Return of the trades

With technology jobs tarnished and more careerists now searching for 'meaning,' specialized, hands-on work gains new allure

When Billy Cleland drives in and around Washington, D.C., he sees more than monuments and grand buildings: He sees the fruits of his own labor.

Mr. Cleland has been a stone mason since 1940, and his work has included building the columns of the National Gallery of Art; setting the stones at John F. Kennedy's grave site; and serving as master mason of the National Cathedral in its final years of construction, setting the last stone finial in place in 1990.

"I've been very fortunate," says Mr. Cleland, now retired. "I've had the privilege to help build this city and many of its monuments.... Any craftsman who's worth his salt is able to stand back at the end of a hard day and look at his work and say, I did that."

Scott Holloway has never met the master mason, but he wants to be able to say the same things about his own work one day. Cleland's junior by more than 40 years, he is just embarking on what he hopes will be a lifelong career as a skilled tradesman. Mr. Holloway recently tired of office work and decided to find something more meaningful. He's now enrolled in a trades program where he is learning to make terrazzo - a specialized tile floor that involves mixing crushed tile with concrete and pouring it into place.

"It's exciting, I feel more of a sense of worth," he says of the 12-week course he's taking at the International Masonry Institute in Cascade, Md.

The terrorist attacks tore up New York City, he adds, "and that's where I'm from - and I could be part of rebuilding it."

Holloway isn't alone in his enthusiasm for the skilled trades. During a decade in which the media's career-and-workplace coverage has been dominated by Wall Street and the dotcom generation, the skilled trades have quietly been enjoying a renaissance in this country - attracting renewed public appreciation for their craftsmanship and quality, as well as a new generation of workers eager for the hands-on satisfaction of creating work that is meant to last generations.

"It's possible today to recreate just about anything that was ever created," says Clem Labine, editor of Traditional Building and Period Homes, magazines focused on restoration and traditionally styled new construction. "The crafts are there."

After being sidelined for most of the 20th century by the modernist movement - with its no-frills, less-is-more aesthetic - the skilled trades began to make a comeback in the 1970s with the growth of the historic preservation movement.

The trend has only accelerated in recent years, as consumer and commercial tastes have continued to swing back toward more historical and traditional building styles.

Today, craftsmen (and women) can be found making everything from dry stone walls, to architectural ironwork, to ornate terra-cotta figurines and cornices (used to decorate buildings).

They're also bringing new vigor to skills that had nearly died out in this country. For example, they're working with scagliola, a synthetic marble made from colored plaster, which originated in Italy and dates back to the Renaissance.

"It's work that connects you to tradition, to your past, to your history, or to someone else's history," says Misia Leonard, a preservation architect who works closely with skilled tradesmen as chief of the preservation office of New York City's Department of Design and Construction.

"It's grounding to see that people 100 years ago were doing something beautiful, and you're trying to bring it back," she says. "Most of the tradesmen that I know take tremendous pride in what they do. And they all say they're not in it for the money. They're in it for the satisfaction of doing a good job and having something to show for it."

Master stone mason Kevin Gardner, who has been building dry stone walls in New England for 30 years, agrees that there's a "particular personal satisfaction" in his work that's hard to describe.

After learning the skill from his uncle, he says, he found he had a "temperament" for the work.

"It's a temperament that likes order and balance," says Mr. Gardner, whose recent book about his work, "The Granite Kiss," has been receiving positive attention from the mainstream press. "It's a temperament that likes to make something out of nothing, that finds a lot of interest in arranging many, many things in the smallest possible area."

Although some experts worry that not enough people are going into the trades to meet growing labor demands, they also note the increasing number of training and educational options now available for individuals who want to learn these specialized skills.

Long-time programs include the 110-year-old North Bennet Street School in Boston, which offers courses in historic preservation and preservation carpentry taught by masters. The International Masonry Institute, the education arm of the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craft Workers, has been offering courses since 1970, including classes in terrazzo and stone masonry. Both institutions say interest in their courses is up - including interest from people who have grown disillusioned with other careers, such as those in computers or high tech.

"We've had a lot of career changers," says Susan McChesney, director of external relations at North Bennet Street. "People have been wanting to find a balance in their lives, and that often comes down to working with their hands."

New programs are also springing up, including the School of Building Arts in Charleston, S.C., which teaches window restoration and architechtural ironwork; the Dry Stone Conservancy in Lexington, Ky., a nonprofit organization that offers free courses in dry stone-wall building to anyone who's interested; and the Brooklyn High School of the Arts, a specialized public school that opened last fall and centers its entire curriculum around the preservation arts and trades.

As public interest has increased, trades workers have also begun to organize themselves to promote greater awareness of their work and of the skills involved. The Preservation Trades Network, which has sponsored annual hands-on trades demonstrations for the public since 1997, was formed, says cofounder Bryan Blundell, in part because "there was a certain level of assuming that people [in trades] are not smart."

It's an image the group works to counter through its website and through such activities as its annual event. "Some of these people should have Ph.D.s in their fields," says Mr. Blundell, a preservation contractor. "There's just no way to recognize them in an academic format.

"There are masons who can look at a wall and tell whether the guy who did the work was right- or left-handed just by looking at the tool marks, or who can look at a stone in a building and tell you when and where it was quarried," he says. "These are things that you can't put on an academic test."

You can, however, put them on display - as the venerable Smithsonian Institution did last summer when it featured a program called "Masters of the Building Arts" as part of its annual Folklife Festival on the Washington Mall. Master tradesmen from all over the country, including stone mason Billy Cleland, gave talks and hands-on demonstrations for some of the 1 million people who attended the festival over 10 days.

"Our hope was to increase public understanding and appreciation of the skill and knowledge and passion that skilled tradespeople bring to their craft, and their critical role in the architectural process," says Smithsonian folklorist and program curator Marjorie Hunt, who has been interested in the skilled trades since the late 1970s, when she first began studying the stone carvers at the National Cathedral.

"I really think these people are living treasures," she says. "And I wanted the world to know about it."

Where to build your knowledge of trades

A handful of online resources can help those interested in tracking developments in the building trades: - The website of the preservation trades network, it works as a networking tool for tradespersons and organizes workshops. - The website of the International Masonry Institute helps users locate workers in the "trowel trades." - Website of the nonprofit Dry-stone Conservancy offers information about training and on-site consultation. - Magazine website offers tips about preservation and information about traditional building styles.

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