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As West Range Roof Replacement Continues, Workers Find Evidence of Original Structures

For the first time in nearly 180 years, the West Range at the University of Virginia has a new slate roof. In the process, workers also discovered evidence of previously undocumented roof structures.

The slate roofs that cap the West Range rooms – part of the University’s historic Academical Village, designed by founder Thomas Jefferson – are being replaced. The slate was first installed in the 1830s to cover the original, leaky serrated wood roofs that Jefferson designed.

The modern slate replacement project is estimated to cost about $900,000, which is being paid for from Facilities Management’s maintenance budget. W.A. Lynch Roofing Co. of Charlottesville is doing the roof work.

Work on Hotel A and the North Dormitory block of student rooms on the West Range has been completed and the scaffolding that has surrounded the structure will be dismantled and removed starting Friday at 6 a.m., which could cause some minor traffic delays on McCormick Road and nearby alleys. The work is weather-dependent and may need to continue to Saturday or Monday.

The roofs have been repaired over the years, but the original slates were 18- to 24-inches square, and it was getting difficult to replace them. The new roof slates are more-standard 16-by-10-inch rectangles. Some of the original slates removed from the roof are being preserved for the historical archive, but James D.W. Zehmer, historic preservation project manager in Facilities Management’s planning and construction department, said most of the old slates are being discarded. The flashings, ridge caps and gutters on the roofs are also being replaced.

While removing the old slates, workmen found indications that there originally were structures on the roofs over the student rooms, Zehmer, said.

“When the crews were working near the chimney on the south end of the block of rooms, they found mortises in the sheathing indicating there were low parapet walls or a balustrade along the eaves of the roof,” Zehmer said. The mortises were left from the installation of metal brackets that would have held the wall or balustrade up.

He said square holes were found in some of the original slate on Hotel E, indicating that the slate was carefully punctured to slide over the original metal support bracket. This would have been a very complicated construction detail, representing a coordinated effort between the roofers and carpenters, Zehmer said.

“The famous Bohn print, which can be viewed in the Dome Room of the Rotunda, shows some sort of parapet or balustrade along the West Range roofs,” he said. “We are always a little leery of drawings from the time, due to artistic license, and we need to check for actual physical evidence. These mortises represent the physical evidence to support the fact that there were indeed low walls or balustrades in place at one time.”

Zehmer said even if they find visual evidence of older structures, there are no plans afoot to replace it. Since the discoveries were made during construction, it would have been difficult to re-work the roof design and stay on schedule and within budget, he noted. 

Workmen have also lowered the pitch of the loggia roof in front of Hotel C, exposing more of the entablature, the horizontal molding at the base of the pediment. Zehmer said some of the University’s carpenters will replace the crown molding and soffit, which will restore the hotel closer to its original appearance.

The slate work continues on Hotel C, South Dorm and Hotel E roofs, and should be completed by the end of August. Zehmer said the work had gotten off to a slow start because of the nearly constant rain in June, but he said extra crews have been put on the jobs and work has caught up. 

“In spite of the rain, W.A. Lynch, in conjunction with Alexander Nicholson and U.Va.. Central Grounds Maintenance Zone carpenters, have done a great job in maintaining a quality product and keeping the project on track in terms of the overall schedule,” Zehmer said.

Landscaping work is scheduled to take place in September, after the scaffolding has been removed and work areas cleaned up.

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