ART OF SPACE
The Felipe B. Delgado House, 124 W. Palace Ave., has a shiny new roof. Back in the day, glinting silver atop houses and commercial buildings was a mark of prestige.
Whodathunkit? In the center of Santa Fe’s historic district, where large, sheeny surfaces of metal and glass are energetically denigrated, a silver roof is actually totally historic.
This lovely house, with its distinctive secondfloor balcony and gingerbready central porch, was built in 1890 or 1891 by Delgado, who was a prominent merchant and freighter on the Santa Fe Trail. The house remained in his family until 1970, when it was purchased and renovated by architect and preservationist John Gaw Meem. In 1980, John and Faith Meem donated the house to the Historic Santa Fe Foundation to ensure its preservation. “The house was built to have retail on the ground floor and living quarters upstairs,” said the foundation’s executive director, Elaine Bergman. “It’s one of the few buildings downtown that has its original character. If Felipe Delgado was walking up the street, he would recognize it as his house.”
The old roof, which lasted 120 years, was terne or terneplate, a technology that predated corrugated metal. According to Santa Fe’s Historic Building Inventory Manual, standing-seam terneplate roofs were popular in this area in the decades before the coming of the railroad in 1880. “Preceding the manufacture of corrugated metals, flat sheets of metal roofing called terne plate were small enough to be carried on wagon trains over the Santa Fe Trail,” historic preservation consultant Catherine Colby wrote in a report for the Historic Santa Fe Foundation.
Terne means “dull” in French. This relates to the appearance of the material, a lead/tin alloy over iron or steel. By contrast, what was called “bright tin,” such as Thomas Jefferson used for Monticello in 1800, was steel coated with pure tin. Terne was a bit cheaper, while affording similar longevity and protection from the elements.
Several types of metal roofs have standing seams running down the roof faces. But the additional horizontal seams between the small sheets gave terne roofs their distinctive look. The new Delgado roof, installed by J.M. Evans Construction, looks like the original. “They could have used long runs and not had any horizontal seams,” Bergman said, “but we made them cut it to the same lengths as the original panels, so you have that same sort of rhythm of the horizontal seams.”
This is an unusual roof design, because the sides of the hip roof pitch down to integral drainage troughs or gutters above the eaves. Water is supposed to drain to the building’s four corners, but after a century or so there was some sagging, pooling water, and leaks.
First National Bank of Santa Fe, which has rented the Delgado House as additional office space for three decades, did a repair job 10 years ago. “When I received a call just two or three years after that and heard there was an indication of a leak problem, our property committee got very involved,” Bergman said. “We found that the roofer had applied a material in the gutters in a way that was doomed to fail.”
Planning a total redo, the foundation found one company, Follansbee Steel in West Virginia, that traces its history back to the early 1800s and still manufactures terne. Frank Lloyd Wright is quoted on the firm’s website as saying that terne metal “lends itself to many dramatic new applications in the contemporary idiom. Because of its inherent adaptability in both form and color, Follansbee Terne permits the visible roof area to become a significant part of the structural design.”
The Delgado project took eight months and cost a little less than $140,000. It started with the removal of the old metal. And where did it all go? “You know, this stuff ’s been EPA’d out of existence. It’s very hard to find,” Bergman said. “Two guys who do restoration work on tin fixtures came and hauled it off. It was recycled. A hallmark of our building legacy here in Santa Fe is the recycling of materials, just as vigas were reused when a house came down. We valued our resources.”
Part two involved carpentry: repairs to rotted rafters and to roof brackets, some of which were just held in place by “structural paint.” Follansbee delivered a quantity of its patented ZT (zinc/tin alloy) product to Evans subcontractor DKG & Associates of Albuquerque. That company applied primer and did the initial crimping.
The roof panels were installed over a rubbery membrane that serves as an ice and storm shield over the Delgado house roof. The horizontal seams between the terne sheets were soldered, just as on the original roof, then the locking crimps — which result in the standing seams — were completed using a little robotlike machine that crawls up the roof on rollers.
Delgado’s roof was probably installed by Alexander Irvine, a tinner who moved to Santa Fe from Peoria, Illinois, in 1871. He built his own house at 310 McKenzie St., and his metal roofs “were soon everywhere, becoming a defining element of late Territorial construction,” according to a story Corinne P. Sze did for the Autumn 2002 Bulletin of the Historic Santa Fe Foundation. A reporter for The New Mexican witnessed the intense heat endured by Irvine in the midst of a roofing job at the west end of the Palace of the Governors and noted, “Such men are truly martyrs to progress.”
Metal roofs were welcomed as “a solution to the age-old problem of the traditional flat earthen roof that leaked water and dust,” Sze writes, but then adds that, by the early decades of the 20th century, they were “banished as ‘a hideous monstrosity of tin’ by advocates of the historical ‘Santa Fe style.’ ”
Terne was not only used in the city. Santa Fe architect Beverley Spears writes in her 1986 book
May Day school parade in front of the Felipe B. Delgado House, circa 1916-1917, photo by Theodore Asplund; courtesy Palace of the Governors (NMHM/DCA), Negative No. 010522