Drunken sailors or copycat neighbors?

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Photo by @asenseofhuber

Debunking the myths of Rainbow Row 🌈

One of the most recognizable + photographed areas of Charleston is the iconic Rainbow Row. The block of thirteen colorful, private historic homesstretching from 83-107 East Bay Streetrepresents the longest cluster of Georgian row houses in the U.S.

While many know of the local legends + age-old tall tales that have been told about the meaning behind the boldly-painted dwellings, what is the real history of Rainbow Row?

Do you know? Select the answer below you believe to be true… no cheating!

 

Read on to find out the actual reason why these homes are boasting with color.

 

Takin’ it back to the mid-18th century

In the mid-1700s, the row of houses from 83-107 East Bay Street were originally constructed as a commerce center on the waterfront, serving the wharves + docks at the port. The shop merchants– men of Colonial Caribbean heritage– lived on the second floors, with their storefronts residing on the bottom level.

An area that once thrived, by the end of the Civil War (May 1865) that section of East Bay St. fell into despair + was considered the slums of Charleston. So, no– the pretty houses we know today weren’t always the highlight of the Holy City. Most sat desolate until the 1920s, when a certain suffragette stepped in to bring the area back to its prime.

Rainbow Row, 1910 | Photo via markjonesbooks.com

An attempt at preservation

In 1920, Susan Pringle Frost, the founder of the Society for the Preservation of Old Dwellings– now the Preservation Society of Charleston– wanted to breathe new life into the defunct buildings. Frost purchased six of the homes, but didn’t have the funds to restore them. So yet again, they sat.

See the rundown of homes below to learn more about how she worked with the owners after her to rebuild the area to its glory days.

 

The truth revealed

A decade later, in 1931, Charleston adopted the country’s first Historical Zoning Ordinance– which helped citizens see the value of maintaining + protecting historical homes. That same year, Judge Lionel Legge + his wife Dorothy Porcher Legge purchased a section of the homes, from 99-101 East Bay Street. As they started renovating, they chose to paint the exterior of the houses in a bright, pastel pink– as a homage to the city’s Colonial Caribbean heritage roots.

Throughout the late 1930s + 1940s, others in the neighborhood decided to copy their style– also painting their abodes in bold, Caribbean colors as a way to improve the aesthetics + keep the houses cooler during the warmer months. It was this action that helped the stretch of homes earn the moniker “Rainbow Row.”

So back to our pop quiz…

As it happens with most historic landmarks, Rainbow Row comes with numerous anecdotes about the original reason for the colors. But as far as history can tell– the stories that say the houses were painted brightly to point drunken sailors in the right direction, or those that state merchants used the colors to identify goods– are just that– stories.

The real reason behind the vibrant colors is a combination of the Legge’s choice to paint their house pink, their neighbors following suite to improve aesthetics, + as a way to keep the houses cool during the summer.

 

99-101 East Bay Street | Photo by the CHStoday Team

The homes

Here is a little background on the abodes that make up Rainbow Row.

💙 Number 79-81A two-part building, which begins Rainbow Row
🔨 Built in the mid-19th century.
🏠 This is the most modern structure.

💛 Number 83– The William Stone House
🔨 Built in 1784 by a Tory merchant.
🏠 Has only seen minor restorations throughout the years.

💛 Number 87 The James Gordon House
🔨 Built in 1792, but was completely destroyed by a fire in 1778. It was later rebuilt in 1792 by a Scottish Merchant, named– you guessed it– James Gordon. It was then purchased by Susan Pringle Frost in 1920.
🏠 Unlike the rest of Rainbow Row, this house still has most of its original stucco finish.

💙 Number 89 The Deas-Tunno House
🔨 Built around 1770.
🏠 The house has a unique side garden + outbuildings (which were used as slave quarters).

💗 Number 91 Inglis Arch House
🔨 Originally built in 1778, but destroyed in a fire that same year. Reconstructed in 1782.
🏠 Sold to Nathaniel Russell in 1793, then went through a series of owners until Susan Pringle Frost bought the home in 1920. She sold the house to N.Y. playwright John McGowan in 1941, who renovated the home to give it the characteristics it has today. The 6,471 sq. ft. house was recently listed on the market for $5,599.000 + featured in Southern Living Magazine.

💛 Number 93 The James Cook House
🔨 Built in 1778.
🏠 Features a drawing room + library on the second floor.

💚 Number 95
🔨 While the construction remains a mystery, as the original documents seemed to have vanished, the house was owned by Charles Cotesworth Pickney in 1779.
🏠 The house was renovated by N.Y. Playwright, John McGowan in 1938. The 3,018 sq. ft. home was recently listed on the market for $2,295,000.

💗 Number 97-101– Col. Othniel Beale’s House
🔨 97 was originally purchased by Othniel Beale, who later built the adjoining 99-101 in 1740.
🏠 99-101 was purchased + renovated by Judge Lionel Legge + his wife Dorothy in 1931.

💜 Number 103– The Joseph Dulles House
🔨 Built in 1787.
🏠 Developed by an ancestor of John Foster Dulles, the former Secretary of State (under President Eisenhower).

💚 Number 105– The Dutarque-Guida House
🔨 Built between 1782-84, by Lewis Dutarque– a planter of Huguenot descent.
🏠 The next owner was Giovanni Domenico Guida– an Italian immigrant who added an iron, Victorian storefront. The storefront was held by Guida’s family as a grocery store until the 1960s.

💙 Number 107– The John Blake Building
🔨 First purchased in 1791.
🏠 The house has undergone many restorations that have made its original configuration difficult to recognize.

While each home is privately owned– they are under a city ordinance which requires the owners to keep the pastel colors intact, thus preserving the historic section of East Bay Street.

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To date, over 32,000 photos have been tagged with #rainbowrow on Instagram. It appears as though professional photographers, tourists, newlyweds, fashionistas, + locals alike cannot seem to capture enough angles of the row’s pastel charm.

Have you taken a #selfie in front of one of Charleston’s greatest attractions? Be sure to send us your #rainbowrow snaps. 🌈🏠

Justine