Raising High the Roof

September 24, 2018
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Jim Bills on the roof of St. George’s-by-the-River in Rumson holding an unusually large slate tile, part of the first and lowest course of the new roof his company is installing. Photo by Rick Geffken

By Rick Geffken |

RUMSON – Homeowners in the Two River area expect to get 30 years of use, more or less, from their roofs. Once the roof becomes unsightly or rain leaks into a home, plenty of roofers will be happy to give an estimate to replace the overlapping shingles, asphalt or wood.

But if your structure happens to be an iconic 110-year-old Rumson church with its original slate roof, you have a whole different set of problems and decisions.

A few years ago, the Rev. Ophelia Laughlin, rector of St. George’s-by-the River Episcopal Church, realized it was time to plan beyond the occasional replacement of a single slate shingle for the Gothic Revival-style church. The roof was failing due to the decay of the underlayment and the thinning of the slate itself. The job had to be done with the same materials called for in the original plan to remain on both the state and national registries of historical sites.

The church launched a capital campaign at the end of 2015 to raise money for a new slate roof to last the next half-century or more. Initial estimates said it would cost $444,000.

One of nine vestry members, Doug Raynor was chosen to shepherd the project to its completion.

The search was on for a construction company that could handle a job involving removing and replacing thousands of quarried slate shingles on a very active house of worship.

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After going out to bid, gathering references and viewing previous work from the very limited handful of companies able to do the complex and labor-intensive work, St. George’s awarded the contract to J.W. Bills & Son, a third-generation family-owned business located in Oceanport. Company president James “Jim” Bills grew up in Shrewsbury and went to Red Bank Regional High School.

Bills said it took nine to 10 months to get the slate from a quarry in Vermont. “For a historic renovation job, we had to exactly match the existing roof color,” which is a greenish-gray. It took dozens of tries before he got his supplier and church architect Mike Campbell to agree, said Bills.

There was 65,000 pounds of slate trucked in from Vermont, delivered in three separate tractor trailers. Roof replacement work began on site at the end of July.

The slate arrived with pre-drilled holes. Each piece is nailed onto the roof after the workmen put new plywood, then insulation and a layer of 30-pound felt over existing wooden planking. The complexity of the job is driven by the lowest course of slate being 1 ¼-inch thick, highly unusual according to Bills. As it goes up to the peak of the roof, the shingles get smaller in thickness. It takes four copper nails to secure each bottom layer slate. Bills is using 400 pounds of nails, several hundred feet of gutters and 150 feet of leader piping. This new roof will last another 150 years.

Jim Bills learned about copper work and slate roofs from his father Grandon Bills, who learned from his father Walter Johnson Bills, who founded a construction company in 1935 in Leonardo.

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Today, J.W. Bills does all kinds of restoration work, such as repairing structural issues in old or new homes, cedar shake roofing, copper work on old Yankee gutters, even steeple work.

He hopes his two sons James Jr. (“Jimmy”) and Walter will continue the family business.

“The newer outfits today don’t know how to do the details I learned from my father. We don’t bounce around from job to job, never have. We focus on one job before we go to the next,” said Bills.

Jim Bills is especially proud of his full-time, six-man crew.

Gilberto “Albert” Puebla has worked for Bills for 13 years. When asked how it is to work for Jim Bills, Albert, the acknowledged jokester of the crew said, “It depends on the day. Sometimes it depends on the month, too. Sometimes it’s terrible.” Bills laughed along with his longtime employee.

What part of the job does Albert like? “When I sit down.”

Another worker, Roberto Perez, loves doing the copper work because it involves more detail, but after 18 years with Bills, he does everything required, including painting.

The reconstruction process started in July. Depending on the weather, Jim Bills expects to finish by the end of October or early November.

“We’re power washing the whole structure after we get done making this big mess,” he added.

This article was first published in the Sept. 20 – 26, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.

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