A Strategic Reroof

New Roof for Historic Chapel in Vallejo, California

by Mathew Rabong, project manager, webmaster, & media manager, Waterproofing Associates

From Architectural West Jan/Feb ’18

St. Peter’s Chapel on Mare Island, Vallejo, California, is the oldest naval chapel in the United States and is significant as a key contributing element of the Mare Island Historic District, listed in the National Register of Historic Places and a National Historic Landmark.  It is also one of the most important chapels owned by the United States Navy.  Built in 1901, what makes St. Peter’s Chapel even more impressive is knowing that the original roof system has lasted more than 100 years.

         It is a handsome shingled Gothic church, possessing an impressive display of signed Tiffany & Company art glass windows.  It also includes a nearly complete set of original interior furnishings.  The art glass windows, as well as commemorative ceiling and wall tablets, were contributed by the public, making St. Peter’s Chapel an important memorial chapel to United States Navy personnel and a symbol of the sense of community that existed at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard throughout its many years of service.  The building is almost completely unmodified.  The few alterations it has received are restricted to small additions at the rear of the building, and incidental interior modifications, including the installation of a second-story room in the vestibule.  There was also an installation of new carpet, organ pipes, and lighting fixtures.

         St. Peter’s Chapel was designed by Albert Sutton, a private architect in San Francisco, California.  The chapel came into being through the fundraising and political acumen of Chaplain Adam A. McAlister.  McAlister was a chaplain in the United States Navy from 1873 to 1909, spending nearly all of that period at Mare Island.  He would return periodically to Mare Island in the years between his retirement in 1909 and his death in 1916.  With his proud service record, honorable reputation, and the assistance of California’s United States Senator George C. Perkins, McAlister’s near-decade long battle to get a chapel erected had come to fruition.  St. Peter’s Chapel was erected in 1901.

         Its Victorian Gothic design hides the chapel’s true beauty, which is on the inside.  Today, it’s a cherished historical landmark with a priceless collection of memories and stained-glass windows.  During his efforts to erect the chapel, and throughout his remaining years, McAlister successfully pleaded to get Louis Comfort Tiffany, of the famed Tiffany & Company family, stained-glass windows placed within the chapel.  Because of his tenacity, St. Peter’s chapel has one of the largest authentic Tiffany glass collections in the United States.

         The chapel withstood over 100 years of use before it was decided that it finally needed a new roof in order to maintain its integrity.  In August of 2016, superintendent George Timmons and project manager Rob Wyllie, both of Waterproofing Associates, Mountain View, California, made their first site visit to start planning how to set up safety measures for the project.  They needed to strategize how to protect the public while their work was being done, as well as protect the priceless Tiffany windows.  The next ten months were spent planning and waiting for the right time when there would be a break in the scheduled events of the busy church. 

         The project officially began in June of 2017.  Waterproofing Associates foreman Sal Garcia and Timmons went to the site and removed two sections of the original redwood gutter and a piece of the custom locking redwood trim drip edge.  They also removed shingles in a few strategic areas of the church to inspect the decking before taking painstaking measurements of the gutters and windows that needed to be protected.  The chapel’s roof had a pitch of 12/12, so Waterproofing Associates turned to the WSRCA’s Steep-Slope Roofing Installation Manual, 5th Edition to help prepare for the project.  Dennis Ryan, president, Waterproofing Associates, had a particular familiarity with the installation guideline, as he previously served as WSRCA president and knew it would be an invaluable resource for his team.

         The redwood gutters were practically a project on their own.  Waterproofing Associates boxed the samples up that same day and sent them off to Blue Ox Millworks in Eureka, California, to the owner/operator and master millworker, Eric Hollenbeck.  From picking out the tree, getting it all rough sawn to the proper size, and setting up his 100+ year old mill to match the original gutters and trim exactly, Hollenbeck wasted no time getting started.  Once it was all done, he built custom wooden boxes and had them shipped to the site without any damage.

         In August, Garcia and his five-man crew went inside and meticulously covered and protected the contents of the chapel.  After that, it was time to set up a perimeter around the building with posts and a flag line to keep the public safe.  Then started the process of protecting the windows with plywood and 2×4 framing wrapped with padding to prevent damage to the building.  They also braced as needed to prevent shifting.  The team then installed cloth tarps under the eaves to catch any minor falling debris while protecting the greenery. 

         Next was to check for sprinkler heads and place plywood on the lawn before bringing the boom lift over to remove one of the four decorative birdhouses from the steeple that needed to be replaced.  The birdhouse was then immediately carefully boxed up and sent off to Blue Ox Millworks to be copied.

         After these initial preparations, the start of the roof demolition began.  Everything went as planned and the crew did a flawless job cleaning up.  Waterproofing Associates had excellent cooperation from the building department, who inspected and signed off the roof deck so the team could cover the roof on a daily basis and not leave bare wood exposed.  By the end of the week, the crew had removed the hip roof on the west side that had been skip-sheeted, and they had to install plywood sheathing to continue.  The next several days went as planned and without problems until the entire original roof and gutters were removed and new Garland® underlayment was installed.

         The next step was to begin the shingle installation process.  The first challenge was the angle change from the overhang to the main roof.  To keep the shingle courses as even as possible, one course of shingles had to be bent, at least at the rake edge.  To achieve this, the shingles were soaked in water and installed wet, then clamped into place for a week after being nailed in place.  Once dried, they held their shape.  The next challenge was installing the gutter, which is a slow and tedious process.  Garcia followed the procedures that were learned from Blue Ox Millworks to install the new gutters as closely as possible to the way it was done by the original craftsmen, while using the best modern fasteners and adhesives available. 

         In September, Garcia installed the last wood shingle on the steeple and the crew spent the rest of the day installing drop outlets in the gutters, ridge on the roof, and the new birdhouses.  The last day was spent doing a final cleaning of the grounds and removing the protection from the inside of the chapel.  After carefully checking that there was no damage from the roofing project, all of the equipment was removed from the site and the project was completed on time.

         What’s next for the historic chapel is yet to be seen.  After all, the roof lasted over a hundred years, so only time can tell for the historic St. Peter’s Naval Chapel.

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