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Behre: In downtown Charleston, what once was heresy seems here to stay

preservation-admin , February 27, 2021

View the original Post and Courier Editorial here

One of my favorite books is “How Buildings Learn” by Stewart Brand. It’s about architecture and preservation, but it’s more specifically about what happens to our buildings despite architects and preservationists. It’s about what happens when we use them and adapt them over time.

“Almost no buildings adapt well. They’re designed not to adapt; also budgeted and financed not to, administered not to, maintained not to, regulated and taxed not to, even remodeled not to,” he writes in the first chapter. “But all buildings (except monuments) adapt anyway, however poorly, because the usages in and around them are changing constantly.”

A great example is playing out across downtown Charleston, where more than 45 homeowners have raised or are working to raise the elevation of their historic homes. At least 35 have gotten the green light from the city.

A decade ago, such changes would not have been possible. That’s mainly because preservationists ideally want buildings preserved “in situ,” literally in their original place. But consecutive years of serious flooding caused many in Charleston to realize there are worse things than altering a home’s historic integrity by raising it a few feet farther off the ground.

The success of elevating historic homes is partly because the city got proactive, notes Kristopher King of the Preservation Society of Charleston. A few years ago, the Board of Architectural Review staff huddled with local architects and preservationists to work out thoughtful design guidelines.

“It shows if you get proactive, you can engineer outcomes that will work for everybody,” he says. “Height doesn’t have to be the enemy, if properly executed.”

Some of the results, such as the 20th century home at 78 Murray Blvd., involve such subtle changes no one would realize they weren’t built that way. Others, such as the grand single house at 42 Rutledge, involved more of a design challenge; in that case, the new larger stair from the piazza to the sidewalk was minimized visually by tucking half of it behind the piazza door.

And some certainly may seem more jarring, such as the small house at 105 Smith St. It looked more dramatic shortly after work began, when it rested on concrete blocks. Now that it’s mostly finished, it looks a lot better, even if its new proportions are skinnier than most any other downtown home.

Still, it’s increasingly clear Charleston can elevate historic homes in flooded areas without harming their historic character or the streetscape. The work often gives the chance to rethink and upgrade a home’s entrance.

At the eastern end of Water Street, one of two identical 19th century Italianate homes remains at its original elevation while the other has been raised up several feet, with new masonry stairs leading up to its front doors. While the work is not quite done, it’s not too early to evaluate the effect, which isn’t as jarring as one might expect.

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These two houses at the eastern end of Water Street were built identically. One has been raised several feet to help it withstand future flooding, but the effect isn’t jarring. Robert Behre/Staff

By Robert Behre

They’re no longer identical, but both homes are interesting and appealing — and the new stairs added in front of the elevated one don’t look like brand new construction. The addition’s stucco skin matches that of the rest of the house.

In fact, the pair remind me of the two stuccoed New Orleans homes featured on the cover of “How Buildings Learn.” In 1993, the 3½ story home had a balustrade and shutters, while its 4-story neighbor features a 2-story iron porch. Both are handsome, and both look nothing like their original, identical appearance in 1857.

Despite the ambitious, $1 billion-plus effort underway to protect the peninsula from future storm surges, the survival of many more Charleston homes ultimately may hinge on private investments that lifts them up, out of future floodwaters.

These changes will change the city’s look, but not necessarily in any regrettable way — certainly not as regrettable as what could happen if more homes become so flood-damaged that no one wants to live in them, invest in them or adapt them any further.

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