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Types of historic residential roofing

By The Old House Web

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pantile
Repairs on this pantile roof were made with new tiles held in place with metal hangers. Photo: NPS files.

Clay Tile: European settlers used clay tile for roofing as early as the mid-17th century; many pantiles (S-curved tiles), as well as flat roofing tiles, were used in Jamestown, Virginia. In some cities such as New York and Boston, clay was popularly used as a precaution against such fires as those that engulfed London in 1666 and scorched Boston in 1679.

Tiles roofs found in the mid-18th century Moravian settlements in Pennsylvania closely resembled those found in Germany. Typically, the tiles were 14-15" long, 6-7" wide with a curved butt. A lug on the back allowed the tiles to hang on the lathing without nails or pegs. The tile surface was usually scored with finger marks to promote drainage. In the Southwest, the tile roofs of the Spanish missionaries (mission tiles) were first manufactured (ca. 1780) at the Mission San Antonio de Padua in California. These semicircular tiles were made by molding clay over sections of logs, and they were generally 22" long and tapered in width.

The plain or flat rectangular tiles most commonly used from the 17th through the beginning of the 19th century measured about 10" by 6" by 1/2," and had two holes at one end for a nail or peg fastener. Sometimes mortar was applied between the courses to secure the tiles in a heavy wind.

In the mid-19th century, tile roofs were often replaced by sheet-metal roofs, which were lighter and easier to install and maintain. However, by the turn of the century, the Romanesque Revival and Mission style buildings created a new demand and popularity for this picturesque roofing material.

Slate: Another practice settlers brought to the New World was slate roofing. Evidence of roofing slates have been found also among the ruins of mid-17th century Jamestown. But because of the cost and the time required to obtain the material, which was mostly imported from Wales, the use of slate was initially limited. Even in Philadelphia (the second largest city in the English-speaking world at the time of the Revolution) slates were so rare that "The Slate Roof House" distinctly referred to William Penn's home built late in the 1600s. Sources of native slate were known to exist along the eastern seaboard from Maine to Virginia, but difficulties in inland transportation limited its availability to the cities, and contributed to its expense. Welsh slate continued to be imported until the development of canals and railroads in the mid-19th century made American slate more accessible and economical.

Slate was popular for its durability, fireproof qualities, and aesthetic potential. Because slate was available in different colors (red, green, purple, and blue-gray), it was an effective material for decorative patterns on many 19th century roofs (Gothic and Mansard styles). Slate continued to be used well into the 20th century, notably on many Tudor revival style buildings of the 1920s.

slate roof
Slate in contrasting textures and patterns imparts much character to this Mansard roof. Unfortunately, the roof has deteriorated to the point of endangering the entire structure. -- Photo: Deborah Holmes, OHW

wood roof
Replacement of particular historic details is important to the individual historic character of a roof, such as this rounded butt wood shingle roof. In the restoration, the drainage around a dormer was improved by the addition of carefully concealed modern metal flashing. Photo: NPS files.


Shingles: Wood shingles were popular throughout the country in all periods of building history. The size and shape of the shingles as well as the detailing of the shingle roof differed according to regional craft practices. People within particular regions developed preferences for the local species of wood that most suited their purposes. In New England and the Delaware Valley, white pine was frequently used: in the South, cypress and oak; in the far west, red cedar or redwood. Sometimes a protective coating was applied to increase the durability of the shingle such as a mixture of brick dust and fish oil, or a paint made of red iron oxide and linseed oil.

Commonly in urban areas, wooden roofs were replaced with more fire resistant materials, but in rural areas this was not a major concern. On many Victorian country houses, the practice of wood shingling survived the technological advances of metal roofing in the 19th century, and near the turn of the century enjoyed a full revival in its namesake, the Shingle Style. Colonial revival and the Bungalow styles in the 20th century assured wood shingles a place as one of the most fashionable, domestic roofing materials.

metal tiles
Galvanized sheet-metal shingles imitating the appearance of pantiles remained popular from the second half of the 19th century into the 20th century. Photo: NPS files.


Metal: Metal roofing in America is principally a 19th-century phenomenon. Before then the only metals commonly used were lead and copper. For example, a lead roof covered "Rosewell," one of the grandest mansions in 18th century Virginia. But more often, lead was used for protective flashing. Lead, as well as copper, covered roof surfaces where wood, tile, or slate shingles were inappropriate because of the roof's pitch or shape.

Copper with standing seams covered some of the more notable early American roofs including that of Christ Church (1727-1744) in Philadelphia. Flat-seamed copper was used on many domes and cupolas. The copper sheets were imported from England until the end of the 18th century when facilities for rolling sheet metal were developed in America.

Sheet iron was first known to have been manufactured here by the Revolutionary War financier, Robert Morris, who had a rolling mill near Trenton, New Jersey. At his mill Morris produced the roof of his own Philadelphia mansion, which he started in 1794. The architect Benjamin H. Latrobe used sheet iron to replace the roof on Princeton's "Nassau Hall," which had been gutted by fire in 1802.

The method for corrugating iron was originally patented in England in 1829. Corrugating stiffened the sheets, and allowed greater span over a lighter framework, as well as reduced installation time and labor. In 1834 the American architect William Strickland proposed corrugated iron to cover his design for the market place in Philadelphia.

Galvanizing with zinc to protect the base metal from rust was developed in France in 1837. By the 1850s the material was used on post offices and customhouses, as well as on train sheds and factories. In 1857 one of the first metal roofs in the South was installed on the U.S. Mint in New Orleans. The Mint was thereby " fireproofed" with a 20-gauge galvanized, corrugated iron roof on iron trusses.

tin tiles
Tin shingles, commonly embossed to imitate wod or tile, or with a decorative design, were popular as an inexpensive, textured roofing material. Photo: NPS files.


Tin-plate iron, commonly called "tin roofing," was used extensively in Canada in the 18th century, but it was not as common in the United States until later. Thomas Jefferson was an early advocate of tin roofing, and he installed a standing-seam tin roof on "Monticello" (ca. 1770-1802). The Arch Street Meetinghouse (1804) in Philadelphia had tin shingles laid in a herringbone pattern on a "piazza" roof.

However, once rolling mills were established in this country, the low cost, light weight, and low maintenance of tin plate made it the most common roofing material. Embossed tin shingles, whose surfaces created interesting patterns, were popular throughout the country in the late 19th century. Tin roofs were kept well-painted, usually red; or, as the architect A. J. Davis suggested, in a color to imitate the green patina of copper.

Terne plate differed from tin plate in that the iron was dipped in an alloy of lead and tin, giving it a duller finish. Historic, as well as modern, documentation often confuses the two, so much that it is difficult to determine how often actual "terne" was used.

Zinc came into use in the 1820s, at the same time tin plate was becoming popular. Although a less expensive substitute for lead, its advantages were controversial, and it was never widely used in this country.

Other Materials: Asphalt shingles and roll roofing were used in the 1890s. Many roofs of asbestos, aluminum, stainless steel, galvanized steel, and lead-coated copper may soon have historic values as well. Awareness of these and other traditions of roofing materials and their detailing will contribute to more sensitive preservation treatments.

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