When it was time to replace the copper roof atop the historic, 13-story Emily Morgan Hotel — something that hadn’t been done in the building’s 91-year history — the project leader knew he needed a team of workers with a special set of skills.

Why? Because the top of the downtown hotel is done in the slanted Art Deco revival style that was all the rage in the 1920s. And when we say slanted we mean slanted.

As in, a 67-degree-angle, which is almost two-thirds of the way to vertical, a 90-degree angle. We’re talking scary-steep metal, all nice and hot under the broiling Texas summer sun, and almost 160 feet up from the ground.

The building, which stands at East Houston Street and Avenue E next to Alamo Plaza, was originally a medical arts building and completed in April 1926 at a cost of $1.55 million.

It took almost two years to find a roofing company that would even agree to look at the project, said Kyle Tostenson, the San Antonio architect in charge of the roof renovation. “We went as far as Houston and only found three companies even willing to give us a bid, mainly because of three challenges — the angle, the height and the material.”

The company that ended up winning the bid was Texas 5th Wall Roofing Systems, with offices here and in Austin, Tostenson said. The general contractor is Fabian’s Construction of San Antonio.

That challenging material? He means 5,000 square feet of copper sheeting that is so special it had to be shipped in from a company on the East Coast, one of a handful of suppliers that still makes it.

The copper is hauled up in large rolls in a hotel elevator. The workers fabricate the sheets on the roof, cutting and bending them. Everything must adhere to strict historical standards.

“These guys are up there with their hands, forming the roof as it was done (originally),” Tostenson said. Back then, roofers didn’t have fasteners, so the entire roof was “crimped together,” he said. Today’s roofers use copper clips that are concealed but hold the roof together.

“We had to get everything approved through the Office of Historic Preservation,” said Kole Siefken, the general manager of the hotel, which is part of the Doubletree by Hilton chain. “The roof has to be the exact replica of the one that was originally created, in every way shape and form.”

The project began in April and will continue through August. The final price tag won’t be known until the roof is done, Tostenson said.

The five-man crew starts early. They end late. They work even when the heat index zooms above 100 degrees. And they do it all using safety harnesses and an electric scaffolding lift, working on a roof with such a vertiginous pitch it puts the roller coaster at Fiesta Texas to shame.

“The only days they don’t work is when the wind is over 30 miles an hour or when it’s raining,” Siefken said.

In the full glare of the day, the new roof reflects the sun so brightly that it appears from the street level to be on fire. Over time, the copper will oxidize and change to a greenish patina, said Vincent Michael, executive director of the San Antonio Conservation Society, which owns the building’s “facade easement.” That means the building owner can’t change the exterior and must get the society’s approval on any work done.

“Right now, it all looks very bright, but it will fade quickly as it naturally ages,” he said.

Michael said roofs such as the one atop the hotel are usually replaced after 50 years or so, so this renovation is long overdue — even if it has to be done during a Texas heat wave.

Manuel Gomez, chief engineer at the hotel, said the roofers take precautions to stay cool as they toil with the hot metal. Jugs of water are everywhere. The men wrap cool rags around their necks. They wear light vests full of breathable holes and glare-reducing safety glasses.

Before 1984, when it was converted into a hotel, the building housed a hospital and offices for doctors and dentists. An array of faces at the third floor level of the building’s facade befit a medical building. Near an entrance, one carved figure with his arms crossed portrays someone with a stomach ache, Siefken said. The one holding his head has a migraine.

Designed by well-known San Antonio architect Ralph Cameron, the Emily Morgan features a six-sided tower in the Gothic revival style. Siefken said he’s visited the roof before — a flat area next to a cooling tower, not the scarily slanted part.

“It’s a nice view,” he said, from the comfort of the well-air-conditioned lobby.

mstoeltje@express-news.net