One of the most famous architectural landmarks in Charleston, Rainbow Row comprises thirteen 18th and 19th century buildings that once served the bustling wharfs of Charleston’s busy seaport. Running from 79 through 107 East Bay Street, they are the longest cluster of Georgian Row Houses still standing in America. Most were built shortly after the Great Fire of 1778. The oldest, 97 East Bay Street, was built c. 1748 and thus pre-dates the first. The newest, 79/81 East Bay Street, was built in 1845.
Their first floors accommodated stores and counting houses, while the merchants’ family conveniently lived on the upper floors. They were originally waterfront property, as the harbor came right up to the other side of East Bay Street. As the wharves grew and were filled in, “new” land was created on the eastern side of East Bay Street, and so today, Rainbow Row is a block or so from the water’s edge.
After the Civil War and the catastrophes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this area of Charleston devolved into near slum conditions. Then, beginning in the 1920s, this group of row houses became the focal point of the restoration efforts that began when Charleston’s first female real estate broker, Susan Pringle Frost, borrowed money to purchase and renovate several properties in this area. In short order hers became a consuming preservation crusade to rehabilitate the picturesque houses of lower Tradd Street, St. Michael's Alley, and this section of East Bay Street. Her friend, Dorothy Porcher Legge, purchased 99 and 101 East Bay and undertook their renovation.
The name Rainbow Row was coined in the 1930s when the buildings were painted in a variety of pastel shades. Several popular myths have developed over the years to explain their colors. One claims the houses were painted various colors so that intoxicated sailors coming could remember which houses they were to bunk in. Another claims that the colors of the buildings date from their use as stores; purportedly the colors were used so that mistresses could explain to illiterate enslaved people which building to go to for shopping.
Neither myth is true as the buildings initially were simply a natural gray and did not feature their pastel paints until the 20th century. The soft-colored palette began with Mrs. Legge, who chose to paint her houses pink based on a colonial Caribbean color scheme that she particularly liked. Indeed, the palette does recall Charles Town’s close association with the tropical island of Barbados, which seems fitting, and the pastel colors help keep the houses a bit cooler inside. After Mrs. Legge restored her property, other owners followed suit, creating the rainbow of pastel colors that are so popular today.
Today these properties are all private residences and serve as good examples of Charleston’s adaptive reuse of historic buildings. They are perhaps the best known and most photographed site in Charleston today.