Slate Roofing History – More on the Blog

Variously cut slate to heighten roof decoration was strongly discouraged by the promoters of Queen Anne and just as strongly ignored by its mass interpreters. The pretty effect of tiles pointed to form a saw tooth line or rounded like fish scales was admitted by J.J. Stevenson, but he added “ourВ architecture lately has trusted too much for its effect to such little prettiness … The glory of a plain tile roof,” he noted “is that its mass of quiet beautiful colour gives dignity to the worst and most fantastic architecture.” The noble bearing expected of a roof in this period was echoed by H.H. Holly’s admonition that “(Tiles) when worked into fancy forms lose their dignity.”

Nonetheless, fancy forms in slating persisted in Queen Anne architecture in Canada. Like Second Empire slate roofs, however, Queen Anne slate work was nearly always in one colour. Plain or common slating in the Romanesque Revival, Chateau and other eclectic modes.

With the institutional adoption of the Richardsonian mode in the late 1880s and 1890s, public building in Canada saw a gradual return to continuous replace roof slating which was the builder’s term for straight-cut slate work uninterrupted by diverse colours or shapes. Discreet bands of scalloped slating appeared on the New Rockland blue slate roof of Redpath Library at McGill University. The slated roofs of other Richardsonian-inspired buildings such as the provincial legislatures of Ontario and British Columbia, the 1899 Court House in St. John’s, Newfoundland, and the London Public Library 1894, displayed smooth surfaces of continuous or plain work. Taken collectively these buildings also suggest that from the 1890s the black slate roof was being replaced by a wider colour palette that included solid green, red and purple roofs. In the example of the London Public Library red slate again appeared with Scottish red sandstone.

Plain or common slating at its showiest was manifested in the Chateau style that had its sources in the 16th-century chateaux of the Loire Valley. Though the stately homes of the French nobility were distinguished by their ample roofs sheathed with gleaming surfaces of small slate, the Canadian adaptation for its railway hotels did not often use slating. When it was employed, however, as in architect Bruce Price’s hotel station at Place Viger in Montreal, thin, small straight-cut slates expressed the same fine smooth elegance of the French chateaux. At Craigdarroch Castle in Victoria, an aristocratic residence of mixed Romanesque and Scottish Baronial influences, lustrous planes of red slate highlighted the chateau roof and provided a vivid textural contrast with the rock-faced stonework of the facade. The return to symbols exploited by the Chateau style railway hotels was one of the themes of the Beaux-Arts movement which gained ground in Canadian cities around the turn of the century. Architects, tired of the dabbling in styles which had grown out of Queen Anne, returned to other historical
models. In their search for order and clarity, many increasingly went to classical sources. The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 was an ode to monumental classical forms that epitomized the academic reaction. Beaux-Art classicism diminished the roof in the composition of public architecture and this process was completed by the concurrent development of the skyscraper. Symbolic, eclectic architecture in other modes, such as collegiate gothic for schools, would perpetuate slating in the public sector but it was domestic building that set new stylistic trends in slate roofing in the 20th century.

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