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An illustrated talk reveals why Charleston's flooding problems are nothing new

Doomed from the Start?

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Rising tides in Charleston. That's the focus of Enough Pie's month-long arts exhibition and installation, Awakening V: King Tide, which focuses on the waters that lead to flooded streets, damaged houses, and broken roadways. Enough Pie, together with the Historic Charleston Foundation, presents a talk on a historical problem, and solution in water-logged Charleston — land reclamation.

"It's a chronology of how Charleston grew, what its changing motivations were," says Christina Butler, a historian, preservationist, and American College of the Building Arts professor on her book manuscript, Dry at High Water: the history of land reclamation in Charleston, South Carolina, 1680-1965. Butler presents excerpts from her research at The Evolving Waterfront.

Owner and consultant of Butler Preservation L.C., Butler has a background in both historic preservation and history, as well as experience as a licensed specialty residential contractor. All of that is to say, she knows how historic homes should look — and how they fare in certain conditions, something that she teaches her students at ACBA.

"You're thinking about the site and the historical context in which builidngs are built," says Butler. "Understanding the past is absolutely necessary to making positive changes." She references the tidal creeks that run below the city — and the buildings that have been holding up just fine despite it. What kind of materials are they made out of? What, in their walls, can the city, and even ACBA students, learn about building and preserving in this city?

In Dry at High Water, Butler focuses on land reclamation in the city, an ongoing project that started with inefficient tools and materials in the colonial era. Land reclamation, in a sense, is a misnomer; the term means to fill in land from existing tidal creeks, river beds, and other bodies of water. The land that's being reclaimed was never really land at all.

If Enough Pie's message — tides are rising and we need to do something about it — were not strong enough, consider the toll tides have on the city everyday, how they affect even your daily commute. Butler says that today's concerns, while rooted in the same issue, have evolved from those first brought up in the 1700s.

"There were health issues. Cholera, yellow fever," says Butler of standing water around Charleston. "The government would regulate private propetry and say [to a homeowner], 'You've got to fill in that stagnant pool.'" It wasn't until 1783, when the city was incorporated, that developers would buy land — or, rather, create land — and sell tracts of it.

Charleston today looks a heck of a lot different than it did back in those first days of land reclamation. For example, there was no White Point Garden until the 1830s and 1840s; the first phase of the Low Battery project started in 1909, eventually leading to land for some of those big, beautiful 1930s homes you see on the South Battery. Looking at a map from 1788 you can see how the Cooper River once lapped at the shores of Charleston — shores that were not protected by a battery wall, nor filled in with land for gardens, streets, and homes.

A bird's eye view of Charleston in 1872, before construction of the South Battery - COURTESY OF ENOUGH PIE
  • Courtesy of Enough Pie
  • A bird's eye view of Charleston in 1872, before construction of the South Battery

"There's duct work and electric wires in the lower parts of houses," explains Butler, pointing out some of the obvious, present-day causes for concern when a building is flooded. "Concrete does pretty well under water. Stone does OK, but there isn't any indigenous stone around here." Charleston faces the problem, yes, of flooding, but it also faces the problems that Butler and the Historic Charleston Foundation face every day — how do we preserve the past?

"We can't blame them," says Butler of shoddy land reclamation projects completed hundreds of years ago; those Charlestonians didn't have the tools we have today. But we can certainly learn from them by studying old records and maps that show what once was not land, but water. Butler's talk will outline how reclaimed land in the city is currently faring, and what we can do to address flooding issues. As she says, "You can't divorce modern planning from past failures and successes."

Learn more about Awakening V: King Tide online at enoughpie.org.

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