Battle With The Sea: Rising Tides Threaten Historic Properties

Mar 17, 2016

Many of Rhode Island’s 18th century buildings have survived a number of coastal storms in the past: the Great September Gale of 1815, the 1938 Hurricane, and most recently Superstorm Sandy. 

But these buildings are aging, and now they face new challenges because of warming ocean temperatures and rising tides. In our next installment of our series Battle With the Sea, we bring you the story of one historic home in Newport, and how preservationists are working to save it.

Newport is rich with visible and cherished reminders of the city’s colonial past. The historic Point neighborhood is one prominent example. It seems frozen in time with lantern streetlights, brick sidewalks and block after block of 18th century homes.

The back side of the Christopher Townsend House in Newport's historic Point neighborhood, only a couple of blocks away from the water.
Credit Ambar Espinoza / RIPR

One of those homes built in 1728 belonged to Christopher Townsend, “one of the first of Newport's cabinet makers, along with his brother Job,” said Pieter Roos, as he stood in the backyard giving a tour of the house to a group of preservationists. Roos is the executive director of the Newport Restoration Foundation, which now owns this house.

“And it is the only house amongst our 88 properties that I know of where you can go into the basement and smell the ocean,” he said.

You can smell the ocean because it’s just two blocks away from the harbor. That may be a selling point for some, but it’s a problem here. At high tide, groundwater rises through the basement on a daily basis.

Marc Lennon, the foundation’s maintenance supervisor, explains they had to move all the house’s mechanical systems from the basement to the first floor. 

“Maybe that's not high enough,” said Lennon. “We may actually have to go higher… This is the only house that I've ever experienced in the middle of July in a drought that will flood and has.”

The tour continued to the basement, where humidifiers hum in the background and sump pumps keep the water out.

Credit Ambar Espinoza / RIPR

But groundwater isn’t the only issue. During heavy rain, runoff also drains down to the Christopher Townsend house. And that’s likely to get worse with severe storms and rising seas expected to come with climate change.

“It’s ground zero for the Point neighborhood,” said Margot Nishimura, who oversees collections for the Newport Restoration Foundation. “It’s the lowest point above mean sea level in the neighborhood, so it’s a good two feet lower than the shore itself.”

As Nishimura points out, the Christopher Townsend House sits in a depression, which makes it especially vulnerable to flooding. And with humans changing the shoreline, paving roads and building parking lots, drainage patterns in the neighborhood have changed, making the house even more vulnerable.

“Right now the biggest challenge is the increased stormwater since it has nowhere to go,” said Nishimura. “That's what we need to address in the near term.”

In the long term, the foundation wants to prepare for rising seas. Since 1930, sea levels in the state have risen an average of one inch per decade. And they’re projected to rise another three to five feet by the end of this century.

That poses a challenge to the Christopher Townsend House and more than a dozen other historic properties the foundation owns in the Point neighborhood.

“When it comes to advancing oceans, there is no washcloth big enough in the world to sop up the oceans,” said Roos. “So you have to figure out what to do.”

That’s why the foundation hosted a group of architects, conservationists and preservationists, including some from out of state, to tour the house and workshop ideas for how to protect historic buildings like it.

The Newport Restoration Foundation secured a grant to develop a plan to protect historic properties from sea level rise. The Christopher Townsend House is serving as the project case study. Strategies will be featured at next month at a conference called Keeping History Above Water, organized by the foundation.
Credit Ambar Espinoza / RIPR

One example is to move power outlets higher up the walls or update the heating system.

“Use one of the modern high efficiency furnaces and locate it, actually, in the attic and vent it out through the attic,” said Roos. “There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s perfectly practical. In some cases there are going to have to be some code changes to make this practical, but that doesn't mean it can't work.”

All of this may require a change in thinking about historic preservation. At least one preservationist pushed back during the workshop, worried major changes would hurt the integrity of historic buildings.

But with the country’s largest collection of colonial-era homes on the line, Newport will need to do something. A city planner estimates nearly a thousand historic structures, worth some $560 million, sit on floodplains. The way Roos sees it, a few changes are worth it to help the properties survive.

“In 100 years, people may look at these buildings and say, ‘Well, yeah, it doesn't look the way it did in 2015 or before that,’ but that's the way it had to adapt in order to continue its lifespan,” said Roos. “It will just become part of the historical record of the building.” 

Nearly 2,000 historic places are vulnerable to flooding all along the state’s coastline, according to a recent report that includes information from Newport's city planner. Roos hopes the solutions that come out of the workshop for the Christopher Townsend House will serve as a model for how to protect them and other historic buildings across the nation. The strategies will be presented next month at a conference called Keeping History Above Water