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Tampa's Four Green Fields gets new fix for old-time roof

Colin McGhee of Charlottesville, Va., brushes off scraps while mending the thatched roof of Four Green Fields in downtown Tampa on Thursday. “It’s a great insulator,” McGhee says of the reeds. “People have been using it for 1,000 years.”

KATHLEEN FLYNN | Times

Colin McGhee of Charlottesville, Va., brushes off scraps while mending the thatched roof of Four Green Fields in downtown Tampa on Thursday. “It’s a great insulator,” McGhee says of the reeds. “People have been using it for 1,000 years.”

TAMPA — In a modern city like Tampa — covered with concrete, condos and prefab — the gritty craft of roofing with straw may seem a little out of place.

But so does a guy like Colin McGhee, a Scotland-born, England-trained master thatcher with thick palms and a thicker brogue.

McGhee, 48, cut, tucked and covered the Four Green Fields roof for several days this week, ending Thursday, in hopes of repairing the reeds that make up its unusual anachronism.

Thatched roofs composed of dry vegetation, which once served as a crude reality of medieval living, are now regarded by some as a luxury for mansions, movie sets and, evidently, downtown Irish pubs.

Four Green Fields' roof has needed constant maintenance since its construction 17 years ago, McGhee said, and standard roofers aren't properly trained to deal with the natural materials. Few endure the five years of apprentice work needed to master the craft — and gain its reward.

Thatching costs about $30 a square foot. A brand new roof over Four Green Fields would cost about $40,000. McGhee was fixing parts of the existing roof.

He and his crew of three helpers, including his apprentice, typically travel the country by highway, his Ford F-250 hauling tools and reed bundles imported from the Netherlands.

His most recent route to Tampa started at a pub in Times Square. Today he leaves for a house project in Maine.

A master thatcher in the United States can usually expect about 10 jobs a year, McGhee said. Maybe that explains why there aren't many like him.

"In the thatching world, I'm probably the most famous," he said.

How big could a scene devoted to primitive roofing be?

"In England and Holland it's massive," McGhee said. "Everywhere but America, really. Here it's just a novelty."

Drew Harwell can be reached at dharwell@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3386.

Tampa's Four Green Fields gets new fix for old-time roof 01/08/09 [Last modified: Thursday, January 8, 2009 10:36pm]
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