In 1989 I moved to Waukegan, Illinois, and bought a wonderful little 1842 Greek Revival. It was a fantastic house, but I always wanted something a little bigger. As I walked my dog to the local park, I often passed a hulking 1872 Italianate that had seen better days. When, a few years later, I heard it was for sale, I jumped at the chance to buy the house—and all the huge projects it required.
One of the saddest elements of my new house was a truncated roof atop the central tower. It just didn’t look right—you could tell something was missing. I vowed that one day, I would make the roof whole again.
As I researched my home’s history, I learned it had gone through a lot since being built by a widow, Harriet Biddelcom, for her family. While the home only had two other owners before me, it had undergone many changes, including being turned into three apartments in the 1930s. Previous owners told me that the tower roof had “blown off in the 1940s,” but I believe it probably rotted away from lack of maintenance. After it was gone, asphalt shingles were slapped on the truncated form that had once been soldered in metal sheeting.
I had a poor-quality photograph from the 1930s showing my home’s original, handsome Second Empire concave mansard tower with roundel windows. Another house down the street bore a similar roof and some identical millwork; both gave me a clear picture of how I hoped to restore the roof.
My dream began to materialize the day I broached the subject with a neighbor and friend who also happens to be a master carpenter. Rich Rucinski had done some wonderful work on my house, including building new cabinets to match old ones in my kitchen, so I brought up my idea for the tower restoration with him, expecting a lack of interest. To the contrary, when I showed him what had been there and what the house might look like again, I saw a gleam in his eye. We soon forged a plan.
In its original incarnation, the tower and roof would have been built in situ on the house, by carpenters and tradespeople perched on scaffolding, ropes, or the like. Because Rich could only work on this project in the afternoons and on Saturdays, building a new roof on top of the house would have been impractical, dangerous, and more expensive, with scaffolding required for months. Rich also was worried this method would be harder on his knees. He suggested we build the tower on the ground, then “fly” it into position.
Before we started working, I had an architect friend, Steve Kolber, create drawings based on my research. We also made some small improvements to the design. For example, the original curve of the concave mansard had flared out considerably near the bottom of the roof. We decided to increase the angle (thus decreasing the curve) so snow and water wouldn’t accumulate there and potentially shorten the new roof’s lifespan.
The original covering on both the tower and the rest of the house was made of flat squares of tin that were hand-soldered and waterproof. However, putting a metal roof over my entire house was cost-prohibitive, so I made the difficult decision to place asphalt shingles on the house’s low-pitched roof. Asphalt wouldn’t do on the tower, however, so Rich and I decided to use round cedar shingles—a total of 2,000 of them. I painted them by hand pre-installation, and for weeks, I had clotheslines strung across my garden bearing shingles hanging out to dry.
Rich began the project by transferring the angles from Steve’s drawings onto 2x12s, using a compass to achieve the arc of the mansard. Then, he cut the boards with a heavy-duty jigsaw to create the common rafters. (This was no easy task because of two compound arcs; Rich created a template to get the correct cut.) He used the same technique on the hip rafters. Next, he applied ¾” plywood over the whole frame. Before attaching the shingles, Rich rolled felt paper and a layer of plastic mesh over the plywood. He then nailed each shingle by hand, using two galvanized nails. Even with the increased angle on the mansard, it was difficult for Rich to make the shingles bend enough to follow the roofline’s curve.
As the tower began to take shape, I started worrying that our proportions might not be correct. Despite our careful measurements of the existing footprint—which were the basis of the new design—once the plywood was added to the skeleton and then the mansard roof was constructed, I became certain that after the tower was set into place it would look giant, like an oversized lampshade up on the roof. (I even imagined my neighbors referring to the oversized fiasco as “Harry’s Folly,” but tried to keep those thoughts at bay—plus, as it turned out, my worries were completely unfounded.)
One of the most enjoyable parts of the project was deciding what kind of decoration to include. (All of our choices, of course, were based on what was historically accurate, and what would suit the roof.) I discovered a roofing ornament company, W.F. Norman of Nevada, Missouri, which has been in business for about as long as my house has been in existence—it may have even provided the original roof decorations.
Because I wanted the project to last, I chose copper for the little gabled roofs on the bottom of each side, as well as for the hip roof and the finial on the top of the structure (although the only photograph I’d found was cut off at the top, a photograph of a similar roof with a prominent finial convinced me to add one), the hoods on the roundel windows, and scrolls and other decorations. I hired a wonderful coppersmith named Sock Woodruff from Custom Gutters in Lake Forest, Illinois, to do all of the metalwork.
Lifts and Balances
We originally planned to lift the roof into place using straps, but worried that the whole thing might be too top-heavy, causing us to lose some control in placing it. We also weren’t sure how we could remove the straps once the new roof was in place.
So Rich decided to build “lifting arms” extending from the corners of the roof, made of 2x10s we could chop off once the roof was in place. (The arms also would provide better stability since they were at the top of the roof instead of the bottom.) After the roof was in place, we planned to cover the lifting points at the four corners with a galvanized metal rope decoration from W.F. Norman.
Early on the morning of the installation, Rich was up on the tower tearing off the old roof and installing new 2×10 sills to give our mansard a good, flat foundation. The crane arrived mid-morning—along with the mayor and all of my neighbors and friends. I was terrified, worried about lifting this 5,000-pound monster into place.
As the mansard rose, a hush fell over the crowd as it swung gently in air. The crane operator maneuvered it slowly into position and lowered it onto its new base, setting it into place among the existing gutters and original soffits, with their huge ornamental Italianate brackets and intaglio decorations. Rich then secured the new roof to the old with steel strapping, cut off the lifting arms, and covered the four corners with the pre-painted, zinc-coated roping. We had done it—placed the new roof onto the old house perfectly in one frightening, exhilarating move. With the new roof resting atop it, the house finally appears finished.Published in: Old-House Journal October/November 2010