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Roof replacement reveals evolution of Cooper-Frost-Austin House

February 20, 2012

Cooper-Frost-Austin House roof

A roof replacement project at Cooper-Frost-Austin House in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has revealed important details about the evolution of the 1681 structure. When repairing our historic properties, Historic New England strives to retain the historic fabric, match materials in kind, and fully document the work as prescribed by the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Preservation of Historic Buildings. This roof and gutter replacement project was reviewed by the Cambridge Historical Commission and Massachusetts Historical Commission.

Cooper-Frost-Austin House is the oldest dwelling still standing in Cambridge. Built in 1681, its owner extended it to the west c. 1720. We discovered that the lower rafters in the c. 1720 section of the house had pulled out of the girt connecting them to the upper rafters, a connection that facilitates the single continuous roof plane. Evidence of earlier repairs indicated that this problem had occurred some time ago. We treated the problem by installing custom steel cradles and brackets that allowed us to re-establish the connection between the structural members while having very little impact on the integrity of the structure. This installation is reversible.

Our team removed shingles from the roof and replaced with them with Alaskan Yellow cedar shingles, which are known for weather resistance and longevity. After we removed the shingles from the front elevation we observed evidence of the original front gable from the c. 1680 section of the house. The in-filled sheathing matched that on the c. 1720 section, suggesting that the gable was removed upon the expansion of the house.

We replaced portions of the gutters and did some re-pointing of the chimney prior to the application of a new coat of linseed oil paint. Only spot re-pointing was done in areas where the mortar had failed. All new mortar matched the existing.

As is often the case, this project allowed us to better understand the history of the building. The structural repairs, front gable evidence, and other observations have been documented in photographs and notes that will be archived.

Historic New England operates Cooper-Frost-Austin House as a study property, balancing public access by offering public and private tours (free to Cambridge residents), annual open days each summer, and participation in citywide events. A City of Cambridge Community Preservation Act Grant of $25,000 supported this project in part. Help us continue the preservation of our historic properties with a gift to the Preservation Maintenance Fund.

Yellow Cedar vs local shingles

Posted by david garner on March 12, 2012
Yellow Cedar is actually a cypress, rather than a cedar, grows mainly in BC, Canada, and is more dense than red cedar. Was this building product available around Cambridge, Massachusetts in the late 1600's?

Yellow cedar

Posted by Ben Haavik on March 12, 2012
Excellent question and you should not expect red cedar nor yellow cedar on a roof of the 1600s. As part of its history the Cooper-Frost-Austin House has grown and evolved over time and it would be very difficult to truly take the house back interpretively to the 1600s without a great loss of historic fabric. Technically we would interpret the exterior of the house to the nineteen-teens in unison with the time period we acquired the property and when the evolution, for all intents and purposes, had stopped. The house had an asphalt shingle roof when we acquired it and the decision was made then to replace the asphalt shingles with wood shingles to be evocative of an earlier age. Our use of yellow cedar is to stay true to that earlier thought and to also be evocative of the earlier age with shingles that patina to a lighter color than the red cedar you mention. In its favor, we also felt that the yellow cedar was a much hardier material than most shingles we could obtain and was a better long term investment in the roof

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Roof replacement reveals evolution of Cooper-Frost-Austin House