For a city that prides itself on its preservation, Charleston has experienced a brutal year so far.
One of the grandest homes in the city's Harleston Village neighborhood began to crumble and had to be razed, perhaps the greatest architectural loss since the old Charleston Museum burned down in 1981. On St. Philip Street, the main facade of a historic office building sloughed onto a parked car.
Just a few blocks away, the front of a three-story King Street building almost peeled off into the street, forcing the closure of a barbecue restaurant. Farther up King, another grand old building received an emergency evacuation order. A mid 20th century townhouse near Waterfront Park was razed after some of its bricks fell into the street.
What's going on?
While each building has its own unique tale of failure, several experts point to three common denominators that they share: shoddy initial construction and renovations, neglect and even a steady hum of vibrations from an ever-growing city.
“It is without question a bad stretch,” said Kristopher King, who directs the Preservation Society of Charleston. “It’s an unfortunate series of events, but the reality is you have to take something away from it. You can’t ignore it. My takeaway is demolition by neglect remains a significant problem in the city of Charleston.”
Many of the problems the city has seen are due at least in part to buildings that simply weren’t maintained well in recent years.
The poster child is the former Charleston County school office at 11½ St. Philip St., which stood vacant and deteriorating for decades.
The district made a few attempts to make repairs, including applying (unsuccessfully) for a federal grant, but a vacant office building always ranked as a lower priority than upgrading schools. The district finally sold the building to a developer who was pursuing a renovation plan in March, when the façade peeled off and damaged an empty car parked next to it.
Winslow Hastie, the Historic Charleston Foundation’s chief preservation officer, called 11½ St. Philip “classic demolition by neglect.”
“They’re all unfortunate, but this was a unique little building,” he added.
Craig Bennett, a structural engineer who the city has hired to analyze several recent building problems, said neglect is often a factor, but he is hesitant to discuss it in detail.
“I’ll step on too many clients’ toes,” he said.
But Bennett noted any building that sits vacant is more at risk because no one is there each day to see minor problems before they turn major. Also, buildings whose upper floors are largely unused — as was the case with the two King Street buildings — face a similar issue.
The city has a demolition by neglect ordinance and has identified more than 300 homes and other historic structures at risk, though city officials have said the situation is improving, due in part to the booming real estate market downtown.
But the ordinance only requires owners to secure their buildings, not to occupy or renovate them. As years pass, neglect lets other problems grow worse.
King said neglect is a common denominator in all the city’s recent building failures.
“These are aging buildings that require maintenance. I don’t care if it’s a 10-year-old house or a 100-year-old house,” he said. “If you stop maintaining it, it will deteriorate.”
City Planning Director Jacob Lindsey noted the city created a Demolition by Neglect Task Force several years ago and said the city may reconvene it soon in light of the recent failures.
“Deferred maintenance is common to all of the recent building collapses,” he added. “Building owners hold these historic properties in trust for future generations, and it’s critically important that landowners perform needed maintenance.”
Built to last?
The house at 4 Gadsden St. had a particularly hard life. Formerly a grand residence, the house had been divided up into apartments for decades, with all the renovations.
Structural engineer Russell Rosen, who was part of the team repairing the house after a 2015 fire, said the first problem he noticed was a large hole in the bricks on its west façade — a hole that was filled with plywood.
Then he detected movement in the southern wall, which was then braced. But when a section of its northern brick wall crumbled, Rosen concluded that if crews kept working, someone might die. He contacted the city, which contacted Bennett for a second opinion, and everyone agreed it had to come down, despite its being ranked as among Charleston’s most significant architectural works.
Bennett later convened a small group of historic preservationists, architects and contractors to discuss why buildings built here in the 1840s and 1850s seemed to have more problems. The 4 Gadsden St. house dated to around 1850.
They discussed how the 1838 fire in Ansonborough might have brought in less skilled labor; how changing brick bonding patterns from Flemish bond to common bond meant weaker walls; how mortar mixes evolved for the worse; and how much thinner later antebellum brick walls were.
King, who has taught construction history, said people always look for less expensive ways to build, and Charleston’s historic buildings certainly vary in their construction quality.
For instance, the brick walls at Grace Episcopal Cathedral, which was built around 1846, aren’t nearly as thick as those at Second Presbyterian, built about 40 years earlier. Grace recently received millions of dollars worth of structural repairs to those thinner walls.
But experts caution that such realities shouldn’t discourage people from owning or renovating later antebellum buildings.
“What we don’t want is to spark a fear that’s going to spread through the community that buildings from 1840 aren’t worthy of preservation,” Hastie said. “We’re fearful of a backlash.”
Bennett said an 1840 building that still stands obviously was built well since it has survived more than a century and a half. Maybe Charleston’s late antebellum buildings weren’t built poorly as much as its early 19th century buildings were simply built very, very well.
“From the 1840 period forward, we saw a whole host of problems we haven’t seen before,” Bennett said.
Rosen added: “There are other buildings out there from other time frames that are troubling, too.”
And the original construction quality is only one factor since many buildings have been dramatically affected by more than a dozen renovations or other interventions over the decades.
That’s what happened at 288 King St., where the façade had been added in the late 19th century was not tied to the northern wall. Contractors noticed the façade peeling away last month and contacted the city before it fell into the street.
No one was hurt, and two containers were moved to the King Street sidewalk to protect pedestrians while the building is renovated, including reattaching the façade.
Bennett said repeated renovations cause “a tremendous loss of structural integrity, and that applies to 90 percent of the city.”
Not so good vibrations
Maybe the most unanswered question about the city’s building failures is to what extent the problems were triggered by vibrations — either from nearby pile driving or truck traffic or the gusts from Hurricane Matthew.
Hastie said attributing building problems to vibrations “is a little trickier,” but it might have had some effect on Read Brothers, which stands near recent major construction work.
Earlier this month, the city ordered part of the store closed until several structural repairs are made.
Bennett said vibrations are not good for old buildings — he has even heard mortar falling down the inside of an old brick wall whenever a large bus passed by.
“What we know is that everything has an impact on the building,” King said. “Every dumpster being emptied does have an impact on a building. I don’t believe buses going by and piles going in should cause the demise of a building, but it’s usually going to exacerbate pre-existing problems.”
The most infamous recent example occurred during the enlargement of the city’s Cumberland Street garage, when vibrations from foundation work cracked several buildings, triggered lawsuits and almost brought a Sunday morning service to a halt at nearby St. Philip’s Church.
In many cases, contractors and property owners monitor for vibrations — or changes to existing cracks on historic buildings near new pile driving. And using H-shaped piles or pre-augering the hole can reduce the amount of earth displaced and the significance of vibrations from driving piles.
Less clear is the daily effect of traffic. Many historic homeowners can often feel larger vehicles passing by outside, and the city already has outlawed larger tour buses on certain streets, partly out of concern of they were rattling old homes, King noted.
“This is an issue that has long been recognized in Charleston and there have been efforts to address it,” he said. The ill effects of vibrations “should absolutely be part of the conversation. I don’t think it’s a smoking gun.”
It’s unclear if or when the city may take a fresh look at the issue of vibrations.
“It’s a very complex issue, which is why we want to get good science and see where it leads us,” Lindsey said. “But I don’t think it’s unreasonable to look at this issue. It’s not crazy, but I’m not a seismic scientist, so anything I say would be speculative.”
Rosen said damage from pile driving is unusual, adding, “More worrisome is a real earthquake.”
“Hurricanes move the buildings all over the place, too,” Bennett said.
That said, other cities — including the one that the earliest Charlestonians were most familiar with — have acted.
“No one drives piles in central London now,” Rosen said. “There are so many historic buildings there, they don’t use driven piles at all.”