The career crafters

An institution founded to help immigrants preserve Old World vocations remains a viable trade school today.

When Pauline Agassiz Shaw founded the North Bennet Street Industrial School in Boston in 1885, Chris Gray was hardly the kind of student she had in mind for her settlement house.

The native of Blue Hill, Maine, isn't in need of the basic English and urban survival skills that Ms. Shaw and other social activists were providing for newly arrived European immigrants flooding the narrow streets of Boston's North End and similar neighborhoods along the Eastern seaboard.

In at least one way, though, Mr. Gray is similar to those Jewish, Italian, and Irish immigrants - he has come to what is now called North Bennet Street School to learn the foundations of a craft that he hopes will support him.

But unlike earlier generations of students at the old brick building at 39 North Bennet Street, Gray and the other men and women here learning furnituremaking, violinmaking, piano technology, jewelrymaking, carpentry, locksmithing, book binding, and preservation carpentry are learning skills that they hope will allow them not only to earn a good living, but also to live a good and satisfying life.

"This looks like a way to earn a living and do something I want to do," says Gray, finishing the intricately inlaid legs of a demi-lune table he is crafting in the school's furnituremaking workshop. "I've grown up around woodworking," he says. "It's so easy to get lost in it and do what you want to do."

What Gray, son and grandson of Yankee carpenters, wants to do is create contemporary furniture to his own designs. But when he went to the Maine College of Art after high school graduation, he discovered that no one there could teach him the techniques of traditional wood joinery, the basic skills and knowledge of wood and tools he feels he needs to make his artistic designs a reality. So, he says, after less than a year in art school, teachers there suggested he head for North Bennet Street.

Described as one of America's first trade schools, North Bennet Street "piloted the teaching of industrial arts, and then the public schools picked them up," says Cynthia Stone, its executive director.

"The school really got crafts oriented during the Arts and Crafts era. After World War II [it] went in a number of directions, adding camera repair" and similar trades. But in the 1980s - the decade when the school finally closed its neighborhood day-care center and ended its last community tie to the days of Pauline Agassiz Shaw - the institution's leaders "said 'Crafts are what we do best, so why don't we do that?' " says Ms. Stone. "Of course," she adds, "the definition of crafts has changed: We define it in traditional terms as the production of aesthetically pleasing, functional objects. But today when you hear ads on TV, everything's called a craft - the craft of sandwichmaking, the craft of beermaking."

Gray is considerably younger than most of the students here, who pay from about $10,750 to $13,000 per academic year - for one to three years - to learn traditional crafts whose practitioners earn from about $22,000 to $33,000 to start, depending on the craft. The average age of the students is 34, and the vast majority already have earned at least one college degree before deciding to take the work path less traveled.

"I think of this as a one-room school house," says Mary Richards, North Bennet Street's director of student services, "with people of so many different ages, coming from so many different stages of life."

Consider Michelle Abban, a 37-year-old electrical engineer and mother of three young daughters, who is in the second year of the school's three-year course in violinmaking.

Ms. Abban, who commutes to the school from her home in South Weymouth, a suburb south of Boston, says she stayed home for a decade after her first daughter was born, "and when my youngest was approaching first grade and I had time to think about what I'd do if I could do anything I wanted to do, I knew I didn't want to go back to engineering. I looked on the Net and I was thrilled when I found this school. It combines my technical background with the creative aspect. I knit and spin, and I thought violinmaking would be a great occupation."

Abban's oldest daughter, Samantha, is the youngest violinist in a community orchestra in South Weymouth, and now plays a violin her mother made for her. "That is really, really thrilling for me," says Abban. "It's taken years for her to get to where she is, years of going to lessons.... And it took me years to make that instrument - and to see the two things come together is really great."

In order to take her place at a North Bennet Street bench, Abban had to get past Bob Delaney, the school's director of admissions and a graduate of the preservation-carpentry program. "I still plan to do preservation carpentry," Mr. Delaney explains, "but I fell in love with this place, and shortly after I left, this position opened up."

"We are training people in the crafts so that they will succeed and go out and make a living," Delaney says, adding that "every single student who graduates who wants to work in their field does.

"We try to determine how passionate and serious they are. We talk to the applicants, and give them a personal interview," Delaney explains. In the carpentry and woodworking courses, he says, the prospective students "have to have some history of work in those areas; they have to supply photos of work they've done. We're not looking for dilettantes."

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