Did you know that 1” of rainfall results in close to 1900 gallons of water in need of redirection off of the average roof? Yikes! And you wonder why German Village streets become turtle ponds with every rain! This blog discusses the history behind and importance of functioning gutter systems for your German Village Home.

German immigrants were a savvy bunch. They were as green as green can be, unapologetically into sustainability, energy efficiency, zero waste and natural building materials. Each and every one of them would more than likely be at our Greenspot meetings, offering up their time-tested (we are talking centuries) tricks and tips in heat and water conservation. Old world knowledge straight from the motherland….

Remember this: our German Builders did not have a big box store with knowledgeable sales people dwelling in the plumbing aisle ready to answer questions. They did not have building codes to guide them (didn’t need them as nature time tested their methods for safety) nor did they have power tools, hydraulic lifts, skid steers, cranes or laser levels. They did have their own hands; virgin timber, sand, stone, a good horse if they were fortunate, and most importantly, they had the support of their fellow immigrants, each with their own area of expertise to add to the community.

Blacksmiths forged hinges, spikes, and latches; Carpenters scored, split and hewed beams; masons cut stone, fired bricks, laid courses and set curb. They also built into each home site, located just off the edge of an eave, a magical little tool known as a cistern. More on those in a bit.

Just like the barn builders, makers of those iconic agricultural buildings, our German builders knew that the homes they were building also had to function as ‘tools’ for living. Various elements had to be built into the design to facilitate heating and cooling, lighting and ventilation. Transom windows pulled hot air off ceilings and allowed light to penetrate deep into the home. Windows and doors were set symmetrically to be opened on both sides of the home in order to let the summer breeze travel in through one, across the entire length/width of the home and out the other.

Roofs were steep to shed snow load easily (they must have been haunted by memories of Bavarian winters) and provide room for sleeping lofts within. Cellars were created by dragging a horse drawn skid back and forth repeatedly followed by hand digging to finish and prep the dirt walls for stone. The stone not only provided support for joists but a cool climate for root vegetable storage. They also had to incorporate a tool for capturing rainwater for household use and the watering of chickens, horses and the occasional milk cow. Efficiency was the rule, in choice of materials, and in functional design.

Rainwater collection was a mandatory activity long before the sewers were installed in order to sustain vegetable and kitchen gardens. Each home was required to be what would refer to today as ‘off the grid’ due to the fact that, well, there wasn’t one! Each had an outhouse and each a cistern, ideally located a good distance from one another.  Prior to slate as a roofing material, early German Village roofs were comprised of shake- split cedar installed in courses so as to direct water toward the eaves. Simple gutters referred to as ‘stop’ gutters, ‘roof deck’ gutter or ‘Yankee’ gutters were added to break the flow of water and direct it away from the facade below. In subsequent years, homeowners installed what we know today as box gutters. These wood ‘gutters’ interrupted the gravitational flow of all that water as it tumbled down the roofline. Being set at a slight incline, they directed it to the corner of the building, where it would be deposited below into the cistern. Not into the street, nor the basement, but into the cistern to be recycled- ingenious!

So when the German Village Commission requests that you retain and repair your box gutters, know what a proud legacy that architectural feature represents: the very same green sustainability practices many aspire to today that actually date back to the German origins of the Olde South End.

As time wore on, sewers were installed, and house after house tied into the municipal water system. Our research indicates that some houses remained independent of city water and sewer systems well into the 1950’s.  As homes filled or covered their cisterns, the role of gutters changed, as did their design and material.

With economic success came the ability to add on to simple one and two-bedroom homes, or build larger, ornate and fashionable homes on newly platted lots stretching south to Schiller (then City) Park. Homes were equipped with more elaborate gutter systems, some not only functional but ornamental. Copper was the ideal material, reducing maintenance to near zero, replacing the wood box gutters. It was now possible to tie the gutter systems into the sewers, making water magically disappear long before it could turn a street to mud or a basement into a flowing river. These gutters are today known as ‘half-rounds’ and are to be repaired or replaced in-kind. Copper is not required, but certainly desirable.

The German Village Commission, in the absence of existing or evidence of historic box or half-round gutters, will generally approve ‘K’ style gutters on some homes.

The importance of properly directing water away from your home and into the sewer or to the curb to flow into the sewer cannot be understated. Water can do immense damage to the fabric of your home if allowed to collect and penetrate the exterior sheathing material, be it brick and mortar or wood. An investment in a functional gutter system can save homeowners the significant expense of additional repairs in the future.

-Nancy Kotting