220-year-old cabin struggling under decaying roof

Biltmore Estate's 120-year-old cooper roof gets repairs

May 17, 2015

The Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C., is undergoing extensive repairs to its 120-year old copper roof, including the replacement of the 500- to 600-pound north tower ridge cap. A temporary rubber membrane seal is in place during the work. Additional hips and panels on the tower will also be replaced.

The estate has embarked on a fascinating, and pretty extensive, repair of part of the 120-year-old building's copper roofing. "We're removing the north tower ridge cap," said Brent Merrell, director of engineering services for the Biltmore Estate. "We had some damage where water penetrated and caused some of the metal inside to rust. The water had expanded in there and some of the copper had kind of bowed out." While this may sound like small potatoes, it's not. Merrell said the copper part of the roof has not had work done "on this scale." "We do make the repairs to the valleys, but this is a fairly major piece," he said. The copper ridge cap weighs 500-600 pounds, and the estate is also removing the eight "hips" or copper pieces that run vertically and form the tower, as well as several of the panels with the iconic "GV" initials on them.

In all, 24 different pieces came off the roof and were shipped to Florida, where replacement parts are being made. Workers framed up the gap and put a temporary rubber membrane seal over it. The roof is 120 years old, but the copper itself is in pretty good shape. "A lot of the joints had come loose and needed to be repaired," Merrell said. "The copper did have some pitting. A lot of that pitting was on the hips." Workers from Huber & Associates spent a few days this week removing the cap before taking it to the company's Florida workshop. "There, a coppersmith will use it as a model to build an all-new cap, which will be allowed to patina naturally over time as opposed to trying to match it by modern methods," Donnelly said. "In other words, the new copper cap will look like it did when the House was first built in the late 1890s — a reddish-brown color. The project will take six to seven months to complete." I chided Donnelly that I believe that "reddish-brown" color is called "copper." The new pieces will be copper, but the workshop will not reuse the original metal. Those original pieces will come back to the estate and go into storage, Merrell said.

The home's roof is mostly slate, but it has plenty of copper joints, caps and panels, which now have a lovely green patina. The last major copper work, on pieces with the "GV" on them, occurred in the mid-1990s, Merrell said, and still have not acquired a full patina. Not many people build homes like George Vanderbilt did. It's mind-boggling to think what that home must have looked like new, with all that gleaming copper and gold-leaf "GV's."


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