Asked why he wants to raise his Rutledge Avenue home by 2½ feet, Jack Margolies gestured toward his neighbors.
He pointed to specific homes and recounted the flooding problems they have endured. Within just a few blocks of his home along Colonial Lake, more than a dozen homeowners had piled soggy sheetrock, insulation and ductwork on the street outside their home last month.
“You will see tons of debris for the third time in three years," he said. "There's a lot of pain being felt."
A year ago Sunday, Hurricane Matthew struck South Carolina's coast, and this neighborhood flooded again when Tropical Storm Irma came ashore last month. Those storms followed 2015's record rains and flooding.
Margolies is dealing with a different disaster after a significant blaze broke out inside a year ago while he and his wife were out of town. But the threat of flooding remained at the forefront of their minds, so they sought permission to elevate their home during the work, essentially making its first floor as high above sea level as the city would require with new construction on the site.
They soon could have a lot of company.
A growing number of homeowners in Charleston's historic district are looking to move their homes — not to other sites, but upward, where flood waters are less likely to enter and cause damage.
But the requests could face resistance from the city's historic preservation community, which generally likes to see downtown's old buildings remain where they are, as they are.
“The biggest obstacle is we, as Charlestonians, like to preserve things," said Russell Rosen, a structural engineer who has worked with Margolies and hundreds of other owners of historic properties. "But we have to go past that mindset.”
A flood of requests
Rosen said he already has been contacted by two downtown homeowners on Savage and Beaufain streets interested in raising their homes, and that doesn't include former Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer.
Bauer said he is looking into the cost and necessary permits involved in raising his home at New and Tradd streets.
"Even when it’s not a big storm, if it rains, I have water on my front steps," he said. "If they say it’s $100,000 I’m not going to do it. If they say it’s $15,000, I’ll do it.”
But Bauer will need permission from the city's Board of Architectural Review, as well as from the Historic Charleston Foundation, which holds an easement that protects the historic character of Bauer's home.
Kristopher King, executive director of the Preservation Society of Charleston, said while the society supported raising Margolies' home, it would consider each request on a case-by-case basis. And he expects more cases to come.
“Obviously, with what we’ve seen over the last three years, the flooding has really impacted the city in a way we’ve never experienced," King said. "I think this really signaled an inflection point for the city, with ramifications far more reaching than just flooding.”
Winslow Hastie, director of preservation with the Historic Charleston Foundation, said he also expects to a surge of interest and called raising historic homes "a huge, huge issue."
"I have been hearing more about it since Irma than ever before," he said. "I have friends who live south of Broad, and they just invested a ton of money in a South Battery home to redo it. I thought it was a forever house for them, and they’re thinking they might bail. It’s the third year in a row.
"There are only so many times you can bear that."
Deciding case by case
The city's Board of Architectural Review ultimately approved Margolies' request to raise his home, whose architectural significance earned it the second-highest rating on the city's four-point scale.
Jacob Lindsey, director of Planning, Preservation and Sustainability, said the details of the request were what mattered most.
“He was only asking for a few feet. It’s not like it was a severe or drastic change,” he said. "If he had asked for an additional 6 feet, we’d say forget it.”
Architect Ashley Jennings said the house needed foundation work, so it was a logical time to consider its elevation. The city was interested in how the additional height would be read from the front facade along Rutledge.
"It was really more of a matter of resolving detailing,” she said.
What clinched his request was a proposed design that would leave his piazza entrance at its current level. Those entering through that door would then see a few extra steps to get up to the piazza itself.
"To my eye, the changes that they made now don’t change its relation to the street," Lindsey said. "You might say it’s a proportional improvement. But not every building is eligible to be elevated."
Michael Maher came to Charleston as the first director of its new Civic Design Center, and he bought a 19th century historic single house on Marion Street, not far from Smith Street. During a heavy rain, he would joke that his home was on the shores of "Lake Smith-Marion."
Maher talked to a colleague at the Board of Architectural Review who discouraged him from pursuing a plan to raise the home, partly because there was a similar historic home right next door.
"It would disrupt the pairing, and they didn't generally support raising historic properties," he said, adding he regretted not forcing the issue, partly because his flood insurance premiums went up sharply.
Margolies said he is not sure how his flood insurance premiums will change once his home is elevated, but he knows any change would be to the good.
If the home isn't raised, he said, "what’s going to happen eventually is my flood insurance is going to go through the roof. No one is going to want to buy homes down here.”
Time for a standard?
When the BAR considers elevating a home in the city's historic district, it would look at the property's history; how high a home would be raised; how the added height would affect its relationship with its neighbors; and what modifications would be made, particularly along the street.
That would be done on a case-by-case basis, but some think the city should have a standard to guide homeowners.
In a move toward a standard, the city's planning office will hold a workshop at 9 a.m. Nov. 3 in the Gaillard Center to discuss the myriad of issues involved.
Pam Kendrick, a historic architectural consultant with the State Historic Preservation Office, said after New Orleans flooded in 2005, Louisiana came up with a more than 100-page-long guide about elevating historic homes.
She said the National Park Service, which maintains federal guidelines for historic properties, is expected to weigh in with its advice.
“We’ve been waiting to get direction from the Park Service before we do anything official, but we recognize the flooding is getting worse and we expect to see more requests for elevating properties,” she said.
Hastie said the foundation would like to see some standards to help guide property owners and the city.
"We all can now recognize three years in a row now that this is a serious issue for Charleston," he said, "not only for the health of buildings but livability of these neighborhoods. We’re going to have to have some compromises. You want these standards in place so it’s not willy-nilly."
Part of a larger challenge
Even if it was easy to get permission, raising a home is no cheap option. Margolies may be looking at $80,000 just to elevate his house and chimney, then have it set back down, Rosen said. That doesn't include the cost of a new foundation or rebuilding the stairs.
Even if it were possible to raise historic houses without much fuss, that does not mean the city doesn't need to pursue drainage and levee work to help reduce the likelihood and severity of flooding.
And it's an issue that extends well beyond the city's historic district.
Most of the city's neighborhoods were built before the mid-1970s, when the Federal Emergency Management Agency began requiring homes in flood zones to be built at a certain elevation. It's unclear how many of the city's thousands of older homes would need to be raised to comply with today's standards.
And it's also unclear how many properties might be deemed uninsurable. The city already is seeking a FEMA grant to buy 47 West Ashley homes that have suffered repetitive flood losses. If the grant is approved, they will be torn down and the land will be left undeveloped.
The city has another 213 properties that have suffered similar repetitive flood losses, according to City Public Services director Laura Cabiness. FEMA prohibits the release of those addresses, she said. Most are located downtown, in West Ashley's Church Creek area and scattered other areas that saw flooding in recent years.
The city's 2015 Sea Level Rise Strategy plan doesn't specifically address elevating historic properties, but it does recommend the city consider incentives for owners of existing, flood-prone buildings to undertake steps that would make them more resilient to flooding.
Those steps could include raising them, adding waterproofing features or making them less likely to need costly repairs after a flood. The plan also says the the city's Civic Design Center should assist property owners with design solutions for retrofitting structures in flood-prone areas.
Rosen said he's convinced rising seas pose a serious challenge to the city, "and it's probably past time to do something, to get something started."
"The city can’t allow us to have dramatic losses year after year because we’ll come under scrutiny of FEMA," he said. "There are a lot of incentives for the city to relax the preservation approach and find ways to allow some leeway to pick these houses up."
Hastie said elevating historic homes is just a piece of a larger puzzle: how to ensure the future viability of certain flood-prone neighborhoods and streets.
"That’s a much bigger issue from a preservation standpoint for us because we don’t want these properties to go away,” he said. "They’re in harm’s way and that’s an issue, but they’re the character and important fabric in our community. We don’t want FEMA to buy them out and tear them down.”