When motorists exit Highway 82 and reach the center of Columbus, Miss., the first thing they see is the town’s welcome center. This center also is the former home of playwright Tennessee Williams, author of A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The building is a visual landmark. Thanks to a $400,000 renovation, started in May 2010 and completed in August 2010, the Tennessee Williams house pops. The house stands out with its terra-cotta-like orange aluminum roof, mustard-yellow accent panels, olive-green siding, and red and deep evergreen trim.
Prior to the upgrade, the exterior of the house was painted pale blue-gray with dusty yellow accents and was topped with a weathered, wood shingle roof that had blackened with decay. It was not unlike the other demure Southern antebellum houses and historic Victorian mansions in the area. The welcome center’s bold face-lift has polarized and sometimes puzzled locals—most either love or hate it.
Unlocking the mystery behind the bold color choices exposes the heart of the project. “The new roof is an orange color called clay pot. It’s like a person with orange hair—the color of their hair can determine what they wear. In a lot of ways, it’s the same with the roof. You could not have an orange roof with pale blue grays,” explains Nancy Carpenter, executive director of the Columbus Cultural Heritage Foundation (CCHF), the organization that owns the Tennessee Williams house. The CCHF was created as a nonprofit arm of the Columbus/Lowndes County Convention and Visitors Bureau (CLCCVB) because the Tennessee Williams home had to be deeded to a not-for-profit organization.
Creating a visually striking welcome center for the town wasn’t the original mission of the project. It began as a preservation effort and quickly morphed into a much-needed renovation. Carpenter, who also has been restoring her own Victorian-style residence for the past few years, served as the CCHF lead on the Tennessee Williams home restoration. She consulted with Roger Moss, a historic preservationist based in Philadelphia, to select a historically accurate color scheme for the outside of the house. Moss is regarded as a foremost authority on the exteriors of Victorian-era houses.
The increased project scope was made possible in part by a $108,000 grant from the Jackson, Miss.–based Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MCAH) and the CLCCVB. The funds came with MCAH requirements to repair and preserve existing structural and design elements. These included matching the building’s colors to those found during the 1875–1915 Victorian era and finding high-performance, modern building materials that looked the historic part. The building’s roof proved to be the biggest challenge in satisfying these demands.
Assessing the Damage
The house was built in 1875 and originally served as the rectory of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. The Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright’s grandfather was the minister of the church at that time. Thomas Lanier Williams, who changed his first name to Tennessee as an adult, was born in a Columbus hospital on March 26, 1911, and lived in the house for three years before the family moved to St. Louis. Threatened by demolition due to an expansion of the church, the structure was moved to its current location in 1993 and designated as a national literary landmark. Unfortunately, the relocation of the aging house accelerated its decline. The two chimneys were collapsing, holes in the roof caused massive leaks and crumbling plaster littered the floor. Carpenter contacted local design firm Pryor & Morrow Architects to assess the damage. The firm is noted for its expertise in historic renovation and had worked with the CLCCVB in the past.
Michael Taylor, intern architect with Pryor & Morrow Architects and project manager for the Tennessee Williams house, realized that stabilizing the building would require the complete removal and rebuilding of the chimneys, replacement of the roof and floor beams and several other tasks. At this point, the effort to stabilize the building officially turned into a renovation.
“When I started looking at the house, and the problems it had, and thought about how we were going to replace things, [I realized that] we’d start damaging finished materials trying to fix structural problems,” Taylor recalls. “We’d have to take one thing out to fix another thing and then we’d have to put that thing back. It’s an old house and we’d just find more and more stuff. We had an engineer look at it and determine all of the problems. By the time we got around to fixing them all, it ended up being a renovation project.”
Preservation Sparks Innovation
Reconstruction of the mildewed, leaky roof began by pulling back the existing two layers: the first made of wood shake shingles, and the second made of terra-cotta-colored tile littered with asbestos. This red-orange tile was deemed the original roof and under the funding mandate, needed to be replicated. Taylor researched materials and colors exhaustively. He honed in on fiberglass shingle and slate as strong contenders, but couldn’t find a manufacturer that could construct a diamond-shaped pattern with the same dimensions as the original roof. The teardrop and fish-scale patterns he sourced wouldn’t cut it. In the end, Taylor discovered a 0.032-inch aluminum flat metal tile with the precise diamond pattern needed. The manufacturer also was able to match the terra-cotta color sample almost exactly.
“The product is light when compared with other roofing materials,” says Chris Morrow, lead architect with Pryor & Morrow Architects. “The weight of the roofing was a major concern, given the age and configuration of the existing roof framing.”
The aluminum shingles are installed one at a time with interlocking tabs. The shingles are fastened and hooked over one another in an overlapping fashion. A polystyrene backer board on the back of each shingle prevents dents, adds some thermal value and provides strength to allow foot traffic during installation. While the metal-tile manufacturer asserts that, depending on local codes, the shingles may be applied directly over existing roofs, this cost- and time-saving option was not a possibility for the asbestos-ridden roof that previously covered the Tennessee Williams house. Installation proved a challenge for Columbus-based Rick Williams Roofing who, like Pryor & Morrow Architects, had never worked with this product before.
“The roof of this house was chopped up with different ridges, gables and valleys, and there is a really steep roof pitch,” Taylor says. “When you get to the valleys, the roofer told me that every shingle had a different cut because of the geometry of the building so he couldn’t make a template. He had to measure out each shingle as it came into the valley and every one was a different cut. It was a very slow process.”
The patient, handcrafted installation paid off—literally. Although the cost of the new roof totaled $100,000, the remaining stabilization efforts also added up to $100,000, so the total cost of the project came in nearly $3,000 under budget, according to Carpenter.
“The cost of the roof was comparable, if not more economical, than slate, clay or the original shingle, which is no longer available,” Morrow says. “The longevity of a metal roof also sets it apart from other roofing materials.”
The roof came with a 50-year weathertightness warranty, and it’s already withstood a year of the severe humidity, temperature fluctuations and storms common in Mississippi. Carpenter recalls a recent hailstorm that pelted the town. Barely a dent or any other sign of damage was found on the durable, corrosion-resistant metal roof. Still, precautions have been taken to preserve it as much as possible: Copper pipes drain excess water from the roof into spouts in the ground, and no trees or other foliage drape over the top of the house.
“The roof is new for Columbus; it’s garnered a lot of attention,” Carpenter says. “People who are considering a metal roof for its durability and warranty are coming from all over to visit the house. Just think how many roofs will have to be replaced over a 50-year period.”
Sabrina Grotewold writes about architecture and sustainability from San Diego.