History of The Pink House: one of the oldest structures in Charleston

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The Pink House | Photo by @heatherdurhamphotography

Although the exact date may be up for debate, sometime between the late 1600s- 1712, John Brenton is said to have built a small, one-bedroom house at 17 Chalmers Street, in the French Quarter district– which became famously known as The Pink House. Throughout the years, the house has been used as a tavern + brothel, a law office, a private residence, an art gallery, and, most recently– a place for swooning Instagramers to capture the perfect picturesque shot.

A combination of the pink exterior, original gambrel tiled roof, + the cobblestone road upon which it sits, helps make the unique abode a beloved location for tourists, artists, + photographers who are looking to capture several iconic staples of Charleston all within one pic.

But what really captures the attention of locals and visitors alike, is that the distinctive building is often marketed as the oldest residence in Charleston surviving fires, earthquakes, + hurricanes that wiped out other parts of the city.

 

Is it the oldest house in Charleston?

The house is professed to be the oldest masonry residence in Charleston, and the second oldest in the country, however; there is no proof that it is really the oldest house since others– such as Col. William Rhett House at 54 Hasell St.– are believed to be constructed around the same time. Additionally, there is a further controversy since it was originally opened as a tavern and not a residence.  

 

Why is it pink?

While Rainbow Row was intentionally painted pastel hues, 17 Chalmers St. was built from 18 inch-thick Bermuda Stone– a coral stone hailing from West India, which gave the house a natural pink tone. The original curved terracotta tiles are claimed to have been formed over the workmen’s thighs, and while the house is three stories, each story has only one room. Today, the house has been stuccoed + painted pink to preserve the structure and to continue to live up to its nickname.

The 1,017 sq. ft. home features low ceilings, 1.5 baths, a courtyard– which was designed by Loutrel Briggs– exposed brick, + a picture-perfect view of St. Philip’s steeple through a window. Click here to view photos of the inside.

 

300 years of history

Despite its petite structure, the building was initially used as a tavernquite possibly with a brothel upstairs– for sailors + pirates coming through Charleston’s port in search of  whiskey, wenches, and wittles.”

1750:

According to real estate records, the tavern was owned by a man named Thomas Coker in the 1750s, when it fell into despair.

The “Pink House” located at 17 Chalmers Street in Charleston, South Carolina. | Image from the Lowcountry Digital Library circa 1890 by George W. Johnson.

The 1930s:

In the 1930s, New Yorker’s Victor and Marjorie Morawetz purchased the property, along with Seabrook Island and Fenwick Hall Plantation, and hired Charleston architect Albert Simons to help renovate the building. The couple used the building for entertaining guests and added a small wing on the corner strictly for the party caterers.

1946:

In 1946, the property was sold to Henry McInvaill, Jr. and his wife, Talulah Lemmon. The couple used the space as a studio for artists– such as Alice Ravenel Huger Smith.

1956:

The building continued to be used as The Pink House Galleries until Attorney Frank H. Bailey purchased it in 1956 and formed the law firm, Bailey and Buckley. The law office renovated the building again, adding bookshelves + a built-in desk. After Bailey’s death in 1987, his daughter Anne reopened a gallery within the space.

1994:

The house changed hands year after year but remained as an art gallery– which was open to the public for nearly 20 years. The gallery closed in April 2013.

2014:

Local artist Gayle Sanders Fischer purchased the house and used it as an extension of The Gaye Sanders Fisher Gallery. She opened the wall of the courtyard to allow access from her main gallery into the house, overall utilizing the property as her studio.

2016:

In May 2016, the house was listed for sale for $995,000but the listing was soon removed.

2017:

In fall 2017, Handsome Properties lowered the price of the charming abode to $675,000– talk about a steal!– and it sold on Nov. 21 for $620,000 to New York resident, Scott Bessent, who plans to retire in Charleston.


2019:

For two years, Bessent has been working with architect Glenn Keyes + contractor Richard “Moby” Marks to repair damage to the structure and convert it back into a single-family home.

The work is expected to take another year.

 

Over the course of 300 years, the small– but resilient– dwelling has survived over thirty hurricanes, two major earthquakes, two wars, snow storms, and multiple catastrophic fires.

Today, it is listed in the National Register as part of the French Quarter District and dons a plaque proudly identifying it as The Pink House.

The Pink House plaque | Photo by @donarqui