Roofing the Basilica: The sky’s the limit

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Henry Hoffman, right, holding the fedora, stands at the top of a spire of the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in this 1950 photo, 168 feet above the ground. Hoffman was the treasurer at that time for Hahnel Brothers roofers of Lewiston. The workers, who are unidentified in the photo, were installing lead-coated copper caps on the original limestone spires to prevent further deterioration caused by pollution from coal-burning in the city. There are eight spires on the building.

Celebrating the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul

Alan Hahnel, the current president of Hahnel Brothers Co. in Lewiston and a third-generation member of the roofing and ventilation company, remembers passing by the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul with his grandfather, Oscar Hahnel, Sr. from time to time.

Just a boy then, he remembers his grandfather saying, “Yeah, we put that on,” in reference to the building’s massive slate roof.

The company Oscar Hahnel Sr. founded in 1916 installed cornices and skylights. Cornices added beauty to buildings; fancy filigreed skylights were an early way to illuminate buildings. The work eventually led the company to expand into roofing, while the expertise acquired bending metal for cornice work helped the company add sheet metal and interior ventilation work to its repertoire of building trades.

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Over its 100-year history, Hahnel Brothers has worked on many of Lewiston’s big roofs, including Lewiston City Hall and the Basilica.

Alan Hahnel estimates a roof the size of the Basilica would have taken about a year to install. “Putting on slate has not changed much,” he says. “You hammer two nails through a slate shingle into the substrate.” Over and over. “The newest technology would have been a truck,” he adds with a laugh.

Slate roofs are a premium roofing product. Aesthetically pleasing and durable, when properly installed by skilled craftsmen a slate roof can last up to and beyond 100 years. According to a preservation brief by the National Park Service, some slate roofs have been found to last over 200 years.

From his company’s work with many slate roofs in New England, Hahnel thinks the deep gray slate shingles on the Basilica’s roof are in all probability from Maine’s “slate belt,” located in the southern part of Piscataquis county.

A geological remnant of the Paleozoic Era, slate — which is fine grained and easily splits into smooth, flat pieces — was first discovered in Monson in 1870 and quarried by three companies, two of which are still operating today.

Hahnel said “transportation and timing” would have been key financial factors in selecting the local Maine slate. The closest slate quarries besides Monson’s were in Vermont and northeast New York State. And Monson had its own railroad at that time, connecting the quarries to the Bangor and Aroostook railroad line.

The highly prized Maine slate was also used for the roof of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City and the grave markers for both John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, located in Arlington Cemetery in Virginia.

In 1950, about 15 years after Hahnel Brothers installed the roof, it was called on to again work from the heights of the Basilica. Pollution from coal-burning in the city caused deterioration in the limestone spires, and the company constructed and installed lead-coated copper caps on those spires that have preserved them to this day.

A closeup photo of the slate roof at the Basilica. The slate shingles are believed to have come from one or more Maine slate quarries in southern Piscataquis County in the 1930s, two of which are still in operation.

Celebrating the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul

The Sun Journal is celebrating the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Lewiston, which was completed in 1936-1937. For a year, we are taking a close look at the iconic structure, its history and even some of the people who built it. We will explore rooms behind the high altar, crawl along the catwalk, explore the cellars and rooftop carvings, and peek into drawers and cabinets in the sacristy. We’ll show you historical photos and compare them with current images of the basilica. We’ll also speak with basilica experts and comb through historical documents to uncover some of the 80-year-old church’s enduring myths and mysteries.

If you have any memories, recollections or photographs of the Basilica you’d like to share please contact writer Julie-Ann Baumer at jabaumer@gmail.com or at 207-353-2616.

The entire series is being archived at sunjournal.com/basilica.

The same Maine slate quarries that supplied shingles for the Basilica also supplied slate for the roof of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City and the grave markers for John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, located in Arlington Cemetery in Virginia.

Slate roofing is particularly durable. It has been known to last up to 200 years. The Basilica’s slate roof is relatively young, at over 80 years old. 

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