BEHRE COLUMN: A new, old look on Charleston’s Elliott Street
Preservationists love a good set of “before” and “after” photos, but they rarely look as dramatic as those taken of 5 Elliott St.
Just two years ago, this 18th century home was dominated by a first floor garage door and an oddly expansive second floor window flanked by double doors and topped by one of the city’s longest fan lights.
Still, dubious aesthetics were not its most serious problem.
“This building was just heavily abused over many years,” says architect Glenn Keyes, who spearheaded its recent rehabilitation with Richard Marks Restorations. “It was a building in structural distress.”
The house, built around 1778, had its third floor taken down after the 1886 earthquake, and a single slope flat roof replaced it. A subsequent owner decided —since the narrow property has no room for off-street parking — to create a garage on the first floor.
Marks says the east facade was bulging out about 10 inches, and the floor joists on the upper floors had skewed in an increasingly clockwise manner — a result of the building being torqued by the quake.
Marks is no stranger at working on old houses, and he says this was probably his most challenging in terms of holding up the building, dismantling the bad sections and building them back.
“We don’t normally dismantle 18th century walls,” Keyes says, “but in this case, it was necessary.”
No images apparently survived showing the house’s pre-earthquake appearance, and that might have been just as well because structural engineer John Moore questioned if it could handle a full third story being added back.
Instead, Keyes designed a half-story, giving the main facade a gable with a single small window on the third floor.
The iron balcony was kept, accessed by three double doors with three-light transoms on top of each. They’re over three first floor windows and shutters.
Marks notes that while no old image of the house remains, pre-earthquake Sanborn maps — created for fire insurance purposes — show how many windows were on each facade.
The western part of the front facade has an expansion joint — a small gap that recognizes that the historic 2-foot-thick masonry wall will expand and contract differently from the abutting new wooden-stud wall.
“It’s pretty subtle,” Keyes says of the joint. “Because we made a pilaster on the corner, it’s tough to tell.”
The house’s new appearance looks much more 18th century than its previous one (with the garage door), even though it is dominated by an iron balcony that’s a relatively recent addition.
“It’s not a restoration by any means,” Keyes says. “It’s a rehabilitation, an adaptation.”
The work also included adding new earthquake anchors, metal rods running across the building to hold it together. Some existing bolts also were swapped out with a different kind of metal less likely to cause problems down the road.
“One of the problems with the iron bolts that go into masonry is they rust and it jacks up the masonry over time,” Marks says. “We replaced some of those rods with stainless steel but kept the early wrought or cast washers.”
Another major challenge included working on the interior and rear garden when the only way to bring in materials was through the 42-inch-wide side opening.
The home also is somewhat unusual because it has a basement, an acceptable feature in Charleston’s earliest homes built on the peninsula’s highest land but a not-so-great idea for those built later on lower-lying sites.
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.