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Discover Charleston's Iconic Rainbow Row

March 10, 2023
Rainbow Row's Colorful homes in Charleston

Visitors to Charleston are instantly drawn to the charm and beauty of Rainbow Row, an iconic stretch of brightly colored homes along East Bay Street. Representing a rich part of the city's history, these vibrant dwellings have captured the hearts of locals and tourists alike with their unique architecture and multi-colored hues. Join us on this journey as we uncover the secret behind this special landmark in Charleston.

Rainbow Row historical facts from Old South Carriage Guide—Starr
Man walking the dog on Rainbow Row

The History of Rainbow Row Charleston, SC

Rainbow Row is a block of 13 historic homes, most of which were built in the late 18th century during the period between the Revolutionary War and the ratification of the Constitution. At the time, East Bay Street was a bustling hub of commerce. Many of the houses were built by British and Scottish merchants of Colonial Caribbean heritage. The buildings featured storefronts on the first floor with living quarters above. 

By the end of the Civil War in 1865, the houses had fallen into disrepair. That section of East Bay Street became known as the slums of Charleston, and by the late-19th century, the houses were mostly abandoned.

In 1920, the founder of the Preservation Society of Charleston, Susan Pringle Frost, purchased six of the homes with the hope of restoring them. A lack of funds, however, stymied her efforts and the houses remained in disrepair. 

In 1931, the same year Charleston adopted the nation’s first historic zoning ordinance, a woman named Dorothy Porcher Legge bought a section of the homes between 99-101 East Bay Street with the intention of restoring them to their former glory. In a nod to the area's Colonial Caribbean heritage, she painted her new buildings in a bright shade of pink, a radical departure from the traditional muted colors that were common at the time. Other homeowners on the street soon followed suit, and by the 1950s, the row of houses had become known as Rainbow Row.

Palm trees on Rainbow Row

Restoration Efforts

Over the years, the houses on Rainbow Row have undergone extensive restoration efforts to preserve their historic architecture and unique charm. The houses were originally built in the Georgian style, which was popular in the United States in the late-18th and early-19th centuries. The style is characterized by symmetrical facades, simple moldings, and a central entrance flanked by windows.

In addition to restoring the homes' architectural features, the homeowners on Rainbow Row have also taken great care to maintain the bright and cheerful colors that have made the street so famous. The houses are painted in a variety of shades, including pink, yellow, blue, green, and lavender, and each one has its own distinct character and style.

Up-close on Rainbow Row

Rainbow Row Myths & Legends

There are many local legends behind the striking colors of the homes on Rainbow Row. One of the most famous stories holds the colors date back to a time in the early days of the United States when sailors and merchant marines stayed in the apartments above the storefronts while they were in port. Living up to their reputations, the houses were painted in bright colors to help them find their way home after a night of revelry in the local pubs.

Among all the myths, however, the truth is much simpler. The people who restored the homes in the early 20th century wanted to pay homage to their history and association with the Colonial Caribbean merchants. 

The pastel colors used to paint buildings in the islands also serve a dual purpose, one Charleston residents can definitely appreciate—to help keep the interior of the buildings cool in the sweltering heat of a southern summer.

Old South Carriage Tour on Rainbow Row

Exploring Rainbow Row

Today, Rainbow Row is one of Charleston's most popular tourist destinations, and visitors flock to this street to take photos and admire the beautiful homes. While the houses are privately owned and not open to the public, there are still plenty of ways to explore this historic and colorful neighborhood.

Rainbow Row is located in the heart of Charleston's historic district, a designated National Historic Landmark. There are plenty of other landmarks and attractions in the area to explore, including the Battery—a park that offers stunning views of Charleston Harbor and Fort Sumter, where the Civil War began. Other favorite points of interest include the Charleston City Market, a historic market that sells local crafts, souvenirs, and food, and the Aiken Rhett House, a restored mansion that offers a glimpse into the life of antebellum Charleston.

One of the best ways to see Rainbow Row and all the historic sights in Charleston is to book an unforgettable horse-drawn carriage tour with Old South Carriage. Our guided, small-group tours are the perfect way to experience the beauty and history of our unique city!  All carriage routes in Charleston operate on a lottery system to manage traffic, so if your route doesn't go by Rainbow Row, this street is just a 10-minute walk away from the Old South Carriage stables at 14 Anson Street.

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