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


Allan Burkhardt (Roofer)

When it comes to roofing, the roof over your head is the most important thing. . . . To me if you don't have the right roof over your head, you don't have anything, and you're going to have major problems with your walls and everything else. . . . [Roofing] is still healthy because, it goes back to what I said, a roof is the most important thing over your head! They can't get away from that until they come up with a concept, a way of doing it without hiring a roofer!

My grandfather on my mother's side emigrated from Portugal. His name was Ganghoff, which is more French German. I don't know if it was his original name or if it was changed when he came over. We were told about the story of Ellis Island; that's how they came over. On my father's side my great-grandfather emigrated from Germany.

The majority of people in the Ninth Ward didn't have running water so they used a cistern system to store their water for baths and for drinking water. [My grandfather] was a cistern maker. He had learned the trade from his father who had made them when he was over in Italy and he had taken that trade with him. For some reason, I was told by my family that it was in big demand and he was well known. He was known as "Portuguese Joe, the cistern maker."

I have learned [my trade] through the family. As a young boy, starting about 11 or 12 years old, my dad used to let me go work with my uncles and my cousins who all had roofing businesses back then. During the summertime I would work with them and mostly picked it up that way. . . . It was kind of pushed on by the family but it was never demanded. Dad always insisted that we finish school, and I did finish school but it was just something I knew I could always fall back on. I had tried. I had become a fireman for a brief period of time. Worked for two years and found it was boring as can be. Decided to go back into roofing again.

I come up into it through, I guess you could call it an apprentice-type thing, as a young boy coming up and learning a trade. The city at this stage doesn't have an apprenticeship in roofing. Usually if we hire someone, if we put an application out, it's for a roofer already so they use someone who is actually already experienced. But in most cases the guys I get and the guys I had already, and I went through quite a few roofers, were basically like me. They were brought up and their cousin owned a roofing shop or their uncle knew somebody and they started very young.

Everybody knows if you're in the roofing business, not that you ever hope for a hurricane, but you know once a hurricane come and went you knew you were going to be booked!

Like I said, the roof over your head is the most important thing. I'm not quite successful in emphasizing that to a lot of city departments when it comes to money-wise, you're going to have major problems with your walls and everything else. That is kind of hard to get through to city government. On the outside, with my own business, I usually don't have that much of a problem because if people call me up, in most cases their roof is leaking and, what can I do about it? You need a new roof! And they just go about doing it. The city tends to say, "Well, see what you can do for patching it," and they put it off and put it off and then usually the damage is well done by that time. Termite damage and everything else.

Allan Burkhardt was 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.