Life expectancy estimates are only estimates. Life expectancy can vary greatly depending on the exact source of the slate. For example, some sea green slates are starting to get soft after 110 years, others are still very hard after 120 years, depending on the quarry of origin. You can judge the quality of your slate very simply by looking at the exposed surface. Is it flaking and crumbly looking or is it smooth, maybe even shiny? Smooth is good, and smooth surfaced slate roofs should be preserved. Flaky ones can be preserved too, although flaking is usually a sign of deterioration.Preservation can be acheived sometimes by flipping the slate upside down or just simply flipping the affected individual slate. It should also be noted that environmental conditions such as pollution will change the appearance of slates over time. NY red slate roofs in Pittsburgh are black after a century of soot. You can see the original color of the slate by breaking a piece and looking at the inside.
 Slate is a very durable product and with good maintenance and the correct installation the slate will last as long as six to seven times longer as an asphalt shingle application that we are all used to seeing in northeast Ohio.
 Usually the reason why individual slate pieces fall off or slide around is because the slate will usually out last the fasteners (copper or galvanized nails) will corroded and disenegrate allowing the slate to drop.






Slate is one of the most aesthetically pleasing and durable of all roofing materials. It is indicative at once of the awesome powers of nature which have formed it and the expertise and skill of the craftsman in handshaping and laying it on the roof. Installed properly, slate roofs require relatively little maintenance and will last 60 to 125 years or longer depending on the type of slate employed, roof configuration, and the geographical location of the property. Some slates have been known to last over 200 years. Found on virtually every class of structure, slate roofs are perhaps most often associated with institutional, ecclesiastical, and government buildings, where longevity is an especially important consideration in material choices. In the slate quarrying regions of the country, where supply is abundant, slate was often used on farm and agricultural buildings as well.

Arlington House, VA
Although slate replacement roofs are expensive, the superiority of materials and craftsmanship will give years of continued service. If amortized over the life of the roof, the replacement cost can be very reasonable. Photo: NPS files.

Because the pattern, detailing, and craftsmanship of slate roofs are important design elements of historic buildings, they should be repaired rather than replaced whenever possible. The purpose of this Preservation Brief is to assist property owners, architects, preservationists, and building managers in understanding the causes of slate roof failures and undertaking the repair and replacement of slate roofs. Details contributing to the character of historic slate roofs are described and guidance is offered on maintenance and the degree of intervention required at various levels of deterioration.

The relatively large percentage of historic buildings roofed with slate during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries means that many slate roofs, and the 60 to 125 year life span of the slates most commonly used, may be nearing the end of their serviceable lives at the end of the twentieth century. Too often, these roofs are being improperly repaired or replaced with alternative roofing materials, to the detriment of the historic integrity and appearance of the structure. Increased knowledge of the characteristics of slate and its detailing and installation on the roof can lead to more sensitive interventions in which original material is preserved and the building's historic character maintained. Every effort should be made to replace deteriorated slate roofs with new slate and to develop an effective maintenance and repair program for slate roofs that can be retained.



History of Slate Use in the United States

Although slate quarrying was not common in the United States until the latter half of the nineteenth century, slate roofing is known to have been used prior to the Revolution. Archeological excavations at Jamestown, Virginia,have unearthed roofing slate in strata dating from 1625-1650 and 1640-1670. Slate roofs were introduced in Boston as early as 1654 and Philadelphia in 1699. Seventeenth century building ordinances of New York and Boston recommended the use of slate or tile roofs to ensure fireproof construction.

French Roof House in A.J. Downing's Victorian Cottage Residences
Architectural pattern books of the mid-19th century awakened Americans to the availability and quality of slate for roofing purposes. Drawing: Design XX, "A French Roof House," in A.J. Downing's Victorian Cottage Residences.

In the early years of the Colonies, nearly all roofing slate was imported from North Wales. It was not until 1785 that the first commercial slate quarry was opened in the United States, by William Docher in Peach Bottom Township, Pennsylvania. Production was limited to that which could be consumed in local markets until the middle of the nineteenth century. Knowledge of the nation's abundant stone resources was given commercial impetus at this time by several forces, including a rapidly growing population that demanded housing, advances in quarrying technology, and extension of the railroad system to previously inaccessible markets. Two additional factors helped push the slate industry to maturity: the immigration of Welsh slate workers to the United States and the introduction of architectural pattern and style books. Slate production increased dramatically in the years following the Civil War as quarries were opened in Vermont, New York, Virginia, and Lehigh and Northampton Counties, Pennsylvania. By 1876, roofing slate imports had all but dried up and the United States became a net exporter of the commodity.

The U.S. roofing slate industry reached its highest point in both quantity and value of output in the period from 1897 to 1914. In 1899, there were over 200 slate quarries operating in 13 states, Pennsylvania historically being the largest producer of all. The decline of the U.S. roofing slate industry began c.1915 and resulted from several factors, including a decline in skilled labor for both the fabrication and installation of slate and competition from substitute materials, such as asphalt shingles, which could be mass produced, transported and installed at a lower cost than slate. Only recently, with the increasing popularity of historic preservation and the recognition of the superiority of slate over other roofing materials, has slate usage begun to increase.