Climate change creates new concerns to protect Newport’s history

The effects of climate change, including altered climate, sea level rise and intensified storms, have the potential to harm the history which makes Newport appealing, attractive and unique.

NEWPORT – Following another Newport downpour on the night of Tuesday, Nov. 5, about 20 community members gathered at Innovate Newport for a public forum about elevating historic structures.

Andy Bjork, the chair of Newport’s Historic District Commission, presented potential solutions to combat the increasing flood issues in Newport. The new solution brought up aspects of an ongoing conversation about how to implement changes while keeping the past in tact.

“Seas are rising faster in Rhode Island than the global average, and will continue to do so in the future,” said Janet Freedman, a coastal geologist and a speaker for the Providing Resilience Education for Planning in Rhode Island program. According to Freedman, the sea level in Newport today is 10 inches higher than it was in 1930. The 2014 National Climate Assessment predicted the sea level to rise anywhere from one to four feet in the Northeast by 2100. The increasing predictions create concern for the community’s historic character.

Newport’s history is “the fabric of the city and tourism,” said Bjork. In a 2018 Rhode Island preservation report from Preserve R.I. and the Preservation Society of Newport County, over 10% of day visitors and about 20% of overnight visitors travel to Rhode Island for its historic sites and landmarks. The tourism created by Newport’s history results in significant economic gain for the city.

In 2013, the Preservation Society of Newport County reported in their community impact study how the organization contributed over $236,000 directly to the city of Newport and city services, including the RIPTA trolley. Along with the direct payment to the city, the 2018 preservation report stated how, “$100 million flows into the city and state’s economy as a direct result of the Preservation Society’s operations.” The money includes factors such as creating jobs and visitor spending at local businesses when traveling to Newport. Along with attracting tourists, historic preservation draws new residents to the community. Historic districts in Rhode Island are growing in popularity more than other areas of Rhode Island, according to the preservation report.

The effects of climate change, including altered climate, sea level rise and intensified storms, have the potential to harm the history which makes Newport appealing, attractive and unique. To give a glimpse of the potential damage, over 230 historic-contributing buildings are within the Point Neighborhood’s flood zone alone according to projections from the Federal Emergency Management Agency presented by Bjork. The Point is one of many sections of Newport on the waterfront and potentially prone to climate damage. Adverse effects of climate change would not only be detrimental to the specific area, but ultimately Newport as a whole.

With historic homes, monuments and landmarks being a drawing point to Newport, historic and preservation organizations throughout the city work to create solutions to climate change concerns so the sea doesn’t damage local history.

“There’s reason to believe those historical resources are vulnerable.”

The Newport Restoration Foundation has been a front-runner in the discussion of how historic preservation responds to climate change. In 2016, the Newport Restoration Foundation initiated the “Keeping History Above Water” conference, and the issues discussed then continue to drive the actions of the organization.

“We’re always actively thinking and working in the area of the ‘Keeping History Above Water’ initiative,” said Mark Thompson, the executive director of the Newport Restoration Foundation. The organization works with the city and outside consultants to be informed on new developments and intervention strategies to protect both their properties and ones in the surrounding community.

“We share the same level of concern everybody has,” Thompson said. “This is a city with incredible historical resources, and based on what we’re learning and, based on what we’re hearing, there’s reason to believe those historical resources are vulnerable.”

According to the Newport Restoration Foundation’s website, 21 of their properties lay within the Point Neighborhood. Thompson noted how flooding at any rate is an issue with historic preservation with a larger concern being the flood waters reaching as high as the first level. Along with sea level rise, Thompson considered increased storms and wind as threats to the organization’s properties. In addition to foundation’s properties, Thompson mentioned how climate change affects the community at large.

“I think it would be everybody’s preference that we not regularly have flooded streets, and that we not regularly have flooding in our homes,” Thompson said.

The Newport Restoration Foundation has been active in the recent conversation of elevating historic properties as a potential solution to flood concerns. The acceptance of elevating houses is a new norm to many historic preservationists.

“There was probably a time where the thought of elevating houses would be considered absolutely contrary to the point of historic preservation, but increasingly, in light of this threat that we’re facing, preservationists are starting to realize that there will be cases that, perhaps, elevating a resource is just what they’re going to need to do,” Thompson said. Although elevation may be needed, historic integrity is as well. An important aspect to consider when elevating is to be sensitive to the nature of the historic property, Thompson said, who has seen both successes and failures of elevation. Elevating may not be ideal, but it may be necessary.

“What I recognize is around the country, preservation organizations are increasingly coming to grips with the fact that some properties may very well need to be elevated, and, perhaps, our focus now needs to be on the right and wrong ways of elevating properties and how we can preserve what is historical about the property.”

The Newport Restoration Foundation prepares, strategizes and innovates solutions with the goal of preventing the city-by-the-sea’s history from being damaged by the nature which surrounds it.

“All of us hope the outcome is we find some way to encounter this threat in which the historic feel of Newport remains in tact,” Thompson said. “Nobody wants to see us lose this wonderful, historic landscape that is Newport, so I think the point now is that all of us are working towards finding solutions so that we can preserve what’s here.”

“There’s an entire spectrum of risks…”

The other side of the city is home to the majority of the Preservation Society of Newport County’s properties between Bellevue and Ochre Point avenues. The bulk of the Preservation Society’s properties may be further from the sea level rise concerns of the Point Neighborhood, but the organization recognizes climate threats of their own.

“Climate change is one of our top concerns because historic preservation is a battle to keep the water out,” said John Rodman, director of museum experience at the Preservation Society. Rodman noted how severe storms not only contribute to water infiltration, but also create damage from wind, hail and falling trees. The damage to the trees is also a critical concern to the organization as it is a certified arboretum.

“When talking about climate change and storm events, we have buildings [over] 250 years old, so you’re looking at buildings that weren’t necessarily designed to last 250 years,” Rodman said. “Buildings like The Elms and Marble House are set up high or right on the water, exposed to wind and falling tree limbs. With wood frame structures you’re worried about wind damage, but also fire in a severe storm event. There’s an entire spectrum of risks that our historical structure can be exposed to or made worse by the storm component of climate change.”

According to Rodman, the Preservation Society already had storm plans implemented, including itemized lists of how to protect artifacts at the different properties. The plans go as far as having contracts in place to transport and store objects if and when needed.

“You name the problem, there is a scenario for moving objects from place to place, moving to a secure setting [and] moving from high tides,” Rodman said.

The organization’s current objectives are to create solutions to protect the properties long term. Roof repairs were completed on both The Breakers and Kingscote, and the latest was for the servant’s quarters at The Elms. The next two properties scheduled for roof replacement are the Marble House and Rosecliff. The Preservation Society is also working to put in storm windows at the properties, the most recent being at The Breakers.

The organization also implemented climate control technologies in several of the properties in order to minimize humidity. Rodman mentioned how humidity is another concern because the more fluctuation, the more damage there is to the materials including the metal, stone and gilding. So far, The Breakers, Marble House and Rosecliff have climate control technology along with climate maintenance at Hunter House and Chepstow, Rodman said.

“The amount of climate control you can manage varies depending on how it was built: you can’t get 21st century [air conditioning] in an 18th-century building.”

The Preservation Society has found ways to enact new changes in older structures, a recent example being the geothermal system used at The Breakers. The original systems of the property were utilized to support modern geothermal technology, which dramatically reduced the carbon footprint for maintenance of the mansion, according to Rodman.

Although the Preservation Society is taking action to protect their properties from climate change, there are some components out of their control. Hunter House, the organization’s founding property, is a colonial structure located in the Point Neighborhood and thus threatened by sea level rise and flooding. Rodman noted how the concern with Hunter House potentially flooding is because of both the structure itself and the mid-18th-century artifacts contained within: mitigation in some form will be necessary.

“To some degree, it’s out of our hands, but that doesn’t excuse us from taking every available step,” Rodman said. “Forecasting the future is not easy, but you have to plan for the worst case, and then develop the most cost-effective strategies. Resources are not unlimited, so we will protect to our best ability, and that’s what we’re committed to doing.”

“It becomes harder to predict.”

In June 2019, the Alliance Française de Newport completed a restoration project of the Rochambeau Memorial at King Park. Prior to completion, the monument stood covered and strapped to save the statue from falling in on itself due to decomposition. According to Andrew Snook, the president of the Alliance, age and seawater were the primary contributing factors to the monument’s damages. The organization spent over five years fundraising for the restoration project, which cost approximately $250,000.

“The project had to happen because the condition of the memorial had deteriorated to such a point where it was unsafe,” Snook said. The seawall on the southwestern side of the monument needed to be repaired, along with an extension of the wall by another 70 to 100 feet.

“Whenever there’s a storm surge and the water comes up over that sea wall, it runs back towards the monument and floods the whole area out,” Snook said.

“The restoration is significant,” Snook said, but he mentioned ongoing operation and maintenance is a must.

“We’re doing a good job of offsetting some of the immediate concerns… but as you look forward to medium and longer term it becomes harder to predict,” Snook said. The Alliance is putting efforts in to protect the monument, but recognizes Rochambeau has a modern-day battle ahead.

“It’s a dynamic system.”

“While we’re not scientists, we will accept the science,” Bjork said regarding climate change at the “Elevating Historic Buildings” forum.

As residents consider options to protect their property in the face of climate change, historic organizations consider how to not only protect, but preserve.

“It’s a dynamic system,” Rodman said. “Dynamic systems are influenced in ways we can’t always predict, so we have to continue to do absolutely everything we can do to mitigate climate change.”

Climate change may bring the community and historic organizations a myriad of unknowns, but Newport’s historic community attempts to create the best possible solutions with what is.

“We realize this is not a time to sit on our hands,” Thompson said.


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