As Google gobbles up part of Goose Creek with its new data processing center, the history-loving Lowcountry may finally be entering the 21st century. But a small, highly specialized section of Charleston’s workforce isn’t ready to go high-tech just yet.
While the city’s venerable structures are a magnet for
renovators and building experts, several trades that have little to do with architecture are still being plied by a few stubborn
artisans. They’re soft-spoken, hard-working, and have a yen
for their jobs that Santa Claus would envy.
These skilled craftsmen and women range from a headstone conservator to knife makers, canvas designers, and a quarry’s worth of stonemasons. Others go one better than following a general trade and have found a tiny, well-worn niche for themselves. Cars may have replaced horses long ago as our most popular mode of transport, but tell that to the farriers who make horseshoes for their stable of clients on Johns Island.
The rest of the metal work is left up to the blacksmiths in town. They have their own specialties, too. Old Charleston Forge and The Ironie of It pander to a decorative, visitor-driven market; other smiths like Sean Ahern are busy creating scrollwork with intense and unique sculptural detail, as well as wall panels, fireplaces, and more traditional gates.
Artisans like Ahern are part skilled tradesmen, part artists. Last year at the City Gallery at Waterfront Park, that blend was made clear in a MOJA exhibition called Forging Spirits, which featured finely sculpted metal pieces by Floridian Yaw Owusu Shangofemi, a one-time apprentice of local legend Philip Simmons.
Simmons is the undisputed leader of the local artisan pack, with 70 years of ornamental blacksmithing under his belt. A certified master of his craft, he’s a highly respected winner of the state’s highest awards, a Smithsonian National Folk Treasure, and a one-man tourist attraction with hundreds of examples of his work threading through the city. Without Simmons, Charleston’s three-semester-old American College of the Building Arts might not even be a going concern. It cites The Master as direct inspiration, and Simmons’ attention to detail, work ethic, and strength of character have left an imprint in the minds of many local journeymen. They feel they still have a place in our era of mass production. Don’t confuse them with the arts and crafts set — what they create is built to last for generations.
Iron Man Sean Ahern
Ahern’s Anvil sizzles with blue heat and red sparks, which fly from a large workbench to the ceiling of a cavernous workshop just off Morrison Drive on the peninsula. Sean Ahern applies his artistic eye to a length of iron while a large room fan struggles to compete with the springtime warmth pushing in through the open door.
Next to the workbench, a power hammer stands beside an anvil, sitting on an old tree stump. Traditional blacksmith’s tongs and hammers line the wall. According to Sean Ahern, owner of the Anvil, his methods aren’t as anachronistic as they might seem.
“Back in the old days they used coal, now we use propane,” he admits. “The tools and the anvil are the same. Power hammers have been around since the 1800s.” All the same, not every city could provide steady work for a smithy. Even in a historically-minded joint like Charleston, people are shocked when they hear what Ahern does for a living. “They don’t think this trade exists any more,” he grins. “Because of the modern world, you can go anywhere and just buy what you need.”
Ahern prides himself on giving every single client a unique product. “I’m an artisan. I do everything that a traditional blacksmith would do except shoe horses.”
Ahern designs 95 percent of all his custom ironwork, trying to take a different approach every time. He uses a 62 Church Street gate as an example. “It’s not going to be anywhere else, not Upstate New York. I don’t mass produce anything.”
Ahern’s office walls, drawing board, and desk drawers brim with tidily drafted designs. Some are examples of work he’s already completed, others are preparation for jobs he’s about to take on. One design is for an archbishop’s house in Atlanta, another for condos in Antigua, West Indies. But there’s plenty of local work to keep him busy, too: a double arched entranceway to Park Circle in North Charleston; furniture for the new MUSC building; a steel fireplace, dining room wall, and wine cellar gate at the Red Drum Restaurant in Mt. Pleasant, and a whole gaggle of gates for private residents.
Think “Charleston-style gates,” and the scrollwork common to the downtown area comes to mind, yet Ahern’s noticed a change in recent years. “Charleston’s also opening up, getting a little modernized. There are new people coming in with different ideas. I try to keep the traditional style while giving it a little twist. Bring in some iron charm.” One gate with a bundle of cattails and sweetgrass helps to give the cold iron a warm Lowcountry motif.
The 31-year-old Ahern doesn’t feel intimidated by his old-fashioned role in modern society. “I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. It makes me feel good — the satisfaction of designing, finishing, and thinking, ‘Wow, I made that,’ handing it over to a client. It never gets old.”
For anyone who’s been woken from a Saturday night bar binge by the peeling chimes of Chucktown’s churches, Stan Christoph is their worst enemy. He casts bronze bells, the bigger the better, and sells carillons, tower clocks, and digital bells.
In February, Christoph teamed up with the French Paccard Bellfoundry to sell their products. Behind the wheel of a mobile furnace, his staff also delivers. But what kind of ding-a-ling would order a mammoth “Bell Casting Experience” nowadays?
“They’re not bells for towers so much as for symbolic display,” says Christoph. “We provide it for a big grand opening or the 100th anniversary of a company — they’re buying an event and they end up with a unique bell.” It takes two days to melt the bronze ingots, pour the liquid into a mold, sandblast the bell, and polish it. According to Christoph, the tradition and process haven’t changed much in centuries.
“It’s a very European thing. Historically, bell founders were primarily in the low countries of Europe and France.” The craftsmen would go to a location such as a church courtyard, dig a pit, and cast a bell there. These days the only thing missing is the digging, thanks to the portable furnace.
Since he buys most of his bells from the Paccard Bellfoundry, Christoph is genuinely excited by the prospect of a casting experience and he hopes that the next generation will get a buzz out of it, too.
“One of our objectives is to bring young people in,” he acknowledges. “The average age of my staff is mid-40s. We’re looking for people who are not just salesmen or technicians, but both. It’s possible to make good money.”
The foundry may be trying to inject fresh blood into the company and has certainly adapted with the times; if churches want electronic instruments, they can deliver. But it’s those big, loud, hangover-haranguing bronze bells that really turn them on. “Real cast bells have a certain tug on the heart,” says Christoph. “I feel blessed every time I go to work — I have a deep love for this.”
Mary May has lived in Charleston for eight years. She has a wood and stone carving workshop and collaborates with local furniture makers to produce altars and pulpits for churches, fireplace mantels, and just about anything else you can nail down.
Her pedigree is pure — she studied with Greek master carver Konstantinos Papadakis, trained in London and Cambridge, England, and carved the capitals for the columns in the 21st-century version of the Globe Theatre in London.
“Because of the traditional buildings around here, it’s a very good place for what I do,” says May, who balances sculpting work with restoration projects. She tried to make a living doing the same thing in Missouri for a while but found that it wasn’t conducive to be in a small town in the middle of nowhere. “I was too far away from any large town areas where people understood what I was doing,” she says. “Here, a lot more people appreciate this line of work.”
Switching back and forth between jobs and materials helps keep May’s work interesting. “Aside from the traditional architectural work, reproductions of Charleston rice beds and Philadelphia highboys are very popular. Then there’s church furniture — I do a lot of carvings in them.”
In a culture where you can nip down to a furniture store and pick out a good-looking dresser in a snap, May finds that she’s constantly having to educate people about the time and costs involved in her carving. The price tag can be hard for people to accept, especially since her materials — mahogany’s often on the menu — are getting harder to come by. On the plus side, they’re encouraged to watch her work. As with Ahern’s creations, they can see their property crafted from scratch.
“Sometimes my clients want to see a work in progress, check on it, and have some input,” May says. “They’re always fascinated to see how my tools work. I’m kind of a purist; I stick with hand tools, chisels, mallets. I try to keep it as traditional as possible.”
May’s fascinated by the idea of introducing traditional art into our fast-paced society. “You can slow the pace down with it a little,” she smiles.
May acknowledges that she’s practicing a dying art, but hopes it won’t always be that way. “The problem is you have to go out there and let people know it’s available in the first place. I hope it won’t die out, that’s why I teach — trying to carry it on through the next generation by finding those people who love it as much as I do. I still wake up every morning and say, ‘Oh goodie, I get to go to work today.’ ”
Unlike Sean Ahern or Mary May, canvas maker Bridgett Lyle has no fancy website. She’s not even listed in the phone book. But like the ’80s TV mercenaries on the A-Team, if you need her badly enough she can be found. Her faith in word-of-mouth business suits her age-old calling and her belief in herself as an artist.
“What I do is a lost art,” she says from her shop on Industrial Avenue in North Charleston. Her workplace is in an old barn that used to be part of an old chemical plant. “I don’t cookie-cut anything. It’s a really specialized job — I hand sew everything, I don’t get things made in Taiwan.”
Lyle manufactures canvas and enclosures for buildings as well as boats, but she draws the line at cars. “I stick to what I do best. I like to do things myself. I don’t take on too much work and I warranty all my workmanship.”
Although her work can be seen in houses and restaurants like The Boathouse downtown, Lyle is most conscious of her responsibility to boaters, designing an integral part of their vessels. No one wants to be left sail-less and stranded at sea. That extends to enlightening potential customers, even if they end up spending their dough elsewhere.
“It’s a huge responsibility above and beyond guaranteeing the work,” she says. “Sun, salt, the elements can break things down. A lot of companies cut corners but I always ask: if I were on a boat, how would I want it to work for me?”
Lyle’s knowledge of the effects of different climates on a boat comes partly from a three-year stint with a U.S. team racing for the America’s Cup. These days, running her ‘Fore and Aft Canvas’ company is excitement enough.
“No boat’s the same, everything’s a challenge. Every day’s a new adventure because I’m finding new things out, whole new concepts. The other day I made slipcovers out of towels. Right now I’m working on cushions and next week it’s a multi-hulled boat. I definitely couldn’t do anything else.”
Since she acknowledges that she’s practicing a dwindling art, do any newbies stand a chance in this antiquated, highly specialized field? Lyle thinks so, although good trainees are hard to find. “I’d like to hire an apprentice, but people think they can easily get into this line of work,” she says. But if they stick with it and get hooked by the craft, she believes that they’ll discover her secret. “Be excited about what you’re doing, do it to the best of your ability and you’ll be happy.”
Simeon Warren is a local stone carver, Dean of the American College of the Building Arts, and a professor of architectural stone carving. The ACBA is a nationally recognized institute based at the Old City Jail on Magazine Street. Although it’s been running for only three semesters, interest in artisan education and building restoration isn’t all that sudden. When Hurricane Hugo hit in 1989 and had its wicked way with some of Charleston’s oldest structures, it highlighted the dearth of skilled artisans to repair the damage. Warren traces the educational process even further back, to a National Trust report in the late ’60s that found craft education was in dire need of a shake-up.
“They said that there was a national emergency to put in place a system to train craftspeople,” Warren says, “and it’s still not happening. But there’s a realization that buildings are falling down and we have to restore them.” A few magnet schools have sprung up across the country and Warren hopes that eventually they will act as seed schools for the ACBA.
“Only true craftspeople can create good buildings that last 100 years instead of 20 or 30 years,” he says. Above all, Warren takes a long-term approach to his work. Before immigrating to the US in 2001, he worked on historic buildings in his native England. These included the 800-year-old Wells and Lincoln Cathedrals, making a long term fix-up of the McLeod Plantation on James Island seem like a blink of an eye.
Now that the ACBA is committed to using the plantation as a training ground for its students, it intends to take its time with the historic site, tucked out of view off Folly Road. The 300-year-old plantation has slave cabins, a major Gullah/Geechee burial area, and a house that evolved as it was passed from one owner to another. A group of concerned citizens named The Friends of McLeod have expressed their fears that the cabins will be adapted into classrooms and the house into an office building. The ACBA has tried to find a middle ground by planning new, smaller structures to add to the grounds, while abiding with Historic Charleston Foundation covenants that assure the preservation of the site — something the HCF was struggling to afford to do on its own.
Warren’s response to the controversy: keep his head down and let his students’ hard work do the talking. Right now they’re working on the slave cabins. “They won’t be used for any other purpose but reinterpretation. The archeology of the way the house is constructed, the way it changed over time, shows that you can add new things to a structure. Our students will build on what other people left behind, and they’ll leave restoration-quality structures. In a hundred years’ time, people will look back at their indelible mark.”
For the ACBA staff, the diligent little touches left by their students and their predecessors are a huge motivator. Their commitment to McLeod is borne out of respect for the craft that went into building it. “Its historical value raises awareness of what craftspeople can do,” says Warren. “It’s going to take 20 or 30 years to really get to the point where it is all it can be. That’s not a long time frame within its 200- or 300-year history.”
This kind of meticulous building and repair work can’t be taught overnight. Warren estimates that it takes 50 years to become a true Master Craftsman. Is he worried that he won’t live long enough to see the fruits of all his labors?
“If we get the foundations right now, then in 50 years’ time I’m not worried about who comes in and runs the ACBA. My hope is that craft education will be as much respected as historical preservation is. Certain people learn better by using their hands and minds and doing something, and they can leave a legacy. A lot of people sitting in front of computers are leaving no legacy at all.”