Just Who really built this Colonial City ??










New Orleans Louisiana




Published: Saturday, October 13, 2007, 5:09 AM     Updated: Monday, November 12, 2007, 12:29 PM










Take a walk down almost any street in New Orleans and you'll find yourself surrounded by craftsmanship. From the dainty millwork of a Queen Anne mansion in the Garden District to the

familiar storm shutters of a Creole cottage in Bywater, the streetscapes of New Orleans are alive with history, hand prints and homages to the centuries of building artisans who have defined the city through their work.

It is, perhaps more than anything else, the tangible sense of time and place these artists have helped to create that continues to charm visitors and sustain residents.







The Establishment of the Infant Village of New Orleans in 1718, click on picture to enlarge

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"Who built New Orleans, with its miraculous conflations of grandeur and decay

-- a city of indescribable beauty matched only by its equally distinct citizenry,

a people whose diverse and clandestine histories echo throughout the city's plastered walls? Whose hands gave rise to such eloquent and decaying monuments of cypress, plaster, iron and brick?" asks Mora J. Beauchamp-Byrd in "Raised to the Trade," a collection of art and essays surveying the cultural contributions of Creole craftsmen.

The answer, Beauchamp-Byrd writes, lies in the unique melting pot of people, skills and environmental constraints that guided the early development of the city.

Today, InsideOut begins a new occasional column profiling local artisans who have continued the tradition of individualized, hands-on work in a variety of building and decor trades. From blacksmiths to plasterers to potters, they have thrived here through the decades, and, as with our music and food and architecture, their craft helps make our city unique.

Invaluable knowledge

While it's easy to spot the European influences in the city's architecture -- the Spanish ironwork of a French Quarter balcony, or a Lower Garden District townhouse in the Italianate style -- the hands that built those houses can be traced largely to a Creole building tradition forged during the early 18th-century slave trade in Louisiana.

When West African slaves arrived in Louisiana, either directly from the continent or from the Caribbean, they brought with them a wide range of native skills and crafts. Some were building-related, such as carpentry and clay plastering. Others, such as basketry, fish netting and rope weaving, were not. Regardless of their relevance to home-building, the skilled crafts of this enslaved population began to blend with the trades of the Europeans.

"They brought lots of different skills. If you look at slave manifests, or slave sales documents, you can see the types of trades they were engaged in," said Sarah Elise Lewis, a scholar of New Orleans building arts.



West African and Caribbean builders also passed on their invaluable knowledge of home design suited to the tropics. Sketches of early Portuguese trading posts on the West African coast show their influence: The raised, multi-room, rectangular buildings with shaded galleries are obvious ancestors of the modern shotgun.

"Clearly, the Africans were in control of the architectural form of the buildings being constructed for the Europeans. They designed them, and they built them to suit their own social conveniences and architectural preconceptions. These buildings represented the earliest examples of Creole colonial architecture," essayist Jay D. Edwards writes in "Raised to the Trades."

European arrivals to New Orleans made their own contributions. From the Italians came marble-cutting; from the Germans, tinsmithing. Many early Creole houses, such as Madame John's Legacy in the French Quarter, show rafter designs blending the steep pitch of a Norman roof with the elongated, Caribbean-style roof necessary in New Orleans' tropical climate.





New Orleans Becomes an American City On February 17,1805
























The English brought their own brand of stone masonry, which was soon tempered by the porous, "soft red" bricks made from local river mud.

Ultimately, early Creole architecture developed as a blend of European style made to conform to the climate of the Caribbean -- and, later, New Orleans -- with Creoles and slaves at the helm of construction.

Shaping a legacy

Through the years, the resulting lathers, plasterers, masons, ironworkers and carpenters have shaped the legacy of New Orleans craftsmanship, known the world over.

"There is a tremendous amount of respect for New Orleans craftsmen in other cities," Lewis said. "Certainly there are other large cities that have a history of craftsmanship, but New Orleans really is unique in its blending of different traditions and adapting to the climate."



Because of this history of skilled craftsmanship, New Orleans was chosen to host next week's Traditional Building Exhibition and Conference, the largest trade show in the country dedicated to historic restoration, renovation and traditionally inspired new construction. The event will feature seminars, workshops and tours of a Holy Cross house that has been renovated with traditional techniques and materials.

Events such as this are attempts to preserve and promote the traditional building arts. The number of people practicing the trades has declined due to the near-disappearance of trade-learning in secondary education in favor of college prep as well as the decline of trade unions, Lewis said.

However, the legacy of craftsmanship in New Orleans remains alive. It can be seen in renowned brick mason Teddy Pierre, currently working on an Esplanade Avenue townhouse, or in the high school freshmen observing a blacksmithing demonstration at the Priestley School of Architecture and Construction.

"Priestley . . . seeks to preserve New Orleans' trades and skills and keep alive a centuries-old tradition of pride in craftsmanship and art," said Ray Nichols, president emeritus of the Priestley charter school. "Never before have these trades -- and the development of skills associated with them -- been more important as we strive to rebuild our homes and our city."

As long as New Orleans is a city composed of unique buildings and residents who love them, there always will be a market for skilled craftsmen, Lewis said.





The 7th Ward New Orleans Creole experience

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