Engineer Frank Newham has examined the 19th-century construction of The Battery seawall, and he came away impressed.
For more than 100 years, the stone-block barrier facing Charleston Harbor has protected the tip of the Charleston peninsula against hurricanes, erosion, tides and time.
“It’s amazing to me that it’s still here in 2013,” said Newham, who works for the city of Charleston and is senior engineer on an upcoming Battery project. Of the construction methods, he added, “it’s not how we would build it today.”
But the protective Battery seawall is in need of repairs. The first of three phases along the 1.2-mile route will begin this summer when a 120-foot section at the very point of the Charleston peninsula — known locally as “the Turn” — is tackled.
That work should cost at least $3.5 million, though city officials, ever fearful of the sensitive and historic nature of the work, issued a warning to any marine contractor looking to bid on the job next month.
“Due to the complex nature and historic significance of the walls, specific construction expertise is required for this project,” the city said. “Only those contractors with significant experience and expertise will be allowed.”
Over its lifetime, The Battery has evolved from the natural marsh of centuries ago, to Palmetto logs, to the stone protector of multimillion-dollar mansions showcasing the city’s wealth.
The area started out as a tiny cannon-armed fort in the 1700s, and would later be the place where pirates were hanged, according to history and lore.
The most popular civilian use dates to around 1848 with the development of the “High Battery,” or the tall, eastern section facing the harbor and protecting White Point Garden, the tree-lined park behind it.
Charleston leaders recouped much of their initial building costs by selling residential lots on the waterfront street it helped create, dubbed East Battery.
During the Civil War the Battery site would become part of an armed Confederate encampment, and also was where locals watched the bombardment of Fort Sumter.
The next big growth phase came in the early 1900s when Mayor R.G. Rhett extended The Battery walk farther west to create “the Low Battery,” which runs along the Ashley River toward the western end of Tradd Street. That effort also reclaimed land totaling some 47 acres of mud flats, marsh and water for building new homes.
Author and historian Robert Rosen said the completed full walk of The Battery represents the “must see” stops for anyone visiting Charleston.
“I guess you could say The Battery is to Charleston as Central Park is to New York,” he said. “To me, it’s kind of the signature place.”
But The Battery has been a maintenance headache since it was created, as saltwater, hurricanes, an earthquake and the settling of landfill have upset the architecture and pavement levels, and exposed weaknesses in old concrete.
The brick seawall today, while in reasonably good shape, does have leaks, particularly spots where grouting has eroded. For now though, the lead-off work will be at the Turn, which is supported by wooden pilings and includes a wooden deck covered by concrete.
As part of the repairs, the pilings will be exposed, and weak points will be strengthened where needed. Also, the deck surface will be redone.
One of the major changes visitors will see is that the walk-up leading to the Turn’s platform will be changed. from the current concrete steps to a ramp. This will accommodate those with disabilities and baby strollers.
The High Battery also will see its 4-by-8-foot bluestone slabs lifted and reset once new fill dirt is placed under them. Openings in the stones facing the water will also be filled. The cost is projected at around $800,000.
“This part of The Battery doesn’t have any timber as sociated with it,” Newham said. “It’s concrete and stone, whereas ‘the Turn’ and ‘the Low Battery’ both have a wooden platform underneath them.”
The Low Battery, which runs nearly a mile from the Turn to the Coast Guard station, would be repaired at a later time, possibly years later. Besides making repairs to the outer seawall, which could require installing hundreds of feet of new coffer dam, officials hope to level the sidewalk. Currently, the sidewalk has settled and angles up toward the river, steeply in spots.
City officials have not put a completion date on the entire project or come up with a detailed cost estimate, though the work could run as high as $15 million for the entire 1.2-mile stretch.
But they are confident that the planned repairs will protect The Battery and help it last another century or more.
“If we do it right,” city engineer Laura Cabiness said, “nobody will be able to tell anything has been done.”
Robert Behre contributed to this report. Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.