When many of the historic homes in Oak Park and River Forest were built over 100 years ago, they were roofed with slate, wood or tile shingles. Asphalt roofing products gained popularity for the lower price and ease of install, and today, most homes in the area sport replacement asphalt roofs. 

Slate and wood roofs are typically more expensive than asphalt shingles. The website roofingcalc.com, which estimates roofing costs, reports that asphalt roofs can cost between $3.50 and $5.50 per square foot installed. 

Compare that with ranges of $6.50 to $12.50 to install a square foot of wood shingles and from $12.50 to $25 per square foot of slate installed. While part of the expense is the material, labor for installation is also steep due to the time-consuming nature of installing the natural products.

Despite the cost and the time involved, many old-house lovers find that retaining the architectural integrity of their homes makes it all worth it.

In the 400 block of North Kenilworth Avenue, the E.E. Roberts-designed Simpson Dunlop house is getting a new slate roof courtesy of Ryan Restorations. 

Dan Ryan, a former Marine who has been working with historic roofs for over 20 years, says the home’s steeply-pitched roof makes its installation a bit more challenging, but he notes this is the kind of work his team is trained to do. 

The 1896-era house had a slate roof when Ryan was brought in, but he notes that it was falling apart. He says of his inspection of the existing roof, “We could see the back side of the roof from the attic. The tar paper was gone.”

A lot of preparation goes into replacing a slate roof. Ryan describes first creating custom box gutters and tying in the gutter system to run under the tar paper and ice and water shield protections before the roofing can begin. 

When it comes to the slate itself, each tile of slate is 7.5 inches long, but each slate piece is 18 inches long, and Ryan says that the part of the shingle you don’t see when it is installed functions to keep water out. 

His workers set up a customized scaffolding system to carry the heavy material up to the roof and then use a human chain to pass them along for installation. Each slate is hand-nailed into place with two copper nails. On the Simpson-Dunlop house, each section of roof calls for 2,400 slates and 4,800 nails.

All of this customization does not come cheap. 

“Slate and copper are expensive,” Ryan said. “Labor is expensive, and then you have insurance because there is risk with going up on a roof.”

To Ryan, paying that higher cost is worth it for the high quality of the work that goes into installing a slate roof. 

“I was in the Marines; the details are important to me,” he said. “I have a process for training my guys to do this kind of work, and I make sure my clients get the roofs they are paying for. Slate roofs are expected to last 100 years. By the time you re-roof one of these, you would’ve installed six asphalt roofs.”

On Fair Oaks Avenue, the homeowner of a Frank Lloyd Wright house chose a different old-school material when it was time to re-roof his historic house. 

He consulted with the Oak Park Historic Preservation Commission to hear about roofing options, a service the commission provides free of cost to local homeowners.

“They did a lot of research and found an historic photo of the house and surmised that a wood cedar shingle roof was the original material,” said the owner who requested not to be named for this story.

He hired Hanson Roofing from Evanston to replace his roof, which was beyond its original lifespan and irreparably damaged by moss. The owner notes that the process was quite involved.

“It is way more complex than asphalt,” he said. “There’s an old-world art and craftsmanship to this.”

The project took a little more than three weeks to complete, and Chuck Neuhaus of Hanson Roofing says that’s par for the course when working with specialty roofing materials like cedar. 

“It is time consuming,” Neuhaus said. “On a typical house, one guy could install about 800 square feet of asphalt roofing in a day. On a wood shingle, he might get 150 square feet.”

Neuhaus, who has been in the roofing business for over 40 years, specializes in slate, wood and tile roofs, but says his crew is experienced with all types of roofs. While working with a Wright home can provide more challenges due to Wright’s tendency to build unusually low-pitched roofs with big overhangs, Neuhaus says that Wright homes aren’t different from most historic homes. 

“People say, ‘They don’t build ’em like they used to,’ and we’re lucky they don’t,” Neuhaus said. “We always uncover issues with older homes.”

Neuhaus notes that having been in the business so long, he is used to finding old problems and being prepared to address whatever comes up while on the job. Of historic homes and specialty roofing materials, he says, “The main thing is experience. I know the red flags that come up.”

Architect Chris Payne, who formerly chaired the Historic Preservation Commission, also hired Hanson Roofing to help restore the original appearance of his Oak Park bungalow. 

When he and his wife removed the vinyl siding from their house, they discovered wood accents and a section of roofing over their front porch that bore the signs of having originally been clad in wooden shingles. 

Payne notes that re-roofing that small section with wood shingles, along with the repairs they made to the siding, was a simple way to enhance their bungalow’s exterior.

Neuhaus says that whether the roof is large or small, he takes pride in the work his team does.

“We enjoy the work, for us it’s a challenge,” he said.

 The Wright homeowner concludes that spending the extra money on a cedar roof was worth it. 

“Even though it was a lot of money and nobody wants to spend money on roofing, it is beautiful,” he said. “It enhances the whole house.”

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