Saving Historic Homes in Charleston, SC, Them


CHARLESTON, SC — For 150 years, Logan St. Generations living in the beautiful house at 17 had a similar experience walking out the front door: It took four or five steps to get down, and then it went out. On the straight streets of one of the most beautiful, well-preserved and flood-prone cities in the United States.

That’s why it’s still a shock to the current owners, Allen and Lee Kaplan, that they pass through the entrance’s elegant fluted pilasters. and they find themselves one floor up, at the top of their new outdoor staircase.

“It still scares us to stand here,” said Mrs Kaplan one afternoon recently, looking at her neighbors’ front doors across the street.

after four flooding in the last five years Seeing that water had filled their crawl space and threatened to flood the ground floors, the Tigers decided to spend more than half a million dollars to roughly remove the two-story home. six feet. It was a radical move that a few years ago would draw howls from Charleston’s powerful conservation community and almost certainly be rejected by the city’s Architectural Review Board, which was accused of altering 3,500 of the city’s. historical buildings.

But today, low-lying Charleston sees its endless struggle with climate change exacerbated flooding, intensifying storms, rising seas, and downtown streets turning into impassable creeks with distressed regularity. As a result, this coastal city whose fervent defense of its historic neighborhoods led to a tourist boom in the 21st century and contributed to a regional economic renaissance is forced to accept that the concept of conservation now paradoxically must embrace change – and that some of its most historic buildings must be removed.

“It’s been a huge philosophical shift,” said Winslow Hastie, director of preservation at the Historic Charleston Foundation. Mr. Hastie’s group was actually against the idea of ​​upgrading old houses. But it has changed its tune in recent years and now reflects city officials who regularly speak of flooding as an “existential threat.”

Charleston’s adoption of home elevations reflects a growing dilemma for elected officials, emergency managers and city planners across the country as climate change worsens: Is it possible to save coastal cities and towns from rising seas? How much will it cost? And how much of the world as we know it will we be able to keep?

These questions are driven by the rising costs of recovering from hurricanes and other disasters, which the Government Accountability Office warns. may be unsustainable. Disasters caused by extreme weather conditions more than $450 billion nationwide damage since 2005; The number of disasters that caused more than $ 1 billion in damage reached 22 last year record.

In response, the federal government has forced local authorities to do more to protect their residents before a disaster strikes, for example by upgrading buildings and constructing seawalls or other flood control infrastructure. Biden administration in May, double the money Awarded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency for funding local resilience projects.

Charleston is one of a number of coastal cities where the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has proposed building a massive seawall to protect against storm surges. But the $1.4 billion bid is creating new waves of anxiety about the view of the water and its potential impact on the character of its most iconic neighborhoods.

Such aesthetic concerns reflect the broader threat posed by rising seas to the nation’s cultural heritage. a 2017 to work It found that in the Southeast and Gulf States alone, more than 14,000 important cultural resources, including historic buildings and archaeological sites, will be threatened with destruction if, as predicted, sea levels rise roughly one meter – about 3.3 feet – over the next century.

The Charleston seawall may be years away. Meanwhile, the town planning department said that as of the end of December, 18 historic homes had been upgraded, 14 of which were in the process of being removed, and 14 more were approved for upgrading, but more permits were required. Mayor John Tecklenburg believes that hundreds more need to be raised, with the expectation that sea level will rise between two and six feet over the next 50 years.

So far, conservationists are happy with most of the elevations that must conform to the specific design guidelines adopted in 2019. The use of “traditional wall materials” is encouraged. Allowing parking spaces under raised homes, like the “beach” lattice work between new piers, is frowned upon.

The change in stance is particularly profound for Charleston. The 351-year-old city created the country’s first historic district in 1931 to preserve a collection of churches, town halls and houses (Georgian, neo-Classical, Italian, Victorian, Gothic revival). a kind of symphonic splendor. The almost obsessive focus on conservation has paid off: In 2019, the city welcomed more than 7.4 million tourists, a figure that fell in 2020 due to the Covid-19 outbreak, but is expected to rise again. The Charleston metropolitan area has reached a population of more than 800,000 in recent years, beating growth forecasts.

“The value proposition for conservation was, ‘If you fix it, they will come,'” said Kristopher King, executive director of the Charleston Conservation Society. “No one did it better than Charleston. And they came.”

But the threat of sea level rise has lessened the dizziness. Mr Tecklenburg said that in 2019 the Charleston area was damaged by flooding for 76 days.

The Democrat and Charleston-born Mr Tecklenburg, who took office in 2016, has made tackling flood his top priority, with a broad approach that includes policy changes and major infrastructure projects. Last week, he gave a driving tour of the Charleston peninsula, the heart of the old city, where he largely ignored the inspiring architecture. Instead, he showed off the sets of workers in hard hats.

Some were raising the existing seawall known as the Low Battery. Some reinforced ancient underground drainage channels with concrete. Others were finishing a $198 million drainage project that would eventually move 360,000 gallons of water from downtown streets to the Ashley River.

“You can either do something and try to live on the water, or you can pack up and move to Asheville, NC,” said Mr Tecklenburg. “I’m not going to be the mayor who says head for the hills.”

After a while, Mr. Tecklenburg parked in front of a tall house from the 1850s. Overlooking a small urban tide pool called Colonial Lake, this is a classic example of what is known as the “Charleston only house” – a narrow house with a pair of stacked patios known as plazas that run along one side of the building.

This is the house Mr. Tecklenburg grew up in and helped start the new attitude towards heights when the current owners applied for permission to raise the ground in 2017. The approval of the city marked the beginning of philosophical change. Mr. Tecklenburg noted that this was a kind of hidden height: the height of the front door leading to the lower square did not change much as the building was raised a few meters. However, new stairs were added just inside the door and the first veranda was reached.

“It looks nice, doesn’t it?” said Mr Tecklenburg. “You wouldn’t know.”

The idea of ​​removing buildings in a flood zone is far from exotic. Beach communities and fishing camps have been doing this for years. In New Orleans, the centuries-old tradition of upgrading homes collected after the catastrophic flooding from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 continues today: In March, city officials announced that FEMA will spend $8.4 million to upgrade 31 New Orleans homes.

But other flooding cities include Newport, RI, and Mandeville, La., where many homes have risen since Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The historic district of the city has now been upgraded, according to former planning manager Louisette Scott.

Raising a historic home can be a complex task. Last year, Charleston removed its first historic stone building, a massive 450-tonne Italian villa at 1 Water Street. Construction crews dug stakes up to 75 feet deep through pudding-like coastal mud to find bedrock, then lifted the house using 30 computer-controlled jacks calibrated to account for the different weights in different parts of the house.

The cheapest jobs are an expensive job costing around $100,000. Some subsidies are available, but Mr Tecklenburg said finding new financing for working people is an important next step his management is taking.

For now, a new breed of homeowners who can afford the job is coming to the fore.

As the tigers stopped in front of their new home on Logan Street, a carriage full of tourists passed by.

The tour guide was busy explaining how the house came so close to the treetops.


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