When you picture Charleston, you most likely imagine beautiful waters, iconic architecture, and a colorful history to match its colorful aesthetic. Charleston is consistently ranked as one of the best places to visit for tourists in the nation.
As the city is immersed in rich history, it’s no wonder that millions of people travel from all over to experience Charleston’s stories. Rainbow Row, one of the city’s biggest attractions, is no exception. Keep reading to uncover the history behind the almost-300-year-old street of beautiful, colorful homes.
What is Rainbow Row?
As you walk down East Bay Street in Charleston, you’ll find yourself strolling alongside 13 beautiful houses painted in pastel rainbow colors, from which the stretch of homes gets the name Rainbow Row.
This stretch of road is situated along The Battery, right in front of the water, making for a perfect view of some of Charleston’s best attractions. Rainbow Row’s beauty and unique attributes are what make this a popular stop on many historic tours throughout the city.
Upon visiting, you’ll find newlyweds posing for the perfect shot, tourists snapping pictures of their favorite house, and locals walking down the charming street.
While you can’t go inside these buildings, the outsides are far from disappointing, as their colorful exterior and historic architecture are worth a picture or several. More than just a pretty face, these houses have a story worth sharing. Since their construction in the mid-1700s, these homes have survived the Civil War, World War II, and many other historic events in Charleston, making it a valuable stop on your journey through the Holy City.
Where is Rainbow Row?
The houses that make up Rainbow Row are located from 83 to 107 East Bay Street in Charleston. The row lies north of Tradd Street and south of Elliot Street, near The Battery and White Point Gardens. Not too far down the stretch of the Charleston waterfront is the famous Waterfront Park and Pineapple Fountain, two more of Charleston’s best finds. After you’ve explored the stories and sights of these landmarks, you can make your way to one of the plenty of local restaurants in the South of Broad area in which Rainbow Row resides.
Dating back to roughly 1740, these 13 houses were much different than the building we have come to know and love today. They haven’t always been covered in pastel pain or even solely residential. Back in the 18th century, these houses were both home and work for merchants trying to make a living. They were able to run their stores and businesses on the ground floors while residing on the floors above the shops, making for easy access. This was a great location for commercial use until the Civil War made its way to Charleston.
The Rise and Fall of Rainbow Row
Unfortunately, the houses of Rainbow Row have experienced a lot of turmoil throughout their history. In the late 18th century, a single fire destroyed most of the neighborhood, only sparing a few of the houses. As time went on and the Civil War began to make its impact on the South, Charleston went through much architectural devastation. These 13 houses weren’t immune. Soon enough, after this disastrous war, the area now known as Rainbow Row was in ruins and was not of much value. That was, until the Legge family decided to make a change.
In 1931, Dorothy Porcher Legge and her husband Judge Lionel Legge purchased the row of houses with the intent to renovate them and rejuvenate the area that had been lost to the war. Dorothy was the woman responsible for first painting these houses their unique colors. She started by painting one a pretty pastel pink.
For reasons unknown, other residents in nearby homes followed suit, painting the exteriors in vibrant pastel colors, from yellow to green to blue. The decision inspired many questions: What inspired this idea? Is there a purpose for painting them different colors? Is it just for the aesthetic? The truth is that while there are many theories, there’s no way to truly know.
Rainbow Row provides the source of one of Charleston’s greatest mysteries: Why were these houses painted like a rainbow? Many theories arose, and over time there have been a few that stand out, some of which make for amusing stories and fascinating history lessons.
According to some, the houses were painted with unique, bright colors to serve as a beacon of sorts. Sailors coming in from port intoxicated would have an easier time finding their way to their respective homes when the house has a distinctive feature like bright yellow paint.
Other versions claim that the buildings were using a form of color-coding as a way to indicate what services or products they were selling. It was an easy way for people, especially those who were illiterate, like enslaved people, to decipher which building to go to when shopping.
A more grounded theory claims that these buildings were painted light, pastel colors in an effort to keep the homes cooler in hot Charleston summers. This theory isn’t hard to believe if you’ve ever witnessed Charleston in the summer, when temperatures can get as high as 90-100 degrees!
While we may never truly know the real reason why these neighbors all collectively decided to paint their homes these beautiful shades, at the very least, we’ve been given an iconic piece of history that continues to add to the city’s coastal aesthetic.
Unique Homes on a Unique Street
Built in the mid-19th century, this house has the most modern architecture of all the buildings on Rainbow Row. It’s unique for its two-part building that is known as the beginning of the row, starting on the south side.
Home 83 – The William Stone House
This home, built in 1784, has a creator with a unique history. A merchant who eventually fled America during the American Revolutionary War is responsible for this great piece.
Home 87 – The James Gordon House
Built in 1778, this house got its name from the Scottish merchant, James Gordon. Gordon rebuilt this home in 1792 after it was destroyed by a fire. Later, it was purchased and painted a bright yellow by Susan Pringle.
Home 89 –Deas-Tunno House
This tall, four-story home was built around 1770, originally for commercial purposes. This unique property has an additional garden that you won’t find with the others and extensions that give it its distinctive look.
Home 93 – The James Cook House
This bright, cheery yellow house was built in 1778 and has been beautifully restored, unlike its neighboring buildings. When walking through the house, you’ll find a cute kitchen and dining room on the first floor, but even better, it has a drawing room and a library on the second floor.
This home has somewhat of a mysterious history. Scholars have speculated that the architectural style is one similar to that of Othniel Beale, the man responsible for building neighboring houses 97-101 East Bay Street. The pastel green home was owned by American statesman Charles Coteworth Pinckney in 1779, but renovated by the New York playwright John McGowan over a century later in 1938.
The same man who built houses 99-101, Othniel Beale, also built this home and purchased it as his own residence. All houses share a roof together as well as a party wall and specific decorative pieces.
Home 103 – Joseph Dulles House
This home gets its name from the man who built it in 1787, an ancestor of Joseph Dulles, the former Secretary of State under former President Eisenhower.
Home 105 – Dutarque-Guida House
The name for this house comes from two men who have, at different times, lived under its roof. First purchased by Lewis Dutarque in 1778, this house was Dutarque’s home. Giovanni Domenico Guida, an Italian immigrant, was the next owner. He added his own vision to the house’s exterior by building an iron, Victorian storefront to the building.
The last house on Rainbow Row, 107 East Bay Street, was first purchased by John Blake. He was both a state senator and a Revolutionary War patriot. This house’s history is also somewhat of a mystery. From undergoing multiple renovations, experts are unaware of its original design. It once had a two-story kitchen behind it, but that building is now registered as a separate building on Elliot Street.