Back story for 2019 Christmas Card


As I said on the Christmas Card the inspiration for this year’s illustration was a roof we supplied back in 2009.


When I started thinking back on how we arrived at supplying these particular tiles for this very different roof project I realized it was the result of a series of seemingly unrelated event, and I think it’s a story worth telling.


Within a year of starting Northern Roof Tiles, back in 1991, I had already added a range of French made shingle tiles from a very small, old established, family owned tile maker called Tuilerie de Pontigny Aleonard.

In 1115 a breakaway group of Cistercian monks settled in what was to become the village of Pontigny They needed tiles for the roof of their abbey and as there was an ample supply of clay locally they set too and made their own.


Interesting side facts

On one of my frequent visits to the factory Monsieur Bernard Aleonard, the last remaining family member, presented me with two pieces of the original roof thought to have been made around 1155.

As I held the pieces of tile in my hand I clearly remember Monsieur Aleonard shaking his head and saying ‘Pas de Stuart avant meme de demander, tu ne peux pas avoir de carreaux de cette couleur!’  (No Stuart before you even ask you cannot have tiles that color!)


Over the years that abbey grew and is now one of the largest in France, but the village of Pontigny is still a small sleepy hamlet. In those early days as the Abbey grew satellite settlements were built to support the monks and one became the village of Chablis, and I am told they make some very good wine!


By the early 14th century a small plant was making clay tiles, bricks and pipers and in 1872 the Aleonard family purchased the company.


One of Northern’s early projects with Tuilerie de Pontigny Aleonard was to supply the tiles for the restoration of Frank Lloyd Wright’ s Martin House in Buffalo.


Interesting side facts.

Phase 1 of the restoration of the Martin House Complex was started in 1990. Local architects Hamilton Houston & Lownie were tasked initially on making the main house weather tight, this involved brickwork repairs, drainage and foundation work and dealing with the roof. The original tiles chosen by Frank Lloyd Wright were supplied by the Detroit Tile company, which has long since gone out of business. The original tile roof had been lost in the 1950’s and they only had one of the old tiles left.

The architects had contacted all the usual suspects but no one had a clay body that came anywhere close to matching the original.

Ted Lownie called Northern and I recollect his opening statement was ‘I know this is a waste of time asking but…..’ I visited his office the next day and as soon as I saw the original tile I realized that Tuilerie de Pontigny Aleonard offered a color very similar in their Monument Historic range.

6 weeks later I received a set of samples packed in straw…… no polystyrene beads and bubble wrap for them, and immediately presented them to Mr. Lownie. And as they say ‘the rest is history’. Northern went on to supply all the tiles for the main house, The Barton House and years later when the pergola and stable block was rebuilt; we supplied the tiles for those areas as well.


As our relationship grew with the factory they allowed us to use this illustration in one of our advertisements’ in Clem Lebine’s Traditional Builder magazine.

Connection # 2

This ad was seen by a gentleman in Laguna Beach CA who was trying to design his dream home based on the ‘Hollywood Story Book’ style of architecture. The location of the project was on a steep hillside which meant the entrance from the road was at the top and the roof would be very visible and an extremely important part of the overall external design.

Also the need for a noncombustible roof material seemed to limit the design of the roof due to the perceived limitation of clay roof tiles. But then John saw our ad with the curved flowing section joining the turret to the main roof he had ah-ha moment.

John called me, explained his ‘dream’ and in my usual inimitable manner I replied ‘no problem…we can do that’.

Connection #3

And the reason for my seeming confidence was because of another challenging project we had supplied back in 1993


In 1931 Bernard Maybeck designed the campus of Principia College on the banks of the Mississippi near St Louis. His design called for a series of English style manor houses surrounding a village green with the church as a focal point. The manor houses would be dormitories, lecture halls etc., the last of the manor house style buildings he designed, Buck House, he really wanted a thatch roof. But due to the fire codes of the day this was not permitted so he designed a roof with the traditional thatch rounded eaves, hips, ridge and gables.  The original tiles were evidently made by a company in California and they created not only the curved tiles required to accommodate the complex curves of the roof but also the 14 or 15 different colors and textures Maybeck requested.


Unfortunately the ravages of time and temperature had resulted in the need for a complete replacement.

Again Northern was asked if we could supply replacement tiles and again I said with confidence ‘yes we can do that…..and we did’


This time I turned to one of my English tile makers Daniel Platt of Stoke on Trent. These guys opened their doors in 1805 and over the time had learned a thing or two about making roof tiles. I worked with their master tile maker Bill Wilkes and we soon recreated the varying textures and some of the colors. The technic to create the other colors / shades was provided by a master potter who made Northern’s chimney pots at the time.


Interesting side fact:

The upcoming restoration of Buck House was featured in the local newspaper and soon after the article appeared a gentleman arrived on site with a roll of plans under his arm. Evidently he had worked for the original builder of the campus and years later when the company was shutting down he was instructed to clear the store room and dispose of all the old plans etc that had accumulated over the years.

But he recognized some of the old drawings were in fact Bernard Maybeck’s original  drawings and some were actually Maybeck’s pastel drawings of Buck House’s ‘thatch’ roof and the colorations he wanted. These original drawings were invaluable as it allowed the architect to map the roof and using the 14 different colors the roofer was able to truly recreate Maybeck’s dream.

So with a combination of master tile makers in England and the master tile installers at Old World Roofing in St Louis the roof was re-created and I’m sure Bernard would have approved.


But the lesson learned in how to make tiles with varying curvatures in the length as well as their width, both concave and convex, stood me in good stead for the complex shaped John needed for his roof in Laguna Beach.


Not only did John design and build the house he also installed the roof tiles…with a little help and guidance from yours truly, at least it got him started.


This roof and house is a true testament to the will power of the owner, when the doubting Thomas’s and the faint hearted said ‘you can’t do that!’…John did and proved them all wrong. Northern is very proud to have been a small part of this truly amazing project.


And John’s roof gave us the inspiration for our 2007 Christmas Card


Interesting side facts

Unfortunately Daniel Platt’s was driven into bankruptcy by the mismanagement, ineptitude and poor judgment of the ‘turnaround expert’ hired by the owner and this once thriving old company was brought to its knees in a short period and unfortunately closed its doors. The factory machinery was sold off, the land sold for a supermarket and the hundreds of years of craftsmanship cast on the scrap heap of history.


Connection # 4


But back to the story.

John needed custom doors for the house and happened upon a master cabinet maker who specialized in making odd shaped doors, enter Dick Hartley. Dick made the door and whilst visiting the project in Laguna Beach noticed the roof.


Now it just so happened that Dick was planning his own dream retirement home and his design would also involve some unusual roof shapes. And yes you guessed it….

Dick called Stuart and Stuart said ‘yes no problem…we can do that…and we did.


I had the pleasure of visiting Dick when the first sections were about to be installed in 2010 and the view from what would become his balcony was pretty amazing.


Construction took a little longer than Dick had original estimated, some of the delays were caused thru volume of other work that required his attention but eventually all was finished and according to Dick, the wait was worth it! And looking at the pictures Dick sent…I would agree.


And one final note regarding our Christmas Cards.

Credit must go to our illustrious illustrator Gord Pullar (

I was first introduced to Gord over 20 years ago when he provided illustrations for Folders, brochures and in 2001 our first Christmas card.

Gord is a freelance illustrator and an extremely talented artist. So if you wanted to start a series of unique Christmas cards for your company, or need an illustration I cannot recommend Gord highly enough.

18 Years of Christmas Cards from Northern Roof Tiles