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Behre: East Side's smokestacks deserve a second opinion

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Eastside smokestacks

Smokestacks at St. Julian Devine Community Center in Charleston's East Side neighborhood. Robert Behre/Staff

Earlier this summer, a fearless photographer strung a series of ladders 135 feet up the sides of Charleston's old incinerator smokestacks and lowered himself inside.

His images ultimately set in motion a difficult discussion about the future of the East Side landmarks, which have helped define the upper peninsula skyline since the 1930s.

That discussion is now near a boiling point.

Preservationists say they had no sense the smokestacks were at risk of being torn down; the city says that's because the seriousness of the problems only recently came to light. 

From the outside, of course, the smokestacks look fine. It's impossible to detect any lean; the only apparent problem would seem to be a crack in the brick where a metal ladder once existed.

But each smokestack actually includes two concentric structures. There's the exterior shell and a largely independent interior column of fire brick that's narrower and — as the photographs revealed — beginning to fail in a big way. One extensive crack shows bricks separating already by a few inches.

Smokestack Interior

The interior brick liner of one of the East Side's two smokestacks shows a crack a few inches wide, which is destabilizing the structure. Provided

The interior liner layer and the exterior shell aren't tied together by much, if anything, the photos show. If the interior part collapses, it could take the whole stack down with it, potentially spewing deadly chunks of brick as far as 200 feet away.

"It doesn’t mean if it collapses, it will necessarily destroy everything within that kind of radius," says structural engineer Craig Bennett, whose analysis prompted the city to act. "On the other hand, it will be sending a lot of debris flying."

Smokestack crack

Looking up at the crack in the interior brick lining of the East Side smokestacks. Provided

Last month, at Bennett's urging, the city announced plans to demolish the smokestacks as a matter of pressing public safety, which allowed it to bypass the city's Board of Architectural Review.

However, the $576,000 contract for the work going before City Council on Tuesday would dismantle only the upper portions and leave at least 60 feet, probably more, intact. 

Of course, City Council could hit pause. Leaders of the Historic Charleston Foundation and the Preservation Society of Charleston, who have understandably felt left out of the loop, aren't convinced there isn't a better way. It seems only fair to give them more time to find it.

Everyone agrees on the dual goals of making the smokestacks safe while preserving as much of them as possible. At issue is how best to do that.

Money is also a legitimate issue, as the pandemic has caused a $42 million hit to the city's revenues. But we have no way to know if the city's $500,000-plus plan would be more or less costly than a possible Plan B.

"The timing is questionable as an inspection from four years ago revealed structural issues, so the rush for demolition is puzzling," the foundation says. "Additionally, the developers of the Line Street project and the Cigar Factory, both of which feature smokestacks, had to preserve the structures as part of the development deal."

The urgency behind the issue stems from the area entering the heart of hurricane season. More than 30 structures, including some inhabited homes, lie within the smokestacks' fall zone.

But most neighbors seem to want to see them preserved. That's another reason for the city to consider a pause. Yes, there's a hurricane threat (and an earthquake threat), but there are ways to address that. Those living in their shadows could — and should — be evacuated before any serious storm.

Preserving a lower portion of them might be better than nothing, but it's doubtful such a job would keep their most interesting detail: the arched, decorative brick work near the top. Recreating that on a shorter stack would be costly and probably dishonestly weird.

Smokestacks.jpg

Twin smokestacks on Charleston’s St. Julian Devine Community Center on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020, in Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Charleston's distinctive skyline once included a pair of far more dramatic smokestacks, known as "Mutt and Jeff," at the waterfront power plant at the eastern tip of Charlotte Street. The taller stack was built in 1919 and reached 272 feet high. The older was built in 1910 and reached 200 feet.

Both were disassembled around 1963, eight years after the power plant closed down — and well before the city defined this part of town as historic.

Things are different this time, and preservation is about more than reusing old buildings as places to live, work and have fun. It's about our memories, about creating a more visually interesting place, about landmarks that speak of the passage of time.

So it's worth taking time to ensure our decisions are the best ones.

  

Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771. Follow him on Twitter @RobertFBehre.

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