The other week I was hired to update the lighting in a historic mansion located in the Historic Trolley District of Ogden. The mansion originally started out as a single family dwelling but (like so many homes in Ogden) had other uses in its future including: a funeral home, apartments and (currently) office space. As part of installing a motion sensor to the exterior of the building I needed to use a section of old abandoned downspout as a ‘chase’ to hide my conduit and wire when I came across something very peculiar. There was nearly 50 pounds of flexible lead pipe inside the abandoned downspout.
Its believed that as an early image of wealth and prestige, the mansion probably had all the latest (circa 1912) “cutting edge technology” integrated within its walls. Among these features was a dumb-waiter, a heated carriage-house, built-in rain gutters and perhaps one of the most amazing advancements (to me) was the idea of having hydronic ice-melt inside these ‘built-in’ rain gutters and downspouts to keep them from freezing in the winter. As we all know melting ice and snow can cause havoc when freeze-back occurs and water starts to find its way inside the house. What I didn’t know was that our forefathers actually had a solution for this problem nearly 100 years ago!
After spending a few minutes studying the layout and chasing pipe work, we found that the hydronic system would have originally ran from the basement boiler room (using hot water or steam) out to each downspout (we found signs of at least 5 original locations) where they entered the side of the copper downspout at which point the piping then converted from galvanized pipe to lead pipe. The lead pipe was most likely used because it was flexible and easier to snake up or down the downspouts. Once finished with the connection, they soldered the downspout incision back together making it almost disappear. We imagine that the pipework would have continued up the downspout, thru the built-in gutter to the next downspout where it dropped to the bottom and would have allowed the chilled waste water to drain. It’s possible that they could have routed the pipework in a loop so as not to waste water or steam but rather recycle it, however we couldn’t find any evidence of a loop in the system, which leaves us to believe that it simply drained out at the end of the circuit.
We were able to follow sections of pipe back to the old abandoned boiler room where we found a drain valve (similar to a hose bib) in-line that would have allowed the user to drain any remaining water back into the basement (floor drain) which would keep the lines from freezing solid. The old timers apparently knew what they were doing!
This turned out to be a fun mystery to try and solve. As part of the exploration we discovered a lot more about the history of the building than we originally thought we would. As the owner of an 1890’s Queen Ann Victorian myself, I’m always interested in finding out more about the technologies and the building techniques of our forefathers. I hope to have many more of these fun excursions to share in the future.