Man rebuilds N.O. home with traditions

Published 10:43 pm Sunday, February 24, 2008

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Smiling with satisfaction, Earl Barthe pushes back his wide-brimmed hat and runs his eyes over the intricate plaster trim of the Luling Mansion.

He’s sure his family helped form the room’s original decorations, elaborate patterns on the ceilings and even likenesses of the first owner’s daughter, who died of yellow fever.

Today, Barthe (pronounced bar-THAY) is busy restoring the 165-year-old building.

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‘‘You look at this kind of work and you’re looking at the pride people took in what they did,’’ said Barthe, a fifth-generation master plasterer whose family’s work can be found in New Orleans’ historic homes and churches and even the Louisiana Superdome.

But in a city known for its arts traditions, Barthe is one of the few remaining craftsmen in what once was a flourishing trade.

His face lined from days in the sun, Barthe, who won’t say how old he is but acknowledges working the family business for 70 years, wears the white shirt and pants traditional to the trade. He insists his workers carry on the custom, too.

The Barthe family settled in New Orleans in the early 1800s. The business was established by his great-great-grandfather, a master plasterer from Nice, France, who married a woman from Haiti.

The family was known in the term of the time as ‘‘free people of color.’’ These days Barthe refers to his family as Creoles, but most of all, he calls them plasterers.

‘‘My father was a plasterer, his father was a plasterer, his uncles and everybody else were plasterers,’’ he said. ‘‘The Barthe children knew they had to be plasterers. Daddy didn’t want me to be a doctor, a lawyer or an Indian chief.’’

In fine hotels, the old stores along Canal Street, the St. Charles Avenue mansions and the cemeteries’ tombs, you’ll likely see the work of Barthe and his family.

‘‘Every job is a hard job because of the time and care you have to take with it, the attention you have to pay,’’ Barthe said. ‘‘And it’s hard work climbing that scaffolding, hauling around the plaster. It’s the kind of work that makes you know you’ve done a full day when you stop.’’

Barthe said about a dozen families were engaged in the business in its heyday.

‘‘It was all men, and the one who had the most sons got the most respect,’’ Barthe said. ‘‘And those boys knew they better live up to what their fathers expected. If you did something wrong it reflected on the family. Nobody wanted that.’’

Earl Barthe’s skills were featured in a New Orleans Museum of Art exhibition titled ‘‘Raised to the Trade: Creole Building Arts in New Orleans’’ and in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival’s ‘‘Masters of the Building Arts’’ program in 2001.

He has been inducted into the Louisiana AFL-CIO Labor Hall of Fame, and in 2005 received the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship.

Passing that heritage along by training apprentices is his goal now.

‘‘I’d like to see another generation do the kind of work their grandchildren and great-grandchildren will one day appreciate,’’ Barthe said.