Carefully Select Roofing Materials to Maintain the Character of Historic Buildings

With the gothic revival style, roofs became more decorative with fancy cut slate and wood shingles in a variety of designs and patterns.

With the gothic revival style, roofs became more decorative with fancy cut slate and wood shingles in a variety of designs and patterns.

Gothic Revival, 1840-60

Although many of these structures originally were covered with wooden shingles, many had decorative styles and patterns installed later with slate. This was also a popular style when the slate industry in Pennsylvania, Vermont and Virginia started to produce roofing slate in such quantities that it could be realistically specified as a material choice. The influence of Architect Frank Furness and others shone through as polychromatic slate patterns adorned the Gothic “cottages” of Alexander Jackson Davis, Andrew Jackson Downing and their many disciples. In the South and Mid-Atlantic states, standing-seam roofing is quite common. Again, check out roofs on buildings of the same style in your neighborhood and neighboring communities. What’s appropriate?

Italianate, 1845-75

While many Italianates have out-of-sight, low-slope roofs that an HDC will not be concerned about, many of the “villa” variety have gables and other roof planes that are visible from the street. Like those on Greek Revivals, these roofs were often clad in flat-lock seamed or standing-seam sheet metal. In later years, many were reroofed with clay tiles. Note that the advent of this new material correlates with the growth of the Ludowici-Celadon Roofing Tile Co., Chicago, in the 1880s. The HDC will likely require replacement in-kind to create the original look, though there may be some leeway with respect to the material itself. After all, it’s all about keeping up appearances.

Second Empire, 1855-80

The mansard roof is the character-defining feature of this style. A mansard is essentially a hipped gambrel. The lower roof, between the eaves and upper cornice, is most often covered in slate. More often than not, these parts of the roof can be restored and do not need to be replaced. If they do need replacement, be prepared to face an HDC that’s going to want it done in-kind.

Keep in mind these structures almost always have (or had) a built-in gutter at the eaves. The sheet-metal linings fail and replacement is expensive, especially if they failed long ago and wood rot has resulted from the neglect.

The upper roof typically ranges from flat to a low-slope 4:12 pitch. Once the roof becomes visible from the street, the material choice becomes important, and the same argument applied to Greek Revival and Italianate styles holds true here.

Architects and builders roofed Queen Anne Victorians with various slate colors, cedar shingles, and flat-lock and standing-seam copper, as well as a variety of different colors and shapes of clay tiles.

Architects and builders roofed Queen Anne Victorians with various slate colors, cedar shingles, and flat-lock and standing-seam copper, as well as a variety of different colors and shapes of clay tiles.

Queen Anne, 1880 to 1910

Severe recessions in the U.S. during the 1870s stymied new construction. By the time the economy rebounded, the Queen Anne had replaced the Second Empire as the popular style of choice. Improvements in rail service, as well as material fabrication and production, were game changers. Architects and builders roofed these Victorians with various slate colors, cedar shingles, and flat-lock and standing-seam copper, along with different colors and shapes of clay tiles. And, often, these buildings have combinations of roofing materials and styles.

Unfortunately, many HDCs allow building owners to replace original roof fabric with “architectural shingles”. These shingles were created to replicate wood shingle (or shake) roofs in an economical way. In my opinion, three-tab shingles look more like slate than architectural shingles do. Before you replace your entire roof, consider that it may only be the flashings that need replacement.

No part of the building envelope lasts forever, including the roof. When issues crop up, it is not always readily apparent what the proper course of action is. Because the roof is a character-defining feature of many traditional building styles, historic commissions will not generally allow owners to replace their roofs with sub-standard or historically inappropriate materials. Knowing what’s appropriate—and what’s not—can help improve the planning process and form the foundation of a successful project.

PHOTOS: Ward Hamilton

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About Ward Hamilton

Ward Hamilton has provided historic-preservation consulting and contracting services for more than 100 buildings in Boston, New York and throughout the New England states through his company Olde Mohawk Historic Preservation, Melrose, Mass.

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