An 18th Century Roof

Eighteenth-century Americans knew the importance of a sound roof. In 1784, George Washington himself complained of being "plagued with leaks at a Cupolo &ca" and three years later admonished his nephew about that same cupola: "Let particular care be used to putty, or put copper on all the joints to prevent the leaking, & rotting of the wood as it will be difficult, & expensive to repair it hereafter." A leaky roof has been a headache through the ages and makes Mount Vernon's architectural preservation team feel particularly close to the General. Like him, we are fighting the endless war to prevent leaks and rotting of the shingles.

Wood was the overwhelming choice for Virginia roofs in Washington's day. Washington purchased hundreds of thousands of shingles for Mount Vernon during his lifetime, most of them split from cypress trees cut in the Dismal Swamp of southeastern Virginia. Cypress is naturally rot resistant, and an old growth cypress roof was expected to provide cover for 50 years or more.

Besides choosing one of the best woods for his shingles, Washington also knew the importance of shingle care. Sun and rain gave roofs a beating, and the practice of painting roofs with tar or oil-based paints was an attempt to extend the life of shingles by sealing them and replacing their natural oils. The red color used on Mount Vernon's roofs today was matched to the paint preserved on an original shingle found in the mansion attic, apparently dropped during shingle replacement in the 1800s. This red color was on the mansion by 1793 when Edward Savage executed his two views of Mount Vernon.

Replicating Washington's Shingles

At Mount Vernon, we continue traditional roofing practices. Over the years, wood choices might have varied due to availability, and paint types may have changed with new innovations, but painted wood roofs have been in place at Washington's home for almost 300 years. It is natural that all roofs eventually come to the end of their useful lives and need replacement.

Over the last three decades, our preservation experts looked at these moments as opportunities to return more and more to the materials and techniques known to Washington. In 1996, the Mansion roof was replaced with shingles, hand-split from old-growth cypress logs that had sunk more than a century ago in the swamps of Florida. These shingles are still on the Mansion today and are nearly identical to what Washington would have ordered.

It’s All About the Paint

Having gone to great lengths to use the same type and quality wood as Washington, Mount Vernon also gives the same thoughtful attention to the paint that helps extend the life of our roofs.

In the 18th century, roofs were frequently treated with paints that used fish oil to bind together the pigments, but today no fish-oil paints are commercially available. Consequently, Mount Vernon began using modern paints to achieve its trademark red roofs. Unfortunately, the paint chosen was not robust enough to withstand the harsh effects of weather and sun, and the paint began peeling and fading within a few years of application, requiring frequent stripping and repainting.

Due to advances in technology and paints, more options exist today than in the past. Mount Vernon's experts conducted experiments with several formulas and settled on a commercially-available, oil-based paint that is extremely close to the traditional 18th-century linseed oil paint. Unlike previous paint used on the roof, this will not sit on the surface of the shingle, but rather be absorbed much like a stain, and therefore, should not ever peel or require stripping. When the color begins to fade, a new application is made directly over the prior one. Today the Mansion and outbuilding roofs receive this treatment. 

Restoring Mount Vernon

Mount Vernon is one of the best documented and most complete examples of an estate from early America, but discovering, analyzing, and interpreting the extraordinary mass of available evidence is an ongoing process.

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