Over the course of 150 years, the generations who lived in the handsome house at 17 Logan St. shared a similar experience when walking out of the front door: There were four or five steps to descend, and then it was out onto the flat streets of one of the most beautiful, well-preserved - and flood-prone - cities in the United States. 

So it is still a shock for the current owners, Allen and Lee Kaplan, when they pass between the doorway's elegant fluted pilasters and find themselves at the top of their new outdoor staircase, one story up in the air. 

"This still freaks us out, standing here," Ms. Kaplan said on a recent afternoon, looking down on her neighbors' front doors across the street.

After four floods in the past five years that saw water fill their crawl space and threaten to swamp their ground floor, the Kaplans decided to spend more than a half-million dollars to hoist the two-story home by roughly six feet. It was a radical move that a few years ago would have drawn howls from Charleston's powerful preservation community, and almost certain rejection from the city's Board of Architectural Review. 

But today low-lying Charleston is seeing its eternal struggle with flooding exacerbated by climate change, with intensifying storms, a rising sea and downtown streets that transform into impassable creeks with distressing regularity.

As a result, this coastal city, whose ardent defense of its historic neighborhoods set off a 21st-century tourist boom and contributed to a regional economic renaissance, is being forced to accept that the very concept of preservation must now, paradoxically, embrace change - and that some of its most historic buildings need to be hoisted up. 

Charleston's embrace of home elevations reflects a growing dilemma for elected officials, emergency managers and city planners around the country as climate change gets worse: Is it possible to save coastal cities and towns from rising seas? How much will it cost? And how much of the world as we know it will we be able to keep?

The change in posture is particularly profound for Charleston. The 351-year old city created the nation's first historic district in 1931 to protect a collection of churches, municipal buildings and homes that evince a range of styles - Georgian, neo-Classical, Italianate, Victorian, Gothic revival - and collectively achieve a kind of symphonic grandeur. The near-obsessive focus on preservation has paid off: In 2019, the city welcomed more than 7.4 million tourists, a number that dropped in 2020 because of the Covid-19 pandemic, but is expected to tick up again. The Charleston metropolitan area has grown to more than 800,000 residents in recent years, smashing growth projections. 

"The value proposition for preservation was, 'Fix it up and they'll come,"' said Kristopher King, executive director of the Preservation Society of Charleston. "Nobody did it better than Charleston. And they came."

But the threat of sea-level rise has dampened the giddiness. Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg said that in 2019, the Charleston area suffered flooding on 76 days. Mr. Tecklenburg, a Democrat and Charleston native who took office in 2016, has made combating flooding his top priority, with a broad approach that includes policy changes and massive infrastructure projects. Some were raising the existing sea wall known as the Low Battery. Some were reinforcing ancient underground drainage canals with concrete. Others were finishing a $198 million drainage project that will eventually move 360,000 gallons of water from downtown streets to the Ashley River.

Raising a historic house can be complicated business. Last year, Charleston lifted its first historic masonry building, a grand Italianate villa at 1 Water Street weighing 450 tons. Construction crews sunk pilings 75 feet deep through pudding-like coastal mud to find bedrock, then lifted the home using 30 computer-controlled jacks calibrated to account for different weights in different parts of the house. It is expensive work, with the cheapest jobs costing around $100,000. 

Some subsidies are available, but Mr. Tecklenburg said that finding new financing for working people is an important next step that his administration is undertaking. Simons Young is one of those people; an architect on the peninsula, he is waiting on news from FEMA about a grant to fund 35% of the costs of his home elevation.

For now, the homeowners who can afford the work are enjoying a new kind of prominence. 

As the Kaplans stood outside of their newly raised home on Logan Street, a horse-drawn carriage full of tourists passed by. The tour guide was busy telling the story of how the house got so much closer to the treetops.

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