Cupolas by Zack-THE MACOMB DAILY...April 16,2000-Homefront Section

Cupolas: From custom-made to store-bought, they top off a home Apr 16 2000 12:00AM By Stephen Bitsoli -- Macomb Daily Staff Writer Macomb Daily photo by Jamie Charbeneau -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Lawrence "Zack" Zechmeister of Zack's Workshoppe has been custom-making cupolas for more than 20 years. The decorative rooftop vents are growing in popularity, especially on the Internet. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Cupolas are in. "What's a cupola?" That's what carpenter Lawrence "Zack" Zechmeister asked the first time he was asked to work on one, more than 20 years ago. That's what I said when my editor suggested I do an article about them. It's probably what you thought to yourself when you saw the word in the headline or at the beginning of the first paragraph. Zechmeister found out, and now his Zack's Workshoppe in St. Clair Shores, (810) 294-6983, specializes in cupolas. He's even listed in the Ameritech yellow pages under "Cupolas." A cupola is "a light structure on a dome or roof, serving as ... a lantern [`any light, decorative structure of relatively small size, crowning a roof, dome, etc.'] or belvedere [`a building designed and situated to look out upon a pleasing view'] EPS. one covering a circular or polygonal area," according to "The Random House College Dictionary" (1988, Revised). What is it good for? That depends on when and where you're asking. In Europe, they often were tiny rooms or lookouts on top of a house, often surrounded by a "Widow's Walk," or else they were domed roofs of cathedrals. In this country, they were mostly used to ventilate barns, although some capitol buildings incorporate them, too. But the cupolas we're speaking of now are more elegant, more decorative and go on houses. Sometimes they ventilate attics, but often they're just for show. Basically it's the little house-like structure on top of some houses, larger than a birdhouse but too small to comfortably house a full-sized person. There's usually a window or shutters ("louvers"), its roof is often made of copper, and sometimes there's a weather vane. Zechmeister was already "a high-end carpenter," doing "staircase work, mantel work," when an architect for whom he was doing a restoration job asked if he could also restore the property's three cupolas there. "Is it made of wood? Then yes," he answered, a little cocky. He was, however, a little humbled when he had to "surgically remove them" to restore them, and to figure out how to do it. "I was impressed," Zechmeister admitted, especially since the cupolas were made with more primitive tools than he had to work with. Since then, cupolas have taken up more and more of his business. "As I ran my small construction business, I included my own cupolas, [later] copyrighting our own designs. We're in the middle of copyrighting 30 to 50 designs." His favorite cupola shape is the octagon, because "anything octagonal is a nightmare," and because "they're stately, elegant and a challenge." One of Zechmeister's innovations is a lighting system for his cupolas. "All our cupolas light up. It was my idea," but he didn't fully appreciate the effect "until I had one." He said it's comforting to see a lit cupola when you come home in the late night fog. All of Zechmeister's cupolas are custom made, including the materials. "We buy our own trees, Michigan White Pine from the upper lower peninsula. We have our own mill. We bring the trees back and dry them ourselves." Zechmeister's cupola roofs are usually copper, so he "invented our own coppersmithing process." He had to, because it's almost a lost art. For help, he "had to go to Europe for books on coppersmithing methods." Most of the texts he could find were in German, but since he doesn't read German, for the most part he had to "use the pictures." And atop the cupolas, Zechmeister usually puts a weather vane, because without one a cupola "is like a suit without a tie. It's the crowning touch. Copper roofs and copper weather vanes." And each customer's name is put on the cupola. "We do the names in brass plates." But such attention to detail takes time and money. "A standard octagonal cupola takes usually 12 weeks," Zechmeister laughs, "but we're absolutely always late. Everything is custom. It's not unusual to take three days for one window." Zechmeister's also delayed by the weather. He won't install a cupola unless the temperature is at least 50 degrees at night, because of the possibility of ice, and because the caulking might crack. Such restrictions don't seem to dissuade customers. Zechmeister estimates he received 50 commissions last year alone, and he's received orders from as far away as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. And because his equipment is portable, he can finish the job on site. "We go all over. We do a lot of business in Macomb and the Grosse Pointes. In the last two years, we've seen a huge change in housing going up. The east side is catching up with the west side." While the cost is determined by the materials and size (on average his cupolas are 5 feet 6 inches tall, same as him) "a standard piece, installed with lantern, copper roof and copper weather vane," costs "$2,245 to $7,000," though he said "we've done cupolas for $20,000," adding that they were "real big ones." And Zechmeister doesn't disappear once the job is done. "We warranty our cupolas." -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Another cupola maker is E-Zee Set Wood Products, (248) 398-0090, in Oak Park. Owner Jeff Lorenz also has been into cupolas for about a quarter century. He got into them when another cupola maker decided to go out of business. One of Lorenz's employees used to work for the former cupola maker, and told Lorenz about it. So Lorenz decided to add cupolas to his repertoire. Unlike Zack's, Lorenz's cupola work isn't all custom. "We build a couple of standard models, and we do a lot of custom builts, too." Lorenz's cupolas also come with windows or louvers, but the roofs can be metal or wooden, "we don't necessarily provide weather vanes," and lights are a customer option. The price for one of Lorenz's standard models ranges from "$160 on up to a couple of thousand." A custom job, Lorenz added, can go up to $6,000, "depending on what kind of hoops we have to jump through." -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Surprisingly, while there are a dozen or more do-it-yourself cupola distributors on the Internet, as well as general information and historic sites such as, area home improvement stores such as Home Depot and Builders Square don't seem to carry any. You also can get a cupola made to your specifications by Flying High Inc., or (800) 243-3725, for from $200-$3,750. Less expensive, ready-made cupola suppliers on the Web include Darrah Woodcraft, or (800) 964-8815, from $111-$619; Custom Home Accessories, or (800) 265-0041, from $119.95-$995.95; Noomen Cabinets, or (507) 274-6310, from $349- $899; and Exterior Shutter Co., or (888) 522- 9434, from $725-$1,250. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- But if your new or old home doesn't already have a cupola, why add one? One reason is as a memorial. Zechmeister's designed and built several cupolas to commemorate the dead, including the cupola on his own workshop. "I had it in my head for years but never built it," Zechmeister said. Then his father, who "taught me how to work with my hands" and "loved working in wood," died. "As part of my grieving, I finally designed the cupola that was in my head, and put it up in memory of my dad. "Every cupola is like that; it has a story." 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