Most of the homes in Capitol Hill are considered historic. A very significant percentage are more than 125 years old and have roofing and other structural characteristics that add to the charm of living in historic communities of great and lasting importance.
Before I venture into roofing details, I will begin by covering some of the developmental aspects that led to the Hill community as we know it today. Way back in the 19th century, a small group of committed residents, business owners and real estate speculators and developers were instrumental in the passage of the “Projection Act” of 1871, which ultimately provided Capitol Hill with much of the architectural character that exists today.
This act allowed bay windows, corner towers or turrets, and porches to “project” into public space granting builders and developers leeway to introduce popular elements of the various historic architectural styles including ornate Queen Anne examples and Federal style, Empire style, Italianate and others. It was also during this period from the 1880’s through the 1890’s that the most substantial growth of Capitol Hill residences occurred and that longer rows of attached housing were developed.
Fast forward to 1964. In that year, Capitol Hill was identified as a Landmark of the National Capitol and in 1973 was designated as a historic district. In 1976 the Capitol Hill Historic District (CHHD) was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The CHHD is one of the oldest residential neighborhoods in D.C. and one of the largest historic districts in the country. CHHD was expanded in 1976, 2003 and 2015. Today it is a large area of 200 city squares, about 8,000 buildings and stretches as far east of the U.S. Capitol grounds as 14th St., south to the Navy Yard and north to G St. N.E.
This very interesting background means that your Capitol Hill home is very likely historic in terms of age and requires a substantial amount of TLC and periodic restoration and renovation, including your roof. If it lies within the CHHD there are special rules and regulations regarding construction projects which must be reviewed and approved by the Historic Preservation Office of the D.C. Office of Planning. In addition, regardless of the age of your home, permits for new roofing projects are required and are obtained from the Department of Buildings. (The DOB is a new agency established effective as of Oct. 1, 2022 and has taken on part of the prior responsibilities of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs).
Capitol Hill Roofs
Most of Hill homes have low-slope roofs (aka flat roofs) on the main structure. In earlier times most of these were terne roofs (traditionally a mixture of tin and lead) and some were even copper. These roofs could last up to 100 years or more with proper maintenance. I remember many long, hot, humid summers as a teenager and young adult working with my father and uncles tearing off those old roofs and replacing them. Whew! That was then and this is now. While some terne and copper roofs still exist, new replacement roofs will most likely be of single-ply membrane, such as EPDM (rubber membrane), polymer-modified bitumen, and TPO (thermoplastic polyolefin), among others. These single-ply roofs are cost-efficient, water resistant, energy-efficient and will generally last 20 years plus with minimal maintenance. We do still maintain the expertise and capability to install new metal roofs these days, especially copper for either low-slope or slanted roofs. It takes a lot of experience and a skilled hand.
Capitol Hill also has many turret and mansard-style roofs that were originally composed of natural slate. Walk along the 200 block of 8th St. SE, near Eastern Market, and the 1200 block of E St. NE, and you will see dozens of turret-style homes. Natural slate tiles have been used to roof buildings for hundreds of years. Nothing has been able to match the durability, beauty and fire-proof qualities of natural slate. We often replace these slate roofs with new slate tile roofs destined to last another 100 years+. This is true, artistic, historic roofing at its finest. We often use unique Spanish black slate tile, quarried in Spain, on customer projects. The tiles do not fade or weather and remain true to their deep blue-black color and smooth surface.
Roofing-adjacent structures that may be as important as the roof structure itself include gutters and downspouts and skylights and chimneys. All of these have generally been part of your historic home at the original construction stage and it’s important that they are all properly maintained, repaired and restored along with the roof.
A Case in Point
Let me close with a relevant case study of a Capitol Hill historic home project. Mike and Andrea own a home on E St. NE. There was a slate turret roof with original slate tiles and the original copper built-in-gutter directly below the turret to capture the rainwater. Slate tiles were missing, water was leaking into the house and after many years of repairs we were called to do a comprehensive inspection.
It was clear after just a few minutes on site that the turret roof and built-in-gutter could not be salvaged. There is a point in time where more repairs just won’t do the trick and a new roof is the only viable option. This was one of those times.
Mike and Andrea chose our recommendation to install a new turret roof with new natural slate tiles and a new copper built-in-gutter. These were the same materials used when the house was built more than 125 years ago.
One of the best aspects of this type of project for a roofing company is the true challenge and also the expertise required. The slate tiles and the copper have to be hand-cut to specifications, properly aligned and patiently applied.
I like to call this “bespoke” roofing. Like bespoke tailors, the roofing materials are tailor made, customized to fit the structure and every project is unique. Needless to say, the project was reviewed and approved by the Historic Preservation Office.
Autor: Tom Daniel