Gothic revival in the South

Alabama's Church of the Nativity is blessed with new copper roof systems

  • Side view of the main sanctuaryPhotos courtesy of Doug Brewster, Brewster Commercial Photography, Huntsville, Ala.
  • One of eight decorative custom-made copper windowsPhotos courtesy of Doug Brewster, Brewster Commercial Photography, Huntsville, Ala.
  • Custom-fabricated Rauten interlocking 16-ounce copper tiles were installed on the steep-slope areasPhotos courtesy of Doug Brewster, Brewster Commercial Photography, Huntsville, Ala.
  • A custom-made 24-karat gold-plated cross was fabricated and installed on the steeple.Photos courtesy of Doug Brewster, Brewster Commercial Photography, Huntsville, Ala.

The Church of the Nativity, Episcopal, has an extensive history in Huntsville, Ala. When its congregation organized in December 1842, the church's name was chosen because of the approaching Christmas season. After being admitted to The Episcopal Diocese of Alabama, the parish was officially recognized in May 1843.

In 1845, a plot of land was purchased and construction of a church building began. In 1847, the first mass was held in the original brick building. A second building was later constructed alongside the first building to accommodate 500 people and currently is the church's main sanctuary.

Designed by Ecclesiastical architect Frank Wills, the building's steeple is 154 feet tall and is an example of Gothic Revival architecture in the South. On Easter eve in 1859, the church held its first mass in this sanctuary. Although Huntsville was occupied during the Civil War, the church was spared because the "Reverance My Sanctuary" sign over the door was honored by federal occupation forces. The original and current church buildings stood side by side until 1878 when the original building was donated and relocated to another church.

In 1884, Bibb Memorial Chapel was erected. In 1953, Ridley Hall, which includes a basement, classrooms and a kitchen, was constructed. In 1979, an annex with two floors was purchased and connected to the complex. The most recent addition is Joffrion Hall, which was built in 1982 and includes four floors. In 1992, the current church building with the second structure added was accepted as a National Historic Landmark.

Saving history

In 2007, the Church of the Nativity began a capital campaign to perform repairs and restorations to the various buildings and hired engineering firm Noblin & Associates, Bridgewater, Mass., to assess the entire campus, focusing on the church's historic building.

The report revealed various repairs: During the 1950s, the roof blew off the steeple, and the structure was reframed in steel. The steeple initially rested on a 60-foot-tall brick bell tower that had deteriorated and no longer could support the steeple. During the 1970s, the tower was repaired by injecting a special mortar to stabilize it. Also during the 1970s, the masonry was repointed with Portland cement, which caused damage. Other than it being a metal roof, documentation for the original roof system could not be found.

"Our goal was to be historically correct," says Ernest Colin, a retired engineer who serves as the church's representative and restoration project manager. "After searching the church archives, the local university archives and many other sources, no information was found about the original roof other than tinning had occurred."

The existing galvanized stamped shingles had been there for many years, so it was appropriate to use a metal roof system for the replacement.

"We recommended roof system replacement and restoration of the masonry and protective glass for the stained-glass windows," says Tim Little, P.E., senior project manager for Noblin & Associates. "We recommended a copper roof system instead of replacing the existing stamped galvanized metal shingle system."

Although the total cost to restore the roof systems using copper was estimated to be more than $1 million, Colin says the church decided to use the material because doing so will help the church realize savings in the future.

"Considering inflation, we figured we would have to spend many millions of dollars maintaining and replacing stamped metal roofs," he says.

The National Park Service's Preservation Briefs allow the use of materials appropriate for the time period and application conditions, so copper was approved for the church's various new roof systems. Thanks to a Save America's Treasures grant from the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior, the church received $434,000 to proceed with the restoration project.

Restoring faith

The restoration project was performed in two phases.

Phase one included Bibb Memorial Chapel and Ridley Parish Hall. Ornametals Manufacturing LLC, Cullman, Ala., was engaged to fabricate the copper components, and CopperWorks Corp., Decatur, Ala., was engaged to perform tear-off, prep and repair work and install the roof systems. Hussey Copper, Leetsdale, Pa., supplied the raw copper material.

Custom-fabricated 16- by 16-inch Rauten interlocking 16-ounce copper tiles were installed over the steel decks on the steep-slope areas of Bibb Memorial Chapel and Ridley Parish Hall, and double-lock standing-seam 20-ounce copper was installed on the low-slope areas. A flat-seam 16-ounce copper wall cladding system also was incorporated. The coping above the copper roofs was fabricated in 0.8-mil-thick VMZinc.®

The second phase included the sanctuary (main congregation building) and steeple. In addition to installing custom-fabricated 16- by 16-inch Rauten interlocking 16-ounce copper tiles on the steep-slope areas, double-lock standing-seam 20-ounce copper on the low-slope areas and incorporating a flat-seam 16-ounce copper wall cladding system, custom-fabricated 9- by 15-inch dragon-scale Rauten interlocking copper tiles were installed on the 154-foot-tall steeple.

In addition, an Ornametals Manufacturing EuroGutter-USA™ rainwater system; eight decorative custom-made copper windows; 12 custom-made copper window eyebrows (covers); decorative copper fascia covers; a rolled copper ridge vent with lightning system; four 24-foot-tall decorative dormers; and a custom-made 24-karat gold-plated cross also were fabricated and installed.

A steep challenge

Working on the steeple was a difficult task. Because of load constraints, the sanctuary's roof structure could not withstand the weight of scaffolding necessary to restore the 154-foot-tall steeple. Instead of erecting scaffolding on the roof, Ornametals Manufacturing built a free-standing scaffolding structure with I-beams installed through the steeple to support the scaffolding's weight.

"The biggest challenge was not what could be seen but what couldn't be seen," says Erika Huber, sales and marketing director for Ornametals Manufacturing. "It was difficult to build the scaffolding for the steeple because we couldn't put any weight on the church roof, so we had a 90-foot-tall scaffolding structure built above the bell tower that balanced on the steeple."

Positive reflections

Phase one began in February 2010 and was completed in June 2010; the second phase began in January 2011 and was completed in September 2011. Altogether, 82,000 pounds of 16- and 20-ounce copper were fabricated and installed into 22,500 Rauten interlocking tiles; 9,500 dragon-scale Rauten interlocking tiles; a double-lock rolled ridge vent; double-lock standing-seam panels; wall cladding; flashings; coping; and decorative fascia, cornice and mouldings covering 30,000 square feet.

"We used more than 10,000 interlocking pieces on the buildings," Huber says. "All the seams were double-locked in place, and these roofs should last 150 or more years because we didn't use any sealant."

In addition to the roof system restorations, the church releaded the stained-glass windows, restored 27 exterior doors, repointed brick and repaired interior plaster and damaged wood.

"The townspeople are happy with the restoration project and the new copper roof," Colin says. "We are pleased to have contributed to the revitalization of the downtown Huntsville area."

For its work on the Church of the Nativity, Ornametals Manufacturing received a 2013 Gold Circle Awards Honorable Mention in the Innovative Solutions: Reroofing category.

Chrystine Elle Hanus is Professional Roofing's associate editor and NRCA's director of communications.

Project name: Church of the Nativity, Episcopal
Project location: Huntsville, Ala.
Project duration: February 2010-September 2011
Roof system type: Copper
Roofing contractors: CopperWorks Corp., Decatur, Ala.; Ornametals Manufacturing LLC, Cullman, Ala.
Product manufacturers: Hussey Copper, Leetsdale,Pa.; Ornametals Manufacturing
Gold Circle Awards category: Innovative Solutions: Reroofing


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