Approval Of Flood Based Historic Home Elevation Signals Change In Charleston

May 26, 2017

Jack Margolies is somewhat of a pioneer in Charleston historic preservation circles. He is the first to get approval to elevate his 1859 two-story yellow home to meet flood requirements.

“Basically they’re going to jack it up," he said. "They’ll put rods underneath house and all the rods will be synchronized to go up certain height at same time.”

Margolies got the go ahead by the Board of Architectural Review– a body that ok’s any changes to historic homes. This is the second time he has tried to get approval to elevate his home. Margolies believes this year he had the right circumstances because much of his home was destroyed during a fire and the place required major construction. 

Under the approved elevation proposal he will be raising his home about two more feet which includes altering the red brick steps and iron banister that lead to his Charleston style southern facing piazza. But he’s is careful to explain that the entrance will look straight out of the 19th century.

“An expert could come by and could possibly notice the difference. But the average tourist walking by the average Charlestonian wouldn’t notice any difference.”

That’s the key to preservationists.  What’s most important to them is that the house retains its historic character. This is the first flood based elevation project both the Charleston Historic Foundation and the Preservation Society of Charleston have gotten behind.

Robert Gurley with the Preservation Society of Charleston said,  “We thought this was a good early example of how to approach the problem.”

Winslow Hastie with the Historic Charleston Foundation said, “We are not going to be fundamentalist about it. If raising a building a couple feet prevents it from flooding then that might be something worth doing.”

Elevating historic homes to meet flood requirements makes both men a little nervous. As Hastie points out some of the newer construction that’s raised to ­­­the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s standard of nearly one-story above sea level looks a bit out of place.  

“They look like crazy things shooting up into the sky all you get is blank facade on the street up to above your head. And that just doesn’t provide any kind of visual interest and the scale is off,” he said.

To preservationists like Hastie and Gurley making sure one house on a street of historic homes doesn’t look out of context is important. Both preservation groups and the city are working on guidelines for historic homeowners considering elevation to meet flooding requirements.     

The city is taking other measures to protect the low-lying frequently flooded city from sea level rise. Like raising the battery wall that protects large historic homes on the edge of the peninsula.  On a windy day at the intersection of the low-battery wall and high-battery wall on Murray Boulevard and East Battery Street City Planner Jacob Lindsey points to a black marking on the concrete wall. 

“This thing right here where it says top of wall this is where low battery will be elevated to.”

The city is planning to raise the lower part of the wall about 2.5 feet to match the higher wall. Lindsey  said that elevation should help protect the city from increased flooding due to sea level rise. During Hurricane Matthew last October water breached the concrete barrier and lingered causing damage to many homes.

The city’s approval of Margolies elevation request signals a change in policy. But Lindsey isn’t concerned about a flood of requests because the project isn’t cheap.

“Modifying historic homes especially in Charleston is always an expensive and time consuming endeavor and in a way that is a reason we have such a great historic district,” Lindsey said. “Over time we hope that homeowners that do want to their retrofit homes for the rising sea level will work with us a city to come up with great design centric solutions.”

The city is not actively encouraging people to elevate historic properties but is willing to help those who reach out.

Another coastal city Annapolis, Maryland has a different attitude towards preparing historic properties for sea level rise lead by Lisa Craig.

“We already have in place a tax credit for historic buildings, specifically for flood mitigation,” Craig said.

Craig heads the historic preservation office in Annapolis and is one of the officials leading the city’s charge to prepare for sea level rise. Craig has actively pursued funding to get the city’s historic buildings ready.

“I mean if we aren’t out there actually working with property owners or public infrastructure improvements to protect these economic assets we are basically going to draw pretty pictures of them and that is all we will have left,” Craig said.

That’s the attitude some preservationists in Charleston are adopting. They would rather see buildings raised a few feet then lose them altogether.