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


Amdee Castenell, Sr. (Plasterer)

I grew up in the Eighth Ward, right near the Vieux Carré on Spain Street. We used to walk around the French Market every day. Went to St. Louis School; that was on Dauphine and Touro. Mayor [Dutch] Morial, he went there too. . . . We used to play together but he was much younger than me. My daddy was a carpenter and my brother became a carpenter later on.

[Lathers] put their nails in their mouth so they could spit them out and they would go like a machine! Then that gave them the habit of chewing tobacco to get that nail taste out of their mouth after they knock off that evening.

Well, when you did something and it comes out nice, you enjoy looking at what you did. When you duplicated something that somebody else had done, and you did it to the best of your ability. . . . When you run ornamental work and cornice work, that's the best. Everybody cannot do it. . . . If you're going to run a cornice, you got to set it up. You have to line it up so you have it straight. You have to make your mold. You get a piece of tin and a piece of wood and you draw your pattern onto it and you cut it out and you fasten then tin on the wood. Then you cut it out and put it on a piece of wood so you can run. . . . You go with what the architect has, what he wants to be done. Then you make it from there. Or if it's something that's up there already you take a profile of what is up there and then you make a mold. . . . [W]hen I worked on the Cabildo I had to do that.

We worked at Sazerac Bar and made, like, clouds in there at the Roosevelt Hotel. . . . Every time I pass the Pitot House, I say, "I repaired there." . . . You go to St. Patrick's Church and look behind the ornament back there; you'll see my name!

Well, most of the time yes [black and white plasterers got along]. . . . It was one of these things that you would get in through family members. So they got along real good because you'd set down with the fellow that's mixing the mortar at lunch time, black, white, gray, whatever, they'd all sit down to eat and they'd go out together. . . . All those times would be different than when you left to go home. He went one way, you went the other way. The rest of the day was, "You do your part and I'll do my part."

Describing a typical crew:

Well, going on a plaster job you would have the foreman to get on the job, to start it off, lay it out, how everything is going to be done. Then you have three or four plasterers or whatever; then you'd have one or two hod carriers [workers who hauled bricks or mortar on a shoulder-borne apparatus called a "hod"]. Hod carriers would mix the mortar, one would mix it and one would bring it to the plasterers and the plasterers would put it up.

[Creoles dominate the building trades] because that was the only way they could make money without a formal education. In other words not doing a menial job like porter or sweeping and stuff like that. They had to go into a trade so they could get more money and it was passed down from father to son, nephew to cousin.

Amdee Castenell, Sr., 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.