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


Melvin Bush (Plant Engineer/Air Conditioning)

Well, I got into it [the building trades] through my father before he deceased. He really brought me into it, working with the city and stuff like that, and I've been doing it. Come September it will be twenty years. . . . He was strictly a Maintenance Engineer. That was his title. [He specialized in] air conditioning and refrigeration.

I would say there is a shortage of workers for the simple reason the pay scale that the cities have. A lot of guys with engineering licenses won't come to work with the city because of the pay scale. I would say in the outside industry you would get paid a whole lot more.

My title [working for the City of New Orleans] is Plant Engineer and actually what he does, we're not stationary in a plant; we go from building to building and what we do is fix the air conditioning systems in the buildings.

We deal with a lot of old buildings and so far the equipment now is updated, but a building like Gallier Hall, which used to be City Hall way back when, and [the present] City Hall itself is an old building. We deal with that a lot. . . . We have a building down in the French Quarter that we deal with a lot and I'm quite sure it's pretty old. It's called the Pharmaceutical Building [New Orleans Pharmacy Museum, 514 Chartres] and that's where they have a lot of antique stuff. On Chartres Street. When we first started this project we were aiming for masons, brick layers, iron workers, tinsmiths, blacksmiths, woodworkers, carpenters, boat builders, and painters. Well actually, in New Orleans air conditioning is a basic building skill, if anyone ever spent a summer in New Orleans, or even a winter! So the jobs and the sites you work on are varied. The Pharmaceutical Building originally would have been residential. Over the years from working in it so long, I've learned a lot about the trade and I would say I've picked up a lot of techniques about things and about the buildings. Some things are historic and you can't touch it. If you do, you've got to put it back the same way. That's the way the historic deal works with the city. You can't just tear some things down and put it back up the way you want to.

I did a little training over at Orleans Regional, that's Delgado. I did about a year or two. Most of my training was hands-on training through the city. They don't do that [take on apprentices] anymore, but a while back they were doing it when I first started out. Nowadays I don't hear too much about an apprenticeship program. A lot of times I think the younger guys are going through the school systems like Delgado and stuff like that. Ain't many apprenticeships, at least the field I'm in. There aren't many apprenticeships out there.

With the type of work that we do out in the field it's only six of us, believe it or not! [We work on the buildings that house] the fire department, the police department, health departments and wherever else they need us. We do all the city health clinics. Matter of fact, we are working on one right now.

Melvin Bush 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.