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


Tom Hewitt (Maintenance Engineer, City of New Orleans)

I was born and raised in New Orleans. Two generations that I'm aware of [lived] here and a third generation out would be my great-grandfather. He was from Missouri, and my great-grandmother, she was Cherokee Indian. My great-grandfather was Irish as I was told. That would be on my father's side, and on my grandmother's side, strict English.

Before I was reassigned to the Field Services Unit, I was Stationary Operating Engineer and classified by civil service as a Maintenance Engineer and I had worked at City Hall for a number of years. I had worked at traffic and municipal court and the Theater of Performing Arts. Then I was assigned to the Field Services Unit, which is responsible for police departments, fire departments, any building that the city has. If there is anything broken that needs repair regarding equipment, that's us. It ranges from generators to hot water heaters to air conditioning, ventilation, some plumbing, and in the newer buildings, some pneumatic control trades.

Some of the oldest buildings that I'm aware of that the city owns and that I've personally worked in—one is on Julia Street, the Historic District [Landmarks Commission] base of operations, the Vieux Carré Police Station, Gallier Hall, and just recently the Pharmaceutical Museum on Chartres Street. You do have to maintain the historical continuity. You have to be very careful as well, because the construction techniques in the previous years were a lot different than they are now. You would have to adhere by a certain set of standards as far as maintaining the visual continuity and/or the historical stature of said building that you would be in through the advisement of the Historic Landmark Commission.

The city doesn't reinvest in the workers that they have, which would help develop further into their technical fields. You kind of have to be the best that you'll ever be before they will want to talk to you and hire you on. If we absorb a new person or a new hire, we kind of put them through our own little program if you will. Kind of off-the-record. If you get familiar with a different piece of equipment that you might not, for example, have been familiar with, or not everyone has dealt with the Historic Landmark Commission as far as restoring old buildings or having done any work in it. There are certain color schemes that you have to maintain and it's very strict standards as far as maintaining historical buildings at what they would consider peak.

I like the city as an employer because it let me see a wide array of equipment and have a fixed territory. Also you learn, through normal dealings, multi-facets of government. By working closer with the Historic Landmark Commission, for example, on historical buildings, it gives you an insight that some people might not have. Not everybody can say they know, through their profession, how the government works as far as how choices come to be as far as how they are going to keep this building going, or new regulations, and so on and so forth of that nature.

Well, this trade has its highs and lows. But someone once told me when I was a child, "For a working man, the fruits of his labors are worth more than his pay," and it stuck with me. It was ingrained in various apprenticeships, and helping my uncles in different crafts, and even as I was in school and I was working part-time. I learned several trades. I had worked on the fishing boats; everything to do with the fishing industry, I've done. Everybody that I was around all had a different mentality and it was as I said, the fruit of your labor was worth more than your pay.

Tom Hewitt 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.