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


Tevis B. Vandergriff III (Plasterer)

I've always been a daddy's boy. I've always tended to follow my dad, so whenever he left the house I would always ask if I could ride along. Most of the time I got to go, so I've been around the work since I could walk and follow him. He pushed education, so I do have a degree from UNO [University of New Orleans] in Finance and when I graduated I had jobs out in the field. One of them was with BellSouth. It was in a room with no windows, which drove me nuts so I didn't stay there long.

The family specialty has always been ornamental plaster work and because of that we've done work in a lot of the finer homes in town, and some of the smaller businesses and museums. . . . The Historic New Orleans Collection is a job that I enjoyed because of the background of the house. It's one of the oldest buildings in the city. New Orleans had a horrible fire that just about destroyed the city in the 1700s. It's one of the few buildings that survived. Hermann-Grima house is another one that we did a lot of work on over the years; it's always been nice. One of my favorite jobs has been going out to the Oak Alley Plantation where we've done some maintenance over the years and just the setting itself-when you're out there you just relax and feel comfortable and you kind of forget about things.

It's been difficult to attract people into the business. We've had some of the finer plasterers in town work for us and, unfortunately for me, four of them retired this year. They ranged in age from 67 to 72. I was fortunate to have them stay with us for as long as they did. I think it was good for them, because all of the gentlemen are in good health. They don't look their age and there was camaraderie and a playfulness that we had, because everyone worked together every day and you got to know their families. People were friends and we treated each other as such so there is a big void, personality-wise, friendship-wise, with them gone. I speak with them on the phone and keep up with what they are doing and always playfully tell them that there is always a place for them to come back when they are ready!

It's been rather difficult to try and train younger guys or younger women. There are women, and they are really good at this because they tend to have a lighter touch. They tend to have a different eye for design and detail. With ornamental plastering you really need an eye for detail, so as you're doing this you can go ahead and make it as best as you can and make it as true to the design that the architect has given you, or follow the design that is already in place when you are making the repair. . . . The more someone pays the attention to detail, the better a job will look. If they can't see the little nuances that occur in the wall, you know the wall's not going to look as good as with someone who can see all these different little nuances. You can teach people to try and look for it, but whether or not they will really see it, you just never know. I think women are more detail-oriented.

In the old days they made [some ornamental plaster] even more beautiful in a way because they would take and paint these things different colors. If they had flowers in the cornice, they would paint the way the flower actually looked. I tend to find it gaudy, but when you get to one that had been fifty or sixty years old and the paint had started popping and peeling, and you see the underlayers, you'd see all these different colors and at first you think, "Man it must have been beautiful," but then when you think about it, it could have been too much. An example is the San Francisco Plantation where it's very ornate and decorated. When you first see it, it's beautiful, but I think if you had to live with that every day it would be a little much.

Tevis B. Vandergriff III 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.