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Looking for rainy signs of social status in Old Town Alexandria

One of the several decorative cast-iron downspout boots of Old Town Alexandria. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

The Downspout Man meets me in front of the Christmas Attic at the corner of Union and Prince streets in Old Town Alexandria. It is not raining, but with any luck it soon will be, for after all, our quarry is downspouts, or more specifically, downspout boots.

What, you ask, is a downspout boot? Allow me to quote from “Nineteenth-century AD decorative cast iron rainwater downspout boots: Indicators of socio-economic status in Alexandria, Virginia, United States of America,” written by the Downspout Man, a.k.a. Mark Michael Ludlow, for his master’s degree:

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Downspout boots are “cast iron sections running approximately the last four feet of the downspout, to and including the ground level, where, in most cases, unless modified, they angle outwards at ground level to direct exiting rainwater away from the base of the building in question.”

There are 41 downspout boots within the historic district of Alexandria. Mark knows this because he walked the whole thing, some 25 miles of paved and cobbled streets, not to mention the alleys he wandered down and the fences he peeked over.

Why? Well, this is what archaeologists do.

Mark Michael Ludlow, an Alexandria man who has studied the decorative cast-iron downspouts of Old Town Alexandria. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

Mark became fixated with downspout boots in 2005. A student of urban archaeology, he had completed a detailed study of the Norman Fitzhugh building at 125 Union St., long thought to date from the 1700s. (In fact, Mark ascertained, it was built around 1827.) Among the building’s many interesting features was one he had never paid attention to before: a downspout boot.

“This is Number 1,” Mark says as we round the corner. Then: “Hmm. This is a sad day.”

It is a sad day because this particular downspout is missing its boot. There is just a normal cylinder of sheet metal at the bottom, not a heavy hunk of decorative iron.

(We will later discover that the cast-iron boot became clogged and was removed. It is being stored safely in the Christmas Attic’s attic. We did not venture there, but I imagine the attic of a building called the Christmas Attic is a place of super-concentrated Christmasness, thick with tinsel, lights, elves, myrrh . . .)

Momentarily stymied in our hunt, we head over to where most of Alexandria’s downspout boots were born.

“Nothing was known about these,” Mark says as we walk toward the river. If anyone had noticed Alexandria’s many handsome downspout boots, they hadn’t done any research on them. So Mark decided to.

We stop at Wolfe and Union streets, once the location of the T.W. & R.C. Smith Foundry. The Smiths made locomotives and other large fixtures here, but they also poured molten metal into molds to create downspout boots. Many of Alexandria’s are embossed with the firm’s name. Mark can roughly date when each was made: Some read “Alexandria, DC,” others “Alexandria, VA.” The latter were made after the city retroceded back to Virginia in 1847.

We turn and walk toward Prince Street — “ground zero for surviving downspouts,” Mark says.

It is indeed. Some of the downspouts, like the one at 111 Prince St., are fluted, like a Roman column. The one at 212 Prince, covered in vines and leaves, has a botanical theme. Some have scrollwork adorning the shovel-like orifice on the bottom.

Many of Old Town’s boots must have been destroyed over the decades. And while it’s possible that historic neighborhoods in Baltimore, Georgetown, Charleston and New Orleans have decorative downspout boots, Mark has never seen one in any of those places. Homeowners in Alexandria seem to have been crazy for them. Why?

“They appear to be statements of status,” Mark says.

They were a way of saying: Look at how wealthy I am. I can sheath something utilitarian in something expensive — and beautiful. Tellingly, Mark has found no downspout boots on the backs of houses, even though there are plenty of spouts there. If you were going to buy a boot, you wanted your neighbors to see it.

Mark runs For the Wild Birds, a birding store in McLean. Before that, he worked on Wall Street. He’s completing his PhD, about how humans settled the Caribbean islands, where he and wife, Margot Britton, spend part of every year. He’s 66, an age, I politely point out, that is somewhat more advanced than that of most graduate students.

“I just like it,” he says of doing the research involved in earning an advanced degree, the poring through land records and old maps and newspapers.

As if on cue, it starts to rain.

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