As Jim Scotchler began shingling the back of the house, the "things" became a consideration. The things had to come off the wall, then the things had to go back in place once the shingling was done. And what in the world are the things for, anyway?

The "things" are 5-foot lengths of 2½ inch cast iron pipe, as seen at right (CLICK on this and any other image to enlarge). The downspout (currently galvanized steel, but we're replacing them with copper) is attached to the conductor head. At the bottom, the cast iron flares away from the foundation; in a regular downspout system, this is a separate curved piece called a "shoe."

The "things," as it turns out, are Victorian "downspout boots" and you can still buy modern versions of them, even made in cast iron. One catalog says their purpose is "protecting the light metal downspout from damage of traffic, vandalism, and other abuses," and that makes sense, particularly on a two story building like Comstock House; a serious bump against the downspout and over 15' of metal pipe could be ruined, and maybe even the gutters ripped loose. Architect and preservation expert Mark Parry pointed out that these may have been a familiar sight in rural Sonoma County in that era, as they're just the right height to prevent a horse or cow with an itchy backside from doing damage. If removed, the boots also provide a way to clean out the downspout from underneath - not an insignificant benefit, considering last year we had to hire a plumber to remove walnuts packed into a plumbing vent by a very industrious squirrel.

As the roofing project neared, a decision had to be made: Should we keep the boots or extend the downspouts all the way to the ground? The vote was overwhelmingly against the boots, and I was often inclined to agree - without the boots we could have 3" downspouts, which would be less likely to back up the gutters during a heavy rain. But then I'd ponder my central tenet: You don't get to choose which historic details to save and which to remove in a restoration (a friend calls this my "Nazi preservationist" tendency) and I'd also recall the plumber's long face as he delivered the bad news that "you've got walnuts," and back I'd be, finding new love for the ugly downspout boots.

The answer should come from architect Brainerd Jones, but his voice is not clear on the subject. The notes to the contractor state only that the "conductors" should be 2-inch galvanized iron, "well secured to building." No mention of boots, or whether the pipe should be one contiguous piece. (His note only concerns the gutter system in the back; originally the front downspouts were concealed in porch columns, which will be the topic of a separate article.) We do know from a Comstock family photo that the boots were in place in 1919 and an additional downspout had been added to the southwest corner; it's possible that the boots were also a post facto fix.

A little survey of the use of downspouts in this period in architectural history yields fascinating results (and that's probably the only time you'll ever encounter "fascinating" and "downspouts" in the same sentence). Victorian architects apparently didn't care much for downspouts. Never do you see them in blueprints or drawings, and you can examine photographs in books such as "Artistic Country-Seats" (1886) and nary see one for a dozen pages or more. What happened at these houses during a rainstorm is a mystery; hopefully there was a well-engineered and concealed gutter system, because otherwise the water would sheet off the roof, likely flooding the basement.


Attitudes began to change in the early 20th century. The famed partnership of Greene & Greene viewed downspouts and the straps that attached them as decorative architectural elements, incorporating them in drawings as early as 1903. In the 1904 Reeve House at Long Beach shown above left, the gutters and downspouts are painted a light color to contrast with the shingles, and the "elbow" between the gutter and downspout appears almost structural. (A recent view shows these features are no longer present). Their 1906 Bolton house in Pasadena, shown above right, used a pair of downspouts to symmetrically frame the entrance.

Greene & Greene continued to emphasize downspouts - the 1908 Gamble House had no fewer than four on the front face, including one next to the front door - and Stickley also began to work them into his plans around that time. But the most over-the-top use of a downspout has to be Maybeck's design for the 1909 Goslinsky House in San Francisco, shown at right. Not only was the downspout prominent, but the unique twisted copper design and flower header made it the focus point.

The contrarian in this period was Frank Lloyd Wright, who famously disliked downspouts because of their strong vertical lines, which in part explains why his buildings also famously leak. His 1904 design for Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois had downspouts hidden inside walls, and for that reason the National Trust has named the church as one of the most endangered historic places in America: "The system was undersized and essentially inaccessible, and to this day water continually overflows the drains and permeates the concrete roof slabs. Heavy rains in September 2008 caused a large chunk of plaster and concrete to fall from the sanctuary ceiling." Wright also had a 1907 house plan with a downspout hidden inside a chimney flue that was in the middle of the building. I'm sure that likewise worked out just swell.

1 comments:

Ornamental drainage systems surely can enhance your house aesthetic aspect a lot.

November 20, 2010 at 5:34 AM  

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