One of the most visited – and certainly most photographed – spots in Charleston is Rainbow Row. The series of colorful historic houses are the subject of postcards, paintings, framed photographs, T-shirts and more. It’s an iconic and recognizable part of Charleston’s charm. Even well-known painter Thomas Kinkade has a Rainbow Row painting.
But visitors might wonder, “Why are the houses painted so colorfully?”
Rainbow Row is comprised of about a dozen homes along a stretch of East Bay Street right on the Charleston harbor. In the 18th century, the homes were used as shops and businesses with living quarters on the second and third floors. In 1778, a fire destroyed a large portion of the neighborhood, sparing a handful of houses (95 to 101 East Bay St.).
Following the Civil War, the area feel into disrepair and was viewed as the slums. But in 1920, preservationist enthusiast Susan Pringle Frost took an interest in the area. Frost was the founder of the Society for the Preservation of Old Dwellings – now the Preservation Society of Charleston. She purchases six of the homes but didn’t have the funds to restore them immediately.
In 1931, Dorothy Haskell Porcher Legge purchased 99 through 101 East Bay St. and began to renovate the properties. She drew on Charleston’s Caribbean roots and painted the houses pink.
The trend caught on and other owners on the street – and future owners – selected bright, pastel colors for their home’s exterior. Rainbow Row was born. The light colors also served to keep the houses cool on the inside – an important feature in the days before air conditioning.
Local legend also has it that the houses were painted bright colors so drunken sailors could find their house as they came stumbling home.
If you’re looking for photos, paintings, T-shirt, coasters and other items featuring Rainbow Row, visit the historic Charleston City Market where vendors often feature this historic Charleston landmark on their wares.