More Than Just a Trade: Master Craftsmen of the Building Arts

How The Seventh Ward Was Built

Across the street, the whole Fredericks family is cement finishers and brick layers. Amedée, he was one of the fastest; they called him "The Corner Man." They put him on the corner to keep it coming up. Amedée came across. He said, "Hutch, what you gonna do?" I said, "I'm going to put my foundation down." He said, "Oh man, I hate to see a carpenter with a trowel in his hand," you know. I said, "Well, you're going to see one today." He said, "No, I'm not. I'm going to get some coffee. When I come back I want you to lay mortar boards here, mortar boards there, mortar boards there, and put these blocks around that." He came back with his trowel and his leveler. That man put this foundation down for me in one day. Never charged me a nickel; never asked for nothing.

So, now I got it all—roof on, everything. The inside now is just bare. I didn't have the plumbing in. I didn't have the wiring in. I didn't even have the money for it. I said, "How am I going to pay for the plumbing and wiring and stuff?" So, I went to G.I. School at Booker T. Washington, on the G.I. Bill. Meantime, I was working for V.G. Bob Werner. He's a real estate man. So Werner had plumbers and things working for him, you see, that would come on the job. So they had one plumber there, I said, "Look, I got my house. I'd like to get it roughed in for the plumbing, but I don't have the money, man." I said, "But I'm going to G.I. school. I'll sign my check over to you if you do my plumbing." He said, "Yeah, Hutch, I'll do that for you." So he come over, roughed it in; I didn't give him a nickel. My first G.I. check, I cashed it and give him the money. And that's how I got my plumbing in; I paid him "on the G.I. bill."

Now, if you look at my ceilings and walls, this kitchen is white coat. Living room and whatnot is craft tech. You don't see that kind of work no more. Well, another friend of mine two blocks from here, James Watts, built a concrete block house. Now he didn't know nothing about woodwork. So he came to me, he said, "Hutch, I'll plaster your house for you if you do my woodwork." I said, "Okay." He said, "The brick layers'll be over there this weekend putting the floor joists down." Well, on a concrete house, when you put the floor joists down they got what you call a firebreak. They got to cut your joists on an angle; in case the house catch on fire and the floor collapse, it won't kick the walls out. So I went over and I put the floor joists down for him and I sub-floored it. And then they went on up. I went back and put the plates and cut the roof out for him and finished this house up. Just like that. Give and take.

The wives would, if you was building a home on the weekend, they would put a pot of red beans and rice on, some hot sausage and salad and French bread. And all the guys would come out on a Saturday and start working on your home. Lunch time, they'd set up the tables and everybody come out there and eat. They'd have beer, soft drinks. . . . And after the meal was over they went back to work. Nobody got a nickel from nobody. And that's how they built their houses. -- Rudy Hutchison, Carpenter

The Seventh Ward was a community of what was referred to at that time as New Orleans Creoles. This was mixed-blood people that come from various parts of the country and outside the country also. They were all craftsmen. That area was noted for carpentry, plastering, brick masonry. All these people brought their crafts with them from their respective areas, I guess you could say. The Seventh Ward was known for Creole craftsmen. -- Henry Gueringer, Carpenter

Oh yeah, well you take long time ago when this Seventh Ward here was full of tradespeople, you could build a house—really didn't have to spend no money at all, other than for the material. You knew plasterers. You knew lathers. You knew carpenters. You knew a lot of guys, those guys was plumbers, you know, black guys that was plumbers. It was hard for them to get a license, but they still knew the work, you see. They could put and hook up bathtubs and all that. And you get the job, everybody come, the wife would maybe cook a big pot of red beans and rice or something like that, fry fish, like a big feast, and get a quarter-keg of beer. And the guys would just work. The carpenter, the guy that did carpenter work, he'd come give you his type of work. And after you got the house all frame up, you had a lot of guys that was roofers. They'd come put the roof on. Then you had guys that would lathe, my type of work. They'd come and get lathed, get it ready; then the plasterers. And it didn't cost you nothing. If you had the piece of ground, which was cheap in those days, all you had to buy was material. -- Allison "Tootie" Montana, Lather

Rudy Hutchison, Henry Gueringer, Allison "Tootie" Montana were interviewed as part of the New Orleans Building Arts Project. Laura Westbrook edited More than Just A Trade: Master Craftsmen of the Building Arts in 2004 for publication online.