Preserving Newport’s Architectural History in the Face of Sea Level Rise

christopher townsend house newport ri

The 1728 Christopher Townsend House, owned by the Newport Restoration Foundation, is being used as a case study “to experiment with the best strategies for mitigation and resiliency” regarding sea level rise.

In 2014, when the Newport Restoration Foundation bought the Christopher Townsend House, the hot water heater and boiler had already been moved from the basement to the first floor. Unfortunately, that hadn’t been high enough to keep them dry during Hurricane Sandy, when the house was flooded up to the first-floor framing.

The 1728 house, located at 74 Bridge Street, sits at the lowest spot in the Point – just 4 feet above sea level. As anyone who lives in the area knows, the area is subject to regular tidal flooding, storm surge, and storm water runoff. At 74 Bridge, ground water levels are higher than the basement floor, so a heater and sump pump run continually; without them, the basement would have 9 inches of standing water at every high tide. Ugh. (Fun fact: The Point – originally called “Easton’s Point” – is built on what was once a cove; by 1907 it was completely filled in.)


Historic preservation and climate change

Throughout its history, Newport’s proximity to the coast has always been an asset; now, it’s a threat. This leaves NRF with some interesting, if complicated, questions to answer. Our city holds the most highly concentrated collection of 18th-century structures in the country. But it also faces rising seas (mean high tide in Rhode Island is 11 inches higher than 100 years ago) and more severe storms (heavy rainfall events in the Northeast U.S. have gone up 71 percent since 1958, the largest increase nationwide). In fact, our city houses 968 historic structures its existing floodplain, worth an assessed value of $560 million. And when you include non-historic, commercial, and public properties in that mix, the potential loss is bumped up to an astounding $3.8 billion.

So how should our architectural authenticity be preserved? Homeowners on the Point – and anyone else interested in saving Newport’s architectural heritage (not to mention other valuable properties) – must ask themselves the same thing, or risk losing structures altogether.

Last spring, NRF hosted Keeping History Above Water, a conference that brought together international leaders in preservation and climate change. (The next conference will be held in October 2017 in Baltimore.) This year, master’s candidates in RISD’s Interior Architecture program began tackling some of the tough questions raised in the conference, and presented their thoughtful ideas at a recent event at the Townsend House.

RISD Newport RI sea level change projects

Using virtual and augmented reality, RISD students presented their ideas for how the Point might look in 100 years.

Imagining Newport’s future in the face of sea level rise

Using virtual and augmented reality, the students imagined various solutions for preserving the Point over the next 100 years. As a starting point, the studies used data collected and analyzed by Providence architectural firm Union Studio, which was hired by NRF to study upcoming challenges and propose mitigation solutions.

The RISD students virtually walked visitors through their conceptual redesigns, which ranged from clever to wild: swapping streets for canals; creating a multi-level, skyscraper-high neighborhood; replacing existing foundations with floating ones; and more. Though some left today’s residences in tact, few foresaw neighborhoods that physically resemble what we know today.


Historic preservation in the face of sea level rise

Though a variety of mitigation options exist, there are very few models for preserving historic structures in the face of sea level rise. On the plus side, Newport’s Colonial houses – with their plank construction, stone foundations, and lime-based plaster finishes – are extraordinarily resilient. But the “modern” additions of electricity, plumbing, and heating systems – well, not so much.

Less expensive fixes include moving electrical panels and boilers higher up, armoring cables, and using wire moulding. Changes such as these might cost a homeowner about $20,000. Other solutions, such as raising an entire foundation, could cost four times that much. Still more radical – and longer-term – approaches include raising entire neighborhoods or moving structures to higher ground, as many of the RISD projects suggested.


How do we authentically preserve our history?

Even if money is no object, historic property owners grapple with sustaining authentic character while increasing resiliency, whether they should aim for the short or long haul, and whether design changes will be standardized city-wide.

Of course, many historical houses in Newport have already been moved, raised, added to, or otherwise changed over the centuries. Several of the 80-plus houses that NRF owns in Newport, for example, might have been destroyed had they not been moved. So when it comes to preserving historic character, we have to ask ourselves just what it is that we’re trying to preserve. One house? An entire neighborhood? An understanding of history? The feeling of a place?

risd NRF

Image via Newport Restoration Foundation.


Effective historic preservation requires consistent guidelines

While the RISD students developed a wide range of scenarios that may or may not appeal to the aesthetics of most Newporters, they handily made one thing clear: In the not-too-distant future, our beloved neighborhoods will face unstoppable challenges that cannot be ignored.

How best to save the Point is still unclear. But cohesive change will require clear guidelines that include input from all stakeholders – the city, property owners, and everyone else who cares. A framework for making changes will ensure that our neighborhoods retain their authentic qualities, even as buildings are transformed.

Newport is not alone in this dilemma, but we have an opportunity to be a leader in this space. Across New England – and the world – cities and towns with historic districts are facing similar issues. No one can predict exactly how landscapes and coast lines will change. What is certain, though, is that our city won’t look the same 100 years from now.

Meaghan O'Neill is a writer, editor, blogger wrangler, and the founder of Puddingstone Post. She was formerly editor-in-chief of TreeHugger, Discovery Channel online, and TLC's Parentables. Her writing has appeared in numerous print and online publications, and her book, Ready, Set, Green: 8 Weeks to Modern Eco-Living (Villard/Random House) was published in 2008. She lives in Newport, RI with her family.

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