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


Herman Abry (House Shorer)

The Abrys came to New Orleans from Frankfurt, Germany, and from what we read, he already had the trade. Shoring was his trade that he brought with him from Germany and he came with his wife and an infant son. So he managed to do shoring work up until the 1870s. By that time, his son was of age, and his son was helping him. Well, after the first generation Abry died, around the 1870s, the second Abry generation took over. As his life developed and grew, he had seven children, three sons and four daughters. . . . My grandfather was one of those brothers, and they operated the business until 1935. My grandfather, Emile Herman Abry, had two children. My daddy was one of those children, and my daddy had a sister named Helen. When my grandfather died, my grandmother still owned the business, so my father came to work, taking over where my grandfather left off. . . . I graduated from high school in 1953. I didn't come to work with him right away, but after about three years, I did come to work for him.

I also did like Papa. I didn't graduate from college in business, but from Loyola I took courses in English, public speaking, accounting, economics, business courses that were important to helping manage the business. So Papa, trained me in how to estimate, how to understand labor rates, how to work out and figure out cost for doing jobs, cost estimating, because that was really one of his disciplines that he was really polished in; he understood that very well.

I was swinging shovels from the get-go. When I first came, I had to dig foundations, had to crawl under houses and set up jacks. I had to learn how to do the shoring work, way before I ever learned to become a manager, or before I learned how to do estimating. So I started off from the bottom, at the bottom. . . . I worked for my daddy seven years before I felt that I was an asset to him—where I could, on a consistent basis, supervise work, get it done, and be profitable on these jobs. Seven years before I felt I was very consistent, not only in estimating jobs correctly, to get the right amount of money for the work that had to be done to complete those jobs, but to actually be able to supervise that work to make sure they got out on time.

Shoring usually constitutes two considerations: one, what is it going to take to actually jack up and raise the house; and number two, what considerations will be made for the foundation. Is the foundation going to be considered in good condition, and just actually shim on top those existing piers, or is the foundation going to be taken out and removed and new foundations put in? Or are those existing foundations going to be modified in some way just to make them perform better, instead of going through the expense of changing all the foundations?

There are permanent solutions for houses. You can construct a house with a permanent foundation under almost any circumstances, if you use the proper design. Most failures occur because builders and engineers didn't take into consideration the future movements of the soils, so that either they didn't design enough piles or they didn't put piles deep enough. But you can design . . . let's take for instance Lakeview, where there's still soil consolidation. You can drive concrete piles; that way they would never rot. The drawback to some of these methods, like concrete piles, is that they're much more expensive than wood piles. Now, as houses become much more expensive, they may invest the money into more expensive piles that won't rot out after fifty or seventy-five years.

Herman Abry 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.