Rebuilding the Building Arts

Earl Barthé is the Jelly Roll Morton of plaster. Like the legendary jazz pianist, the 84-year-old New Orleans craftsman is a master of improvisation in his medium. In fact, he often describes his highly ornate ceiling medallions and crown moldings in musical terms, such as “arias in plaster.” Barthé, a self-described “Creole of Color,” is descended from a long line of plasterers, beginning with his great-great grandfather who came to New Orleans from France via Haiti. In 2005, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded Barthé a prestigious National Heritage Fellowship, recognizing his lifetime achievement in building craftsmanship. As he described in an interview at the time, the Barthé family is one of the most recognized plaster families in the United States. “My father was a plasterer, his father was a plasterer, his uncles and everybody else were plasterers. The Barthé children just knew they had to be plasterers. Daddy didn’t want me to be a doctor, a lawyer, or an Indian chief. He wanted me to be a plasterer.” Hurchail Barthé, Earl’s son, continued the tradition by learning the plaster trade. But a profound shift has occurred over the last generation. “Plastering families wanted their children to follow in their footsteps,” said Barthé. “You don’t have that as much now. I have grandchildren who are nurses, doctors, and things like that. It would be difficult to say, ‘I want you to be a plasterer.’” But the future of New Orleans and the United State’s architectural heritage depends on just that—the survival of not just plastering, but all the traditional building trades.

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