Nowadays, a gutter is some vinyl-coated contraption that hangs awkwardly from the edge of the roof (if it’s not already half falling down). Getting water away from the structure has always been a key concern of architects and builders. But in past centuries, designers had a different, and more elegant, solution: the built-in gutter. Rather than ruining the view of the cornice, the gutter was concealed behind the cornice or made integral with it (i.e. the entire cornice was made of a single large piece of wood in which a gutter was carved out). The earliest built-in wood gutters were primitive affairs hollowed out of half of a log. Over time, this evolved into a “v” or “u” shaped construction of sawn boards. The main drawback with this solution was that if the wood of the gutter deteriorated, water could directly enter the wall cavity below. So, over time, various linings were employed ranging from coatings of paint or tar to lead, terne, or copper sheeting.
Based on their initial survey of the house, our architects (Mesick, Cohen, Wilson, Baker) had believed we would find built-in gutters on multiple roof levels at the Dr. Oliver Bronson House. On Monday, an exposure window was cut through the metal roofing and sheathing on the North side second floor roof to probe for a built-in gutter. And, lo and behold, we found the remains of one:
This built-in gutter is of the early type, constructed from a single piece of wood. As can be seen from the photo, the outer, roof edge side of the gutter is missing but the other side, with its hand carved channel is still intact underneath the sheathing. The gutter does not appear to have been ever lined with metal. All of these facts suggest that the gutter dates to the original 1812 construction of the house. Our working hypothesis is that when the eaves of the roof were extended and Davis’s decorative brackets were installed in 1839, the workers cut back the outer lip of this gutter and extended the sheathing boards over it, thus encapsulating the original gutter. The first generation of half-round hung gutters were then installed around the roofline to replace the earlier rainwater conductor system.
This presents an interesting preservation issue since restoring the original Federal period gutter system would require un-doing Davis’s 1839 work. Given the primacy of Davis’s picturesque remodelling campaigns to the historical significance of the house, and the fact that these changes are largely intact, it was decided to document the original federal period built-in gutters and then re-enclose them. Roof probes have also identified that built-in gutters also existed on the lower roofs. Since these roofs were not altered by Davis in either 1839 or 1849, the original gutters can be restored and reinstated without destroying other historic features. The lower roof built-in gutter on the north wall will be replicated and fully lined with EPDM and copper sheathing.