Friday, January 12, 2024

Historical Clues on an Old Tin Roof

When we successfully fought off attempts by Mercer County in 2017 to demolish the Veblen House and Cottage, we had a lot of allies. Community support was crucial, as was support from members of town council. Largely unsung, however, was the quiet work of the Veblen House roof to keep the structure dry since 1941. Mischaracterized in a 2011 study as consisting of cedar shingles, the roof is in fact made of two different materials. On top is a metal roof, and along each side are shingles made, surprisingly, of asbestos cement. Asbestos cement? It sounds dangerous, but we've been reassured that the shingles are "non-friable", and could be taken off by any licensed roofer. Back in 1941, asbestos cement shingles were considered more durable than cedar shingles, and less costly than slate. This combination of ultra-durable roofing materials has protected the house since the Veblens had it installed 82 years ago, with only a couple minor patches required in recent years. 

The roof fooled the professional firm back in 2011, and it fooled us for many years, until we finally got a ladder long enough to climb up and discover that the top portion of the roof is metal. 

A stamp on the metal reveals its maker: Fable and Company. The stamp says:

401 B

When we first found this stamp six years ago, I assumed the roof had been part of the prefab moved to Princeton from Morristown by the Whiton-Stuarts, I sent an email to the Morris County Historical Society, hoping that they'd recognize the company name. 

A quick response came from historian Sara Weissman.

"The enclosed indicate that Fable and Co launched in Philadelphia in January 1921. The news item is from Sheet Metal Worker issue of Jan. 7, 1921, p 474. "

Sounds like sheet metal was a big deal back then, if a publication dedicated to the subject is 500 pages long.

Her email continued, "The box ad with slogan is from the Swarthmore College yearbook of 1936. Firm principal Frederick A. Fable died in 1944, age 81, still president of Fable & Co, per his death certificate."

The Veblens added the roof to the house in 1941, and if the roofing tin truly is "of unexcelled quality," as its 82 years of service attest, that fits with the reputation of the Veblens, and the Matthews Construction Company, which built many buildings on Princeton University campus, along with Veblen's roof.

Interestingly, in my inquiry, I had misspelled the name as "Fabel," but Sara found that I was not the only one to misspell the business owner's name. "He was recorded as Fabel in the 1900 Census."

The steeper portion of the gambrel roof are covered with asbestos cement shingles. It should be said right off the bat that the shingles are "non-friable", not considered a hazard in their current state, and can be safely removed by any licensed roofer. (Small amounts of asbestos inside the house have already been removed, thanks to support from the municipality.)

We found some labeling on a few extra shingles left in the attic. They were Granada Red, No. 7 M, manufactured by Johns Manville. Asbestos composite shingles were produced to replace not only wood shingle siding, but also slate roofing shingles.

As most people know, asbestos was at first highly touted for myriad uses in buildings, ships, and elsewhere, but its embrace in manufacturing did not end well. As tells the story:
In the 1970s and ‘80s, thousands of people began developing serious illnesses as a result of exposure to the company’s asbestos products. Many instituted legal actions against Johns Manville, and the company filed for bankruptcy in 1982.

After decades of bankruptcy proceedings and changes in ownership, Johns Manville still manufactures construction materials, but now they are asbestos-free.

Now, in 2024, the Veblen House roof has begun to develop small leaks here and there. We will likely need to replace it rather than do repairs, but it speaks to the quality of the house that the roof has served well for 82 years. 

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