I’m calling this chapter “Turret’s syndrome” not because I intend to mis-spell and discuss Tourette’s Syndrome, which, for those who do not know, is an affliction that often results in someone blurting out profanities at inopportune times. Instead, I intend to share some ideas on turrets, which are those cone shaped roof toppers that adorn some homes and government buildings. Frankly, they cause the same symptoms…profanity. For Tourette sufferers, there is medication and therapy. For turret sufferers, no remedy exists, aside from ditching the idea of adding a cone-shaped roof topper to one’s home, or profanely gritting one’s teeth through it.
My own case of turret syndrome began with an old book on German castles, many of which were over 500 years old. This inspired me because, ignorantly, I figured if they could do it 500+ years ago, without all the power tools we have at our disposal today, the project ought to be a cake walk with our advanced technology. Oh my! Ignorance truly is bliss.
Above left, a curved turret that adorns a Victorian home in Delta, Colorado. I actually wanted the turrets on our home to be curved like these, but my husband, Ken, thought the idea was too “girly.” Considering the extra labor, I conceded, but I still love this look. The carpenter, who built this in the early 1900s, probably knew it would still be appreciated this much later, as it will 100 years from now, if the home stands that long.
In constructing our house, the goal was to do it inexpensively, but not to sacrifice style, if possible. Since insurance costs increase with the number of corners on the base of the home, I opted to save any fancy touches for the roofline. My father’s bookcase was a wealth of fun material. Since I loved the German architecture, I grabbed up a book on German castles, and found many had these beautiful turrets. I found one, in particular, which had a turret almost the same height as the building beneath it. “That’s what I need!” I said, having no idea how to build one.
I became a familiar face at the local lumber store, enduring ridicule on almost every shopping trip. I asked if they had any how-to books on turrets. “Nope,” came the answer. Odd, I thought. There are many homes in our area that sport turrets, so I wondered how they learned to build them. The lumber guy was no help, instead giving me the number of his cousin who could put on a straight roof cheaper than anyone. I groaned.
It was at this juncture that I consulted with a civil engineer, showing him my German book photo of a 500+ year old roofline, and asking how they built those. “They didn’t even have power tools,” I encouraged, adding that it couldn’t have been that hard. I remember his reply to this day. “Yes, but they had master carpenters, who taught their secrets only to their sons. And they had slaves. As many as they needed,” said the engineer, adding that if one or two died, it was not really an issue. He said a turret could be designed, but he urged a partial turret – with the back half extending straight back to the roof. That was not what I wanted. I think those often look awkward. A turret is supposed to be regal, self-standing, stately, and confident. They are not supposed to lean, or cling to the building they top. At least that is my opinion. Steep turrets prove a daring spirit. They thumb their noses at convention. Who does not want something like that atop their house?
At right, a curved Victorian turret tops a building in Ouray, Colorado. This one may act as a bell tower since the windows beneath it are open.
The civil engineer, though a great guy, was doing his best to accommodate, but not to encourage “daring” stuff in our home. He wanted it stable. He wanted it easy to roof. He wanted it not to kill someone. He “helped” by designing a six-sided turret which would be attached to a four sided base, of which two sides would not exist, as they were opening into the room. (Truly, with hindsight, I think some of the men involved in this endeavor were purposely trying to drive me insane with unusual complications that were unnecessary.) Respectfully, I am sure he had his reasons, but at the time and still today, they were all lost on me. It complicated my mission substantially. I took his ideas, built the four-sided base, and also built a to-scale model of our roof. I gave my kids a bunch of Popsicles. “Give me back those wooden sticks,” I said. Several minutes later, I had a bunch of blue and purple tongued kids and a fist full of Popsicle sticks with which to make my model-sized turret. I worked and worked, but geometrically the concept was something out of a horror film. I was facing double-compound angles, and a six-sided top trying to descend onto a four-sided base. I ate a Popsicle or two myself. It was no help. In disgust, I finally opted to phone my old geometry teacher. I was 34. The last time I had talked to him I was probably 18. It would take a little explaining.
“Mr. Valaer?” I said. “Did you offer a lifetime guarantee on that geometry class?”
Not missing a beat, he replied, “Weren’t you the one who sat in the back of the class and asked, ‘When am I ever going to NEED this stuff?’” I was guilty as charged. A little more pleading and curiosity got the better of him.
Mr. Valaer goes into my chronicle as one of the greatest teachers on the planet. Not only had he tutored me for an entire year in high school after hours, he seemed tickled to visit a student who was actually putting his lessons to some use. When he arrived, he scratched his head, a little shocked that the project had advanced as far as it had. He acted impressed by my to-scale mock roof and grabbed up a Popsicle stick and smirked as he looked at me over his glasses. He pulled out a measuring tape, looked at my four-sided base, asked what I did that for – grimaced at my answer, and shook his head. “I’m going to teach you how to cheat,” he said, flatly.
“You never taught that in high school,” I said, smiling.
“You didn’t need it then. You need it NOW!” he said.
At left, is the turret that tops the Beaumont Hotel in Ouray, Colorado. The turret builder was obviously an over-achiever. It is actually one turret flanked by four mini-turrets. It also has mini bump-out windows adorning at least two sides. Note: the turret topper, a golden affair, is probably MUCH larger than one would imagine. The size of these toppers diminishes greatly when placed atop a very high roof.
Mr. Valaer told me to decide however tall I wanted my turrets, and to draw a big “L” on my concrete pad. Then, to lay the top part of my frame lumber over the “L” as a hypotenuse. (For those who are mathematically challenged, you close the “L” making it into a triangle.) Then, he said, you draw the line over the lumber on both ends where the framing lumber overlaps the edges of the “L.”
Do that six times, and you’ll have the exact angles every time. From there, it was a visual job of running down and outside to view the turret frame from the ground. I did not want a crooked turret, and because the turret entered the roof, the double compound angles created a shorter back side of the turret. Truly, had I known at the time how challenging these would be, I am not sure I would have opted to include them. Now, however, I love them. They give our home character and it was fun to figure out how to construct them. That said, I look back at the sheer number of turrets you see from the turn of the century, from hundreds of years ago, and the effort is impressive.
At left, a classic six-sided turret with an ornate topper in Ouray, Colorado. The roofer chose to use curved wooden shingles and a flanged bottom to give the turret added style points. On my home, I wanted a graceful flanged bottom edge on ours too. I tried, but mine ended up being crisper instead of gracefully curved. If I was building more of these, I could do the graceful curve, but these definitely take a special artistic knack, patience and time. The actual cost, aside from time, was not substantial.
As a side note, I hired a roofer, Dave Monroe, to roof our home. He also helped with the interior framing. I asked him if he could roof a turret, and he shot back, “If you can frame it, I can roof it!” Dave clearly did not think I would be able to build one. Then, he stuck me with tar-papering it, too. I could not fit into the harnesses, so I carefully tied myself off with a rope, but truly, we all knew that if I had an accident, it would not end well. As I teetered my way out there, the phone rang. Dave grabs it and says, “It’s for you,” as he tossed the phone to me. Buggar! Nearly killed me.
Incidentally, for those considering adding a turret, there is another consideration: the turret topper. Usually, the turret topper is a metal cone with some ornamentation atop it. This piece protects and finishes the turret beneath it. If you go to old historic buildings, they often have these ornate tops and one can gather a lot of great ideas from those. I purchased a huge topper, but because the height was so extreme on our roof, and because the view is from a road 50 yards away, my huge toppers are almost insignificant. Again, from a strictly thrilling aspect, the turret toppers are a real “investment.” They are exciting to choose, exciting to cart to the rooftop, exciting to get fastened onto the turret, and very exciting to screw in place. There is a gigantic sigh of relief when those are done.
Since the installation of ours, I saw another idea for an unusual roof topper. One builder piped natural gas onto the eave of his roof-line and had a talented iron worker weld the head of a dragon. He affixed the head onto the point of his eave. Then, with a flip of a switch he can ignite the flames which come from the mouth of the dragon. During daylight hours, one sees only the head of the dragon, but on special occasions, especially at night, he flips the switch and the flames come shooting out of the mouth of the dragon and are awe-inspiring.
The artist who designed the turret and roofline shown at right, went to great lengths to set his turrets apart. This turret is found in Ouray, Colorado, an old mining town. The architecture tells the story of a booming economy of the late 1800s and into the early 1900s, when artistic details were placed on many buildings because, at that time, cost was largely unimportant. Incidentally, Ouray is home to some spectacular hot springs and one can only imagine that the roofers who did this sort of work needed the soothing relief of the hot springs after a long day of working on details like these.
The moral of this whole chapter is that building your home can be an artistic, as well as architectural, adventure. I never considered how much fun one could have – for relatively little in extra expense (if you are doing the work yourself). Dream big, do not listen to the naysayers, then make it happen!
(See Slipforming, part 18 – for the next thread. If you do not see a Part 18, keep checking. I’m still working on it.)