‘We Cannot Save Everything’: A Historic Neighborhood Confronts Rising Seas

NEWPORT, R.I. — The Point, a waterfront neighborhood here, is one of the largest, best preserved and most important Colonial-era communities in the United States. Its grid of 18th-century streets contains scores of houses built before the American Revolution, and dozens more that are almost as old.

“It’s incredible to walk around a neighborhood like this that is so intact,” Mark Thompson said one morning this spring as he strolled along Washington Street, past the Jahleel Brenton Counting House, the 200-year-old home of a prosperous merchant. “There is a very organic feel to the neighborhood.”

Mr. Thompson heads the Newport Restoration Foundation, one of the organizations that in recent decades have purchased and restored many of Newport’s historic properties, saving them from the tourism development that has overtaken much of the city’s waterfront.

Today, the neighborhood faces a new threat. The Point sits only a few feet above sea level, and because of climate change, the ocean is rising. So people have been thinking again about how to preserve the neighborhood.

Similar efforts are underway in many communities on the East Coast, where European colonists settled centuries ago. The task is complicated, and success is far from assured.

According to a 2014 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, sea level rise threatens sites ranging from Faneuil Hall, where the Sons of Liberty planned the Boston Tea Party, to the launchpads of Cape Canaveral.

The National Park Service says a quarter of its properties are on or near the coast, and most of them contain historic structures — many of them Civil War forts vulnerable to sea level rise.

In 2016, the N.R.F. organized a conference, “Keeping History Above Water,” to address the problem of historic properties being threatened by sea level rise. The Point was its case study.

Since then, experts in preservation have gathered in Annapolis, Md., whose Colonial Annapolis Historic District is threatened; in St. Augustine, Fla., where the Castillo de San Marcos, a 17th-century fort built of light and porous coquina limestone, is highly vulnerable; and last month in Nantucket. That entire island is designated a National Historic District, and much of it is subject to flooding and erosion.

Wherever the threat occurs, the underlying problem is much the same: Tactics used in ordinary contexts — building sea walls, raising buildings on stilts, or even moving them to higher ground — are of limited utility in historic neighborhoods. They can destroy the very characteristics that make the properties worth saving.

So architects, planners and engineers are devising novel approaches, such as allowing water to flow through threatened structures; turning basements into cisterns; installing building-size flotation systems; or re-plumbing entire neighborhoods to direct storm water and high tides out of the way.

“There is a definite urgency,” said Mr. Thompson. “We certainly don’t feel we have a luxury of time.”

The tobacco heiress Doris Duke, who inherited a Gilded Age estate as a young woman in 1925 and kept it until her death in 1993, created the N.R.F. in 1968. Since then, the foundation has acquired and restored scores of Colonial-era properties, which it rents to “stewards” who agree to care for them according to foundation standards.

The aim is to preserve the buildings not as silent relics or museum exhibits, but as vital parts of vibrant communities. More than two dozen foundation properties, including the Jahleel Brenton Counting House, are in The Point.

The Point was settled in the 17th century by Quaker refugees from Massachusetts. Then, it was little more than a spit of land sticking out into what became Newport Harbor. Soon, as its edges were filled in, a marsh became Marsh Street, and a wet area became Water Street; the path of a span that once linked The Point to the rest of Newport turned into Bridge Street.

Newport grew prosperous through trading, including a substantial slave trade. The city — and The Point — supported a vibrant class of artisans, one of whom was Christopher Townsend, a member of a prominent family of furniture makers. In 1725, he built a two-story house at 74 Bridge Street; the restoration foundation acquired it in 2013.

To prepare for the 2016 conference, Union Studio, an architecture and community planning concern in Providence, R.I., conducted an “adaptation workshop” that considered an array of possible approaches to the preservation of historic structures in general — and 74 Bridge Street in particular.

The ideas included so-called “dry flood-proofing,” more complicated “wet flood-proofing,” altering the grade of the surrounding landscape, and making structures buoyant.

So far, 74 Bridge Street, which is unoccupied, relies on dry flood-proofing, a combination of relatively simple steps. Sandbags and door barriers are deployed when floods threaten, and its water heater, furnace and other mechanical equipment have been moved from the cellar to the first floor. (There is a space heater in the cellar, but it is bolted to the ceiling.)

It helps that 74 Bridge Street was built in a fashion common in Colonial-era New England, with heavy, vertical planks attached to the building’s wooden frame. This plank-on-frame construction is relatively resilient to minor flooding, preservationists say. Plus, its interior walls were finished with lime plaster, a sand-lime-aggregate material in use since ancient times that is durable and mold-resistant.

Still, a sump pump runs in the basement 24/7. The water table is now so high that without it, there would probably be a foot of standing water there at all times.

Dry flood-proofing is “low-hanging fruit,” said Stephanie Zurek, an architect at Union Studio who studied the home. Other remedies, like wet flood-proofing, are more complex.

Wet flood-proofing does not involve making basement walls watertight because, the theory goes, foundation walls would be vulnerable to collapse if water pressure built up in the soil around them.

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Instead, basement walls are left permeable, like the stone foundation walls of 74 Bridge Street. If walls are already watertight, architects may propose flood vents, windowlike devices fitted into cellar walls that open automatically to let the building flood in a storm. Water can be pumped out later.

Or homeowners may install rain barrels or even cisterns in their cellars to store storm water till the threat has passed.

Mr. Thompson said the foundation is considering whether steps like these might be advisable at 74 Bridge Street, but he added that deliberations may take a while because the foundation hopes to develop techniques that may have wider use. “Whatever we do should inform the community at large,” he said.

Sometimes, the site of a historic structure can be regraded so that water runs away from it. Unfortunately, this step is generally considered impractical on a neighborhood scale. Though visitors to The Point probably do not notice it, the neighborhood as a whole is “a little bit of a bowl,” as Mr. Thompson put it, and its low point is almost exactly at 74 Bridge Street.

In many coastal districts, including The Point, there is an additional problem: storm sewers that run into nearby rivers or, in the case of Newport, the harbor. In a storm, these outlets can actually send seawater flooding into a historic community like The Point.

The Union Studio project put forward a few suggestions for dealing with the problem: setting up a tax district to raise money to redesign the storm sewers, installing tide gates in the outfall pipes, and installing permeable pavement to encourage better draining.

Architects at the Rhode Island School of Design took the idea further, suggesting that streets be designed so that storms can turn them into “a water feature,” said professor Liliane Wong, an architect whose specialty is the adaptive reuse of buildings. “The students called them ‘blue streets.’”

Elevating buildings has become a more common response to the threat of coastal flooding; often, building codes require it. But in historic neighborhoods, elevating individual structures is controversial. The process can turn a harmonious streetscape into an unsightly hodgepodge of rooflines, some far higher than others.

“We call it ‘lollipopping,’” said Ms. Wong. Post-Katrina New Orleans experienced “lollipopping at its extreme,” she added, with some buildings raised as much as 20 feet in the air.

“That’s exactly anti-historic-neighborhood,” she said.

In places like The Point, elevation raises another issue: access. Many structures there were built right up to their lot lines, with front doors opening onto the sidewalk. If a house is elevated, it can be hard to find space for the now-needed front stoop.

The owners of some elevated properties in The Point have solved the problem by building stairs running along the building’s facade to a landing at the new level of the front door. That’s what happened with the house at 70 Bridge Street, built in the 18th century by Christopher Townsend’s son, John.

A number of other houses in The Point have been elevated. “It is concerning to me,” said state Rep. Lauren Carson, who until recently lived in The Point. “I think we are going to lose the streetscape integrity.”

By far the most dramatic approach to preserving historic structures involves equipping them with devices to make them buoyant. They would sit on dry land — as long as the land is dry. Only when it is dangerously wet would the buildings be set afloat.

A leading advocate for the approach is Elizabeth C. English, an architectural theorist and engineer at the University of Waterloo in Canada and the founder of the Buoyant Foundation Project.

Dr. English believes making houses amphibious can maintain their important architectural features while keeping them dry. To “amphibiate” a structure, she said, it must be hoisted so that engineers can install buoyancy elements and supportive framing under the first floor.

Around the world, Dr. English said, empty barrels or even empty plastic water bottles have been used for buoyancy. In Louisiana, where she has tested the approach, she favors polystyrene foam blocks.

“And then you have a vertical guidance system,” she said, such as steel pipes driven into the ground near the building’s corners. The building’s frame is attached to these poles with sliding rings or sleeves so that the building remains positioned over its foundation, rising when a flood comes and sinking back into place as waters recede.

“We can do telescopic vertical guidance posts,” she said. “It works like the handle on a roll-aboard suitcase.” She added: “Anything that can be elevated can be amphibiated.”

Dr. English said the biggest barrier to the use of this technology is the lack of engineering standards, which she is working to develop, as well as a lack of building codes and other regulations.

Amphibiating historic structures has yet to find wide use (though it was used in a shotgun house in New Orleans rehabilitated through the efforts of the actor Brad Pitt). But experts like Dr. Wong say the notion must be considered: “We need to think about ideas that seem like they would be unfeasible in order to prepare for the future.”

If all else fails, endangered buildings can be moved. The practice has a long history on the coast, common on Cape Cod, the Outer Banks of North Carolina — and in Newport. Some of the houses in Queen Anne Square, in the city’s touristic heart, were moved there, at least one from a neighboring town.

In fact, the Jahleel Brenton Counting House is in The Point because the restoration foundation moved it there decades ago, literally hours ahead of its planned demolition. Few worried then that the neighborhood would ever be threatened by rising seas.

But moving a house or two is one thing. Relocating an entire neighborhood, especially a neighborhood whose significance derives in large part from its coastal position, is another matter. As Ms. Zurek, the Union Studio architect, put it: “Whatever the solutions they choose to make or not make, there are going to be huge financial repercussions.”

Increasingly, experts and residents alike realize that it may not be possible to prevent rising seas from drowning treasured buildings, neighborhoods and landscapes.

The architects at the R.I.S.D. project developed a poignant response: a plan to cast the facades of threatened buildings in concrete. The casts would be used to create a kind of water garden “memory park,” Ms. Wong said. Once the buildings washed away, the casts would remain, reminders of what had been lost.

“We cannot save everything,” she said. “But we can have a memory of it.”

In a memorandum issued in 2014, Jonathan B. Jarvis, then director of the National Park Service, wrote about the preservation of the nation’s cultural heritage in an era of climate change. Done sensitively, adaptations of historic structures can preserve their integrity, said Mr. Jarvis, who retired in 2017.

But, he added, managers must recognize the possibility that some historically or culturally important properties may be doomed.

“Funding temporary repairs for resources that cannot, because of their location or fragility, be saved for the long term demands careful thought,” he wrote.

It may be better to document the properties — with photographs or charts, for example — and allow “them to fall into ruin rather than rebuilding after major storms.”

Mr. Thompson of the restoration foundation said he could not agree.

“Doris Duke did a wonderful thing fifty-some years ago when she preserved these Colonial houses,” he said. “Here we are 50 years later, and it is our responsibility to ensure that the work she did is not lost. To do for Newport a second time what she did for Newport the first time — to save these Colonial properties.”

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