Red Roof Out



Would Shadyside Church look strange with a red roof?  No doubt, considering the dignified and “quiet” treatment of exterior color we have come to know.  However, in their initial proposal, Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge urged a polychrome combination with the gray-tan stone façade:


This excerpt from the architect’s early offering reveals yet another tie to the Allegheny County Courthouse and Jail, which was completed under Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge after the death of Henry Hobson Richardson.  But, the Courthouse has a black roof, you say?  Close inspection of the main roofs reveals a warm, orange-red hue where the black soot of decades has been chipped away.  Akron tiles covered those roofs that were not stone (the central tower and some smaller towers used stone roofs).  So, we might ask whether the Courthouse with a red roof would look strange?


Allegheny County Jail Tower - Soot chipped from red Akron tile roof

In an interesting reversal, while the planned shingle tile roof was executed in slate at Shadyside, Richardson’s Courthouse proposal specified slate but red tile was actually applied.  We do not know where in the bidding and design process Shadyside’s roof changed to slate.  Nor do we have a record of the reason.  We can engage in some informed speculation, however.

First, as to the application of red tile roof covering, Richardson made extensive use of it in his masonry buildings, large and small.  The early examples are on structures that employed polychromy on their exterior walls.  The Albany City Hall shown here displays tan and chocolate stone walls topped by red tile and brown stone roofs.  This same palette appeared at Trinity Church, Richardson’s early triumph in Boston.  There are also numerous instances of red tile roofs over masonry in Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge’s work.


H. H. Richardson's Albany City Hall

When the walls were monochromatic, Richardson, like many architects, often provided some contrast in the roof color.  This changed on frame residential structures such as his Shingle Style homes.  There, the roofs and walls were sometimes two slightly different tones of the same hue.  Richardson applied this scheme to a masonry building at Sever Hall on the Harvard campus.  Red brick walls duplicated material in the surrounding Georgian buildings.  Sever Hall has been much admired for the harmonizing effect achieved by executing the roof in red tile. 


H. H. Richardson's Sever Hall at Harvard

A trend in Richardson’s later masonry designs was toward the quieting effect of monochrome walls with little or no carved ornament.  Was his intent in the original Courthouse scheme to approximate the harmony of Sever Hall with slate over granite?  The granite that was finally chosen has a subtle pink cast.  This was complemented by Richardson’s specification of a special formulation of red mortar.  It may be that the red Akron tile roof material was an extension of the palette of the masonry work.  These reddish hues were duplicated at Chicago’s Glessner House, a Richardson work contemporary with the Pittsburgh buildings.

At Shadyside Church, Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge proposed exterior walls of Beaver County sandstone along with the red tile roof.  It is conceivable that Shadyside and its architects decided that a “quiet” treatment called for the monochomy of gray slate over gray-tan stone and mortar.  The environmental effects of Pittsburgh's sooty atmosphere may also have influenced color choices.

It was well known during the late nineteenth century that Pittsburgh’s stone structures soon became blackened by soot. Richardson took that into account when deciding to minimize the use of carved ornament at the Allegheny County buildings.  This sooting continued at least to some degree until the second half of the twentieth century, when pollution control and shrinking industrial activity cleared the air.  Blackening did occur on both the Courthouse and Shadyside Church.  Because of the porosity of the tile roof material, it blackened in a way that would resist non-destructive cleaning.  Thus, a red roof, once soot-covered could only harmonize again with the red palette by replacement. 

 Soot-darkened Shadyside Presbyterian Church in 1963 Historic American Building Survey picture

Slate, on the other hand, is harder and more easily sheds soot when washed by rain.  Was this in mind when Shadyside was designed?  As the stone of the church turned a dark gray-black, it remained (accidentally?) compatible with the slate color.  While not unattractive, it was not according to original design.  Thus, the church’s walls were restored to their original color by chemical cleaning in 1991.  (The Glessner House underwent a similar cleaning.  The red mortar and pink cast of the granite walls have been restored, but the tile roof remains blackened.)


First United Methodist Church - Pittsburgh

A few blocks away from the church is a clue to how Shadyside might have looked with a red tile roof.  First United Methodist Church at Center and Liberty Avenues has such a roof over monochromatic gray-tan masonry walls.  Completed in 1893 (as Christ Methodist Episcopal), it is also a Richardsonian Romanesque lantern church.  With a little photo editing, we can also imagine how Shadyside Church might look, had the original proposal been executed.