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Graycliff Restoration to Include Creo-Dipt Shingles

by Patrick J. Mahoney, AIA - Chairman, Design Committee, Graycliff

Creosote (KREE a soat): A colorless to yellowish oily liquid containing phenols and creosoles, obtained from wood tar or coal tar and used as a wood preservative.

TEXT Beneath Illustrations

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The Governor's Palace, Williamsburg, Virginia

1925 Creo-Dipt Co. ad featuring the Ellsworth Statler House at 154 Soldier's Circle

1921 ad featuring the Ellsworth Statler House

Graycliff map

Martin House at Graycliff

Original shingles matched the red cedar ones now in place on Martin House porte cochere

Original shingles matched the red cedar ones now in place on Heat Hut at Graycliff

Original shingles matched the red cedar ones now in place on Heat Hut at Graycliff

Original shingles matched the red cedar ones now in place on Martin House

Foster House at Graycliff

Shingle pattern in Wright-designed plant stand

Original Creo-Dipt Co. roof on house on Darwin Avenue in Amherst, NY


Original Creo-Dipt Co. roof on house on Audubon Avenue in Amherst, NY


The roofs of both the main house and the Foster house at Graycliff are scheduled to be restored in the next phase of the project in 2004. Using the experience gained in the restorations of the Heat Hut (boiler house) and porte cochere, the striking red shingles will once again crown the complex.

The original shingles matched the red cedar now in place on part of the complex, but that was not Frank Lloyd Wright's first suggestion for Graycliff. In fact, when Wright sent sketches to the Martins in April of 1926, he suggested a green slate
hip roof or a gable shingle roof.

The material finally used was a product manufactured by the Creo-Dipt Co. of North Tonawanda, N.Y. Creo-Dipt produced a line of shingles that used creosote to hold the color within the shingle. Their line of products was advertised throughout the country in one of the Martins' favorite journals, Better Homes & Gardens.

Creosote-stained shingles had become popular early in the twentieth century as a way of improving the protective coatings historically used in buildings such as Mount Vernon, The Governor's Palace at Williamsburg , and Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

Wright's roofs

In 1885 Sherwin Williams suggested a roof should be painted a dark color in order to contrast with the light colored walls of a house. A Creo-Dipt packing slip found in the original shingle roof of the Heat Hut at Graycliff during its restoration in 1999 noted that the roof was meant to have a mottled appearance as "uniformity was monotonous and irregularity was artistic." The variation in the grain of the cedar is responsible for the mottling as the shingle accepts stain.

Many of the early homes Frank Lloyd Wright designed incorporated color in their roofs, including the red tile roofs of the Allen, Dana, and Martin Houses. These followed the Victorian model suggested by Sherwin Williams in that all three incorporated light colored blonde brick walls, similar in color to the integrally colored stucco Wright used at his home in Wisconsin - Taliesin - and Graycliff.

Frank Lloyd Wright had used Taliesin as a place to experiment with new ideas in architecture. It was there that he first used the geometric pattern incorporated into the ridges of the roofs at Graycliff. When Taliesin burned in 1925, the striking roof design was destroyed. The following year Wright proposed the expensive roof detail be incorporated into the Martins' summer home.

The angled hexagonal pattern of the braided ridge design recalls the shapes Wright used in the furniture and windows designed for Graycliff. Graycliff had been based upon the diamond shaped stones that fall off the lakeside cliff, and the hexagonal design of the furniture or shingle pattern are formed by three diamonds placed together. The triangular plant stand designs are half the diamond.

In an oral history, the Martins' daughter, Dorothy Martin Foster, recalled that Wright had actually designed the furniture while on site at Graycliff. The Martins were impatient for the furniture designs, so much so, that while Wright was on one of his frequent visits he drew the furniture designs on the red shingles meant for the roof. The shingles were given to millwork manufacturer, Nelson Montgomery, who made the furniture at his factory in the city of Buffalo.

Creo-Dipt shingles

Creo-Dipt shingles had been widely used across the eastern United States and many examples of their use were evident in their promotional literature of the era. Their advertising promoted their use for roofing and siding, including an unusual system by which they imitated a traditional English thatched roof in cedar, The cedar would actually be steamed across its grain to allow the curve.

Ellsworth M. Statler House

It is very likely Frank Lloyd Wright noticed one of these roof systems, as a home owned by hotel proprietor Ellsworth M. Statler was built across from the home Wright had designed for Larkin executive and future gas station client, William R. Heath. The Heath home, although originally built in 1903, was enlarged by Wright with the addition of a servant/automobile wing in 1911.

The Statler home was designed by the prominent Buffalo firm of Esenwein & Johnson only two years later. That home was unfortunately demolished like many other substantial homes in the nineteen thirties, in an effort by its owner to avoid property taxes.

Several homes still exist today in Amherst, N.Y. utilizing the imitation thatched roof system developed by Creo-Dipt.

Graycliff restoration using Creo-Dipt shingles

Graycliff may well be the only home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright using Creo-Dipt shingles, It is certainly one of the most famous. The restoration of the shingle roofs is being meticulously designed as of this printing. The design team incorporates the following:

Robert Silman has inspected the structures and is formulating a solution to the structural deficiencies. Silman has recently completed the restoration of Fallingwater, a Wright-designed masterpiece. Edgar Tafel apprenticed with and visited Graycliff with Frank Lloyd Wright in the spring of 1936

The roof restoration is certain to change the character of the complex in a striking way. Your financial help is still required to ensure it will be accomplished.

Page by Chuck LaChiusa
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