This conversation was written by Maggie Vickrey, CHStoday’s editorial coordinator.
Charleston is home to countless pieces of architectural works of art – some of which aren’t friends of 90-degree angles. While it may make decorating challenging, the crookedness of certain Holy City homes adds the perfect dose of quirkiness to the town we know and love. So, why is it that these historic homes don’t stand up straight?
There are multiple components that go into this iconic structural flaw.
First, much of the peninsula is made of artificial fill – when a portion of unstable land, for instance, a marsh, is filled in with dirt or other excess material to make the area possible to build on. This causes problems because the ground takes a long time to settle and become compact. When a structure is built on top of it, it slopes with its slowly shifting base. In the past, part of the peninsula, specifically the Ashley River side, used artificial fill composed of sawdust from sawmills present in the first half of the twentieth century.
Second, Charleston is no stranger to natural disasters. If you’re reading this, you’ve lived through a local hurricane. Let’s not forget the Great Earthquake of 1886, either. Over time, architects learned to adapt to high winds, pressure changes, and seismic activity, building structures out of flexible materials. You may think concrete is the strongest and sturdiest material to construct a building out of, but in our area wood is actually better. In whipping winds or shaky ground, wood houses can sway and bend whereas compact buildings made of materials such as cement or bricks can easily crack and fall to pieces.
If you’re interested in seeing a nifty example of a structure built with natural disasters in mind, head over to 39 S. Battery where you can see a house that was built on a matrix of the Lowcountry’s precious palmetto logs. (Palmettos really are a lifesaver, no wonder they’re on our state flag.)
The brick and plaster houses commonly constructed in the mid 1700s (think Rainbow Row) took a different approach to stability. Instead of having a malleable structure to avoid breakage, these structures were equipped with earthquake bolts to mend the building after a weather event. Earthquake bolts or earthquake rods essentially create an iron skeleton for the house. When the house’s structure was shaken loose the rods were twisted to tighten the skeleton and mold the building back into place, straightening out the house to its former glory. At first these devices were installed for hurricanes but after the Great Earthquake they became much more popular as an anecdote to crumbing walls from seismic activity. The irony is these have never been used to pull back together a house damaged from an earthquake since the last significant earthquake was that of 1886.
Whether it be the charming wooden house you rent or your favorite historic row house to photograph, there is a lot to learn and love about in the little lean in these Chucktown dwellings.
Special thanks to Richard Grant Gilmore, director of the Historic Preservation and Community Planning BA Program at the College of Charleston, for sharing valuable insight into Charleston history.