October 11, 2018

A Job Well Done: Artisans Who Are Redefining the Historic Trades

  • By: Meghan White
National Building Museum.

photo by: Phil Roeder, Flickr

When you walk past a rowhouse in a historic neighborhood, or look up at a richly painted cathedral ceiling, how often do you think about the craftspeople who cut the stone, ran the plaster, or took their paintbrush to the finishes? The answer could be, "a lot," but how much do you know about how the artisans ply their trade or how they have mastered raw materials and the techniques needed to bring them to life? The answers to those questions are what Academy Award-winning directors Paul Wagner and Marjorie Hunt set out to find through their documentary Good Work: Masters of the Building Arts, which first aired in 2016 and is now airing on PBS stations and can be streamed at PBS.org.

Ten artisans, all masters of their crafts, were documented in action: Joe Alonso, master mason; Earl Barthé, plasterer; Nick Benson, stone carver and letterer; John Canning and Jacqueline Canning-Riccio, master decorative painters; Jesus Cardenas and Humberto Miranda, terra cotta artisans; Patrick Cardine, blacksmith; Dieter Goldkuhle, stained glass artisan, and Albert Parra, adobe builder.

In October of 2018, the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., hosted Hunt, Wagner, Alonso, Benson, Canning, and Jean Carroon, architect and head of preservation with Goody Clancy, for a discussion of the film and the role of artisans today.

They talked about everything from signing their work, to finding items left behind from earlier craftspeople, to the role of young people in continuing the historic trades.

But the overall theme of the discussion always circled back to the initial goal for Hunt and Wagner's film. “We wanted to inspire you and make you think about the people who built or restored historic structures,” Hunt explained.

When Alonso began a story he's told again and again since 2011, about how he never imagined an earthquake could hit Washington, D.C., causing millions of dollars in damage to Washington National Cathedral, it was hard not to feel inspired by his determination to face the daunting repair work the cathedral needs.

Alonso, head stone mason for the cathedral, has worked on it for more than 30 years, first helping to finish the construction, now helping to repair it. He knows just about every nook and cranny.

Alonso Inspects earthquake damage at Washington National Cathedral.

photo by: Matthew James Girard

Joe Alonso (left) and engineer Daniel Lemieux inspect the damage of one of the pinnacles following the earthquake in 2011.

The repairs needed for the cathedral were (and are) tremendous—finnials had fallen from the pinnicales, damaging the roof. Gargoyles crashed to the ground, splintering into pieces. But the damage revealed parts of the cathedral even Alonso had never seen.

“When we were pulling pieces off of the central tower, we found a joint that had coins in it from 1963." Alonso divulged that leaving something behind “is a mason thing.”

Alonso stands on top of a broken pinnacle at Washington National Cathedral.

photo by: Matthew James Girard

Alonso stands on a broken pinnacle more than 300 feet in the air.

Stonecarver Andy Uhl and Alonso in a manbasket suspended over the Washington National Cathedral.

photo by: Matthew James Girard

Alonso and stonecarver Andy Uhl in a manbasket while a crane removes a damaged pinnacle.

Even decorative painters, whose work often involves expertly painting intricate details onto high ceilings few people will ever see up close, leave something behind. John Canning, founder of John Canning Co., always signs his work, his paintbrush moving up and down with the grace expected from a painter who’s been practicing for more than 50 years.

“I’m encouraged by young people in the industry. They want to work with their hands.”

John Canning

Canning’s portfolio includes the massive faux-marble columns behind him and the other speakers at the National Building Museum. He explained that he placed two teams of three together and constantly switched up the members. “When the columns were finished, they looked like they had been done by one person, rather than six.”

While painters like Canning and masons like Alonso may leave their mark on their work, it’s different for a stone carver and letterer.

“I design [the words] to be easily legible,” Nick Benson explains in the film as he takes a chisel in his hand at the John Stevens Shop, which has been in operation since 1705 and has been in the Benson family since the 1920s. “People focus more on the content and take [the writing] for granted.” Then he says something unexpected. “My goal is for people to take it for granted.”

But taking the work of master artisans for granted is easier said than done. Jean Carroon, who worked with Canning on Trinity Church, explained her point of view as a preservation architect to the panel and audience. “I love finding craftsmen's marks. Even if you can't see the work, it still resonates in the space. It's a connection to the people before and those coming after."

Canning agreed. "[We're] a link between the past, present, and future."

Benson sees the past and future every day at his shop in Rhode Island. He learned the trade from his father, who in turn learned it from his father. Benson has worked at plenty of renowned sites in Washington, D.C., including the National World War II Memorial and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.

Benson, who watched his grandfather and father carve letters into stone, has seen firsthand how technology is affecting his craft. “Digital is redefining aesthetics. Every degree of design is experienced through a digital lens these days.” But, the artisans agree that’s not always a bad thing.

While Canning expressed some concern for the role of technology in making some aspects of decorative painting obsolete, he was also optimistic, especially by the rise of younger generations joining the ranks of master artisans. “I’m encouraged by young people in the industry. They want to work with their hands.”

Canning knows this better than most. Since kindergarten, his daughter Jacqueline has been tagging alongside him to job sites. Now an adult, she uses what she learned from watching her father work for decades to handle jobs with the firm. In the film, she stands beside her father as they work at Trinity Church Boston, high on the scaffolds, dipping her paintbrush into paint and applying it to the ceiling.

“We need to pass on our accumulated knowledge,” Alonso agreed.

The documentary, which skillfully illustrates the dedication these artisans have to their crafts and just how they make their visions come to life, makes it clear that the historic trades aren't going anywhere.

Meghan White is a historic preservationist and a former assistant editor for Preservation magazine. She has a penchant for historic stables, absorbing stories of the past, and one day rehabilitating a Charleston single house.


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