April 26, 2012 at 9:10 am EDT | by Tom Daniel
Care required for replacing historic roofs


A turret roof common in Washington's Capitol Hill neighborhood. (Photo courtesy Tom Daniel)

Walk, bike or drive on 8th St. S.E., near Eastern Market and you will see a long block of homes with old slate turret roofs, with built-in gutters below and finials, the decorative metal ornaments, at the peak.

A turret is a small tower that projects vertically from a building and were originally castle appendages. These beautiful roofs are most often found on Queen Anne-style three story homes throughout the Capitol Hill Historic District. While distinctive, they also present a challenge to home-owners needing to repair or replace these roofs.

Many of these slate turret roofs are original and are more than 100 years old. There are four aspects of these roofs that must be considered in a holistic way order to properly assess the situation. A homeowner and his or her roofing advisor must consider the condition of the slate, the wood substrate below the slate, the built-in gutter below the roof (also known as a water table) and the metal decorative finial at the peak. One must also determine the best plan for the work.

Homeowners Joe and Vicki Smith on 8th St. S.E. had an old turret roof, built-in gutter and finial. They were all originals. Over the years numerous repairs had been made to the roof and gutter. They had been painted with aluminum roofing paint, coated with liquid asphalt, individual slate pieces had been repaired and replaced and the slate had been repaired with other various roofing materials. All the repairs had run their course. The time was now to consider a long-term solution.

The Smiths chose to go with traditional products. They had recently replaced their main roof with copper because of their long-term horizon and chose traditional natural slate and copper for the built-in gutter. These products are both very high quality, long lasting and aesthetically appealing.

Once the type of materials was chosen, the plan of action had to be put in place. This is difficult work because a roofing contractor cannot just put up a ladder and go to work. Turret roofs project high above the roof line and even long, 60-foot ladders are ineffective to complete the work. OSHA also has requirements for these types of projects.

Scaffolding was installed to the front of the house, which enabled the roofers to properly do their work. This work also requires a high level of skill and handiwork to correctly measure and cut each piece of slate; sheet metal expertise to install the copper gutter; and carpentry skills to install new wood.

After removing the old slate, gutter and finial, the exposed wood revealed significant water damage that had occurred over the years. This was the starting point on the road to replacement. Working from the bottom up, the first step was to replace damaged lumber where needed on both the turret and the gutter. Once this was completed, the new copper gutter/water table was installed.

Copper will last many years and must be joined at the seams by a soldering process in which metal items are joined together by melting and flowing a filler metal into the joint. Then it’s time to cut and nail individual pieces of slate, piece by piece, onto the wood base of the turret. It’s important to use copper nails for their long lasting qualities. The last part of the process is to install a new finial at the peak. There are many options.

The finished product reminds one of the historical and traditional significance of these Hill homes and transports us to a place in time when the Hill was at its origins.

Tom Daniel is owner and manager of R. Thomas Daniel Roofing, a third-generation family business that has been doing business in Capitol Hill for more than 90 years. The firm is the recommended roofer of Capitol Hill Village. Daniel is a Hill resident and can be reached at 202-569-1080 or tom@rthomasdanielroofing.com, or visit the business online at rthomasdanielroofing.com.

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