

He married a Lowcountry girl, Jane Mason, who grew up in Summerville (her mother still lives there). His mom and three sisters are in Columbia along with Jane’s sister. So as his military career wound down, it was pretty obvious where the couple would settle.

“Jane’s intention always was to return to Charleston,” he said.

But before retiring from the Army in 2006, Broadwater accomplished a few things. He got his start at Fort Bragg and did two tours in Europe, where he commanded two batteries as brigade operations officer.

He worked up to chief of staff of the U.S. European Command and commanding general of the 1st Army and U.S. Army-NATO, helping to develop a new training regimen for an Army that he said was “ill-disciplined, untrained, lacking qualified noncommissioned officers” after the Vietnam War.

Broadwater witnessed the transformation of the Army from its early volunteer days after the war to the professional, high-tech body of soldiers it would become in time for Desert Shield-Desert Storm.

He fell in love with old houses many years ago in northeastern Mississippi near Columbus, where a beautiful old mansion stood vacant except when used as a lodge by hunters. His father had been posted to the area to support West Point reservists.

When someone bought the old place and restored it, the newspapers tracked the progress — and so did Broadwater. He had been seduced by the art of restoration.

Years ago while living at Fort Hood, Texas, a friend who ran an antiques shop got Broadwater interested in French porcelain. He needed some to flesh out his home, full of American Federal furniture, when he decided to open it to the public for tours.

Soon he was a collector with an eye ever open for 18th- and 19th-century “white gold.”

Today, his collection includes hundreds of pieces: cups and saucers purchased in Houston; a coffee pot, creamer and sugar bowl bought in Europe. He frequents flea markets and antiques stores, putting together sets little by little.

His prize porcelain possession is a dinner service featuring Marie Antoinette’s favorite design: the cornflower.

‘The Main Thing’

At the college, the size of the library has doubled, and donated volumes have tripled its inventory. Classrooms have been added. The school has its sights on an industrial building on Upper Meeting Street, where its work studios might soon be located.

All of this helps teachers implement what they call an integrated curriculum. This means that when they study classical Greek architecture, they are reading the Greek myths and learning about Greek politics and government. When they learn about ironworking, they are introduced to the artisanship of blacksmiths such as Philip Simmons. When teaching students how to hammer together a theater-in-the-round, they read Shakespeare.

“So when someone leaves here, he understands why the Globe Theatre was built that way and why Shakespeare wrote the way he did,” Broadwater said.

Cameron Wright, a 19-year-old sophomore, is specializing in carpentry. He said he learned about the College of Building Arts a few years ago when students and faculty from the college were in his hometown of Columbus, Ga., to work on the windows of an old mill.

“The city fell in love with the school” because of the fine work it did, Wright said. His family was in the construction business, and Wright intended to join the home-building trade. When he was asked to consider attending the College of Building Arts on scholarship, he jumped at the chance.

Jared Wilson, a 22-year-old junior, wants to be a timber framer. He had attended some college and held a few construction jobs, but it’s traditional joinery and compound roof systems that get his blood flowing, he said.

“I like the idea of working with larger timbers.”

Ever since he was a kid, the topic interested him. He was an avid Lego and Lincoln Log innovator, he said.

He heard about the college through word of mouth in 2010 and knew that’s where he’d go. And he doesn’t regret it, Wilson said. The teachers are also tradesmen, and everyone works together well. Since classrooms interact and often join forces, students gain a better understanding of each others’ work.

“It gives you a broad vision of what you want to do,” he said.

The two young men said they appreciate Broadwater’s leadership. He interacts a lot with students, they said.

“It seems like he’s really focused on getting the school better,” Wright said.

James Waddell, vice president of operations and finance, works closely with Broadwater.

“He’s very straightforward,” Waddell said. “There is no question about what he wants to get done. … My job is to get it done.”

The two men met at The Citadel, and they were in Germany at the same time, “but I never knew he was there,” Waddell said. So there was a 38-year gap that closed a few years ago when Waddell came to the college, first as a volunteer and then as a full-time staffer.

Now, each Tuesday, the general presides over the all-staff meeting, sharing his vision.

“He’s a long-range thinker,” Waddell said. “He brings up topics the rest of the staff has to think about.”

And so they do. But what they think about most is the mission.

“Our job is to educate artisans on skills that are disappearing, and to help them find work and make a difference in their communities,” he said. “That’s the main thing.”

Reach Adam Parker (The Post and Courier) at 937-5902. Follow him at www.facebook.com/aparkerwriter.

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