Roof Colors Matter in Historical Structures
by Tammy Adamson-McMullen
In her article "Roofing for Historic Buildings," architectural historian Susan M. Sweetser suggests that roofs are more than a defense against the elements. From the gables of American Craftsman homes to the turrets of Queen Anne mansions and asymmetrical lines of New England Saltboxes, roofs throughout time have been a major part of architectural design.
Finding the right materials to repair or replace an original historic roof hasn't always been easy, but this is changing. Currently on the market is a growing number of products‒some authentic and others made from newer synthetic materials‒that help to preserve the structure's original intent.
“Starting from the top down, people can find simulated shake roofing tiles in a variety of colors that make a historic color scheme on a home’s exterior a modern-day standout,” said color expert Kate Smith of DaVinci Roofscapes, a Kansas-based manufacturer of synthetic shaker and slate roof tiling. DaVinci offers a wide spectrum of 49 colors in shake and slate roofing tiles and has 28 unique roofing color blends.
“There are many winning historic color combinations that can be achieved by selecting the right polymer roofing tile to match up with historic house and trim paint colors," she added.
Smith suggested that shades of brown exterior paint, highlighted with cream trim, work especially well with brown shades of shake roofing tiles. The five varying shades of brown in DaVinci's Tahoe blend, for instance, create a soft, historical look and simulate old hand-hewn wooden shakes.
“Paint colors historically came from nature so we see a great deal of browns on older homes,” said Smith. She noted, for example, that the gray and black paint used on old homes most likely came from coal, soot or charcoal added to a paint base, while reds came from crushed brick or red clay.
According to Sweetser, roofing styles have left their stamp on American history. Sweetser writes that European settlers used clay to create tile roofs as early as the mid 17th century. The roofs could be found in pre-colonial Jamestown, Va., and in the missions of the American Southwest, where they remain popular to this day.
Slate roofs also were popular with settlers, according to Sweetser, but had to be imported until the development of canals and railroads across the United States in the mid-19th century. Popular slate colors included red, green, purple and blue-gray, often used together to create decorative roofing patterns.
To help recreate these Old-World looks with as much authenticity as possible, the Texas-based Roof Tile & Slate Co. offers several roofing lines. They include Antique Villa Tiles (AVT), a collection of handmade, reclaimed roofing tiles salvaged from haciendas, churches and estates in South America. The company also offers a collection of slates salvaged from across the United States. Called "Historic Slates," they range in color from grays, greens and purples to tans, browns and rust.
"Both the Historical Slates and the AVT products have been removed off old buildings and are a very popular Old-World look," said Jana Engel, general manager. "We make no physical changes to the material. They change over time with exposure to the elements."
Meanwhile, DaVinci's slate roofing tiles have been used in a number of recent historic projects.
“Whether it’s a re-roofing project for a Williamsburg home or the historic landmark DuSable Museum in Chicago, one of the reasons I like polymer roofing materials rather than natural wood or slate ... is because they retain their color for decades,” said Smith. “With these products, you don’t have to be concerned with the color changing as it ages."
DaVinci's synthetic tiles were used in the restoration of the Old Liberty Station restaurant in Bedford, Va., after it was destroyed by fire. The landmark 104-year old stone structure was reconstructed using synthetic black slate tiles.
“The asphalt roofing shingles caught fire very quickly during the blaze,” said restaurant owner Harry Leist, who used DaVinci's synthetic fire-resistant slate roofing tiles. "From street level, everyone thinks it’s real slate. However, this is better ..."
Sarah M. Sweetser's article originally was published by the National Park Service as part of its Preservation Briefs series.