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Tropical Eden, up on a Federal Hill roof


A roof, like a mind, is a terrible thing to waste -- especially if it can be transformed into a celestial paradise.

That was the thinking of Walter and Nancy Miller Schamu when they bought the shell of an old automobile body shop in Federal Hill in 1977 and turned it into their two-story home.

They dreamed that one day, when finances permitted, they would build a solarium on top. It would be a cozy place to sit and enjoy the skyline. What's more, it would increase the amount of daylight let into the house by its meager seven windows, which are further blocked by the narrow street and the closeness of the residences next door. A solarium, moreover, would help to heat the house in wintertime.

Finding a 14-by-18-foot Lord and Burnham greenhouse at a great saving, Mr. Schamu, whose interest in gardening had not yet developed, set it up on his roof with stairs from the second floor leading into it. Although he didn't intend to grow plants in the greenhouse, it was quickly filled with them by gardening friends who couldn't bear to see it empty.

The couple soon found that a rooftop greenhouse is not the most agreeable place to sit in the summertime. It is too hot then, even for plants. An outdoor deck was clearly needed, and luckily there was still room for one on the roof next to the solarium.

Seeing the deck last summer, a member of the planning committee for the Williamsburg Garden Symposium was so intrigued with the idea of a roof garden in a historic district and the effect Mr. Schamu had created that he invited Mr. Schamu to present a lecture on April 6 at the symposium.

Mr. Schamu is an architect and president of the Baltimore and Wheeling, W.Va., firm of Schamu, Machowski, Doo & Associates. His wife is a preservationist at the National Conference of State Historical Preservation offices in Washington. Although she enjoys having greenery around, she leaves its care to her husband.

Mr. Schamu built the deck of 2-by-6 pressure-treated planking arranged in a series of four small terraces that step up in 6-inch intervals to a plateau 2 feet above the greenhouse door. The juxtaposition of the levels at different angles creates an interesting arrangement of the space, while dividing it into areas for entry, sitting or dining. The deck is enclosed by lattice fencing and by the walls of the greenhouse and a neighbor's house. The walls, in breaking the wind and reflecting the sun, create a micro-climate for the plants. A long, high-back cedar bench was also installed.

By floating the deck 18 inches above the roof on piers of the same wood, Mr. Schamu allowed for room to crawl underneath. In the same stroke, he arranged to allow water to run off and also provided a flat surface for laying a floor over the pitch of the roof. The deck, moreover, shades the roof in the summer.

Laid bare to summer heat, sun and drying winds, a roof garden needs water as its lifeline, Mr. Schamu says. He supplies it through a Gardena drip irrigation system connected to a hose. The faucet for the hose is attached to a water line in the greenhouse. A RainMatic 300 timer is set to water plants for two minutes every two hours, eight times a day from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. The system, because of its black tubing and the placement of the main trunk under a ledge, is unobtrusive. Feeder lines, also black, are staked or tied into each pot. Emitter openings vary according to the moisture needs of the plants they serve. It takes Mr. Schamu a weekend to set up the system and move the plants.

Consisting mostly of tropicals, the collection numbers about 100 plants, including gardenias, ficus, lime and jade trees, bougainvilleas, hibiscus and oleander. Many of the specimens are quite large, but all follow a strict rotation schedule: They take their places on the deck on April 15 and return to the greenhouse October 15.

Under ordinary conditions, moving tender plants outdoors that early in the spring might seem a bit risky; but the environment produced for them provides the extra warmth to sustain them if temperatures drop. Orchids take refuge under the bench or in the shade of a large tub-held wisteria that remains outdoors the year around.

In keeping with his profession, Mr. Schamu treats plants on his deck as structural elements. A row of tall jade plants functions as a railing along one side of the deck where it changes levels. Morning glories, bittersweet, red honeysuckle and bougainvillea turn the lattice fencing into a living screen.

Lantanas he started in 4-inch pots and trained as standards frame the entrance to what is jokingly dubbed "the cocktail lounge." It is perfumed by 3- to 4-foot-high gardenias positioned to catch the prevailing westerly wind, which blows their fragrance into the area. In their size, too, Mr. Schamu says, the gardenias make "a great visual statement."

White flowered plants, in addition to brightening the garden at night, act as beacons in the darkness to guide visitors to changes in the deck's levels. White was also chosen as the hue for peonies, climbing hydrangea, moon flower, night-blooming cereus, petunias and geraniums, to accent the yellows and blues that compose the deck's color scheme.

Mr. Schamu will be presenting a slide-lecture on roof gardens at the 47th Williamsburg Garden Symposium April 6 (its final day) at 9:15 a.m. The symposium, whose theme is "Cultivating for the Senses: The Sights, Sounds and Aromas of the Garden," begins April 4.

For more information. write to Garden Symposium Registrar, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, P.O. Box 1776, Williamsburg, Va. 23187-1776; or call Deborah Chapman at (804) 220-7255. Fax number is (804) 221-8921.

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