by Jonn Ethan Hankins
“By creating sturdy structures, building tradesmen provide us with a reassuring context in which subsequent civilizing acts might flourish; culture commences from the sense of place that flows from their diligent command over mundane materials. What they fashion for us is nothing less than the contexts of our daily experiences. While such acts are challenged by every storm and flood, the truth that well-constructed buildings often do endure offers us the critical hope that we humans might yet become the masters of our fates.”
— John Michael Vlach, Professor of American Studies and Anthropology at George Washington University, 2002The grand and vernacular architecture of New Orleans, treasured by people all over the world for nearly 300 years, was devastated in late 2005 in the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history. According to the McGraw-Hill Construction Report, 134,564 (71.5 percent) of the 188,251 housing units counted in the 2000 U.S. Census in Orleans Parish were damaged by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The United States Department of Homeland Security reported that 105,323 (55.9 percent) of these sustained major or severe damage.
These are no ordinary structures. They cannot be revived by a workforce unskilled in the centuries-old traditions of ironwork, plastering, finish carpentry, framing, millwork, stained glass, specialty painting, and stone and soft-brick masonry that make the built environment of New Orleans a national treasure.
Who will repair and rehab the residences, commercial buildings and cemeteries that make New Orleans one of the few world-class architectural destinations in America? Pre-Katrina New Orleans was home to a special group of artisans whose fathers and forefathers built this unique place, and who have held it together for centuries by passing down special trade skills to successive new generations of master craftsmen. These masters of the building arts are revered throughout the world.
Unfortunately so many of them are still displaced — having lost their homes, tools and small businesses to the storms — that it’s hard to find a good carpenter, brick mason or plasterer now when we need a skilled workforce more than ever. We need their institutional knowledge to train government inspectors, administrators, and the public at large in time-honored techniques to save shotgun houses, Creole cottages and bungalows from unnecessary destruction by speculators and well-intentioned volunteer groups who are quick to gut. (It is often cheaper to rehab storm damaged homes than to gut, demolish and replace them.) We need them to train the horde of variously competent contractors and construction workers who are descending upon New Orleans. We need them to preserve the contexts of the vernacular culture that supports the city’s Social Aid and Pleasure clubs, brass-band musicians and Mardi Gras Indians that are the soul of the city.
While prestigious national and international cultural and trades organizations, from the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) to the renowned Scuola Professionale Edile di Firenze (Professional Building School of Florence, Italy), have honored and offered to assist, it is tragically irresponsible of our post-colonial state and local political, business and cultural leaders to have virtually ignored the plight of these venerable masters in the specious post-Katrina recovery initiatives proposed so far. There are incentives to demolish homes, presumably to be replaced by modular construction requiring a minimally skilled labor force not rooted in the fabric of New Orleans culture. There is even workforce training money for latter-day consultants and trainers of low-skilled construction workers. But there has been no specific assistance from the City of New Orleans, State of Louisiana or the United States government to help the celebrated master craftsmen who have trained apprentices in world-renowned building-arts techniques for centuries right here in New Orleans.
Fifth-generation master plasterer Earle Barthé, recipient of a prestigious NEA Heritage Fellowship in 2005 and the 2006 Askins Award, the highest honor of the International Preservation Trades Network, is patriarch of a family that has helped build and maintain vernacular and grand homes, major churches, cathedrals and public buildings, like the Superdome, for over 150 years in New Orleans. “To become a journeyman in my day, it took four years. Today it takes two years,” the octogenarian Heritage Fellow told the NEA. “I can take any guy off the street, any guy I see, and in six weeks I can make him a master synthetic finisher. I understand the economics,” he said, mindful of the enormous post-Katrina need to save the architectural fabric of our storied neighbor- hoods from a pre-fab future.
Master blacksmith and historic ironworker, Darryl Reeves, who restored the Chalmette Battlefield gate, still works on some of the most important ironwork left in New Orleans, but now he does it from just outside of Donaldsonville, his maternal ancestral home place. Like Mr. Barthé, he lost his New Orleans home, his cavernous blacksmith shop, generations-old tools, and most of the craftsmen he had trained for years.
I propose that significant emergency recovery resources be allocated for a Rehabilitation Construction Training Program, to be administered through the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and Foundation, Inc., to:
- Bring back highly skilled master craftsmen displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita to rehabilitate damaged buildings, cemeteries and historical sites in the New Orleans region;
- Employ their skills as on-the-job master trainers of contractors, construction workers, and public and private officials;
- Provide transitional housing for returning displaced craftsmen while they rehabilitate their homes, shops and neighborhoods in clusters to realize economies of scale in resource allocation;
- Provide micro-loan capitalization and grants to help them restart their small construction contract businesses; and
- Work with existing trade organizations, institutions and youth education specialists to recruit and train the workforce needed to repair and rehabilitate the world-famous built environment of New Orleans.
Jonn Ethan Hankins is development director for the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and Foundation, Inc. He was project director for Raised to the Trade: Creole Building Arts of New Orleans, a four-year oral history study of New Orleans’ master craftsmen families and an art exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art in 2003.