How to Visit (and the History Behind) the Iconic Rainbow Row in Charleston, SC

Learn about the history of the iconic Rainbow Row and how to get there with this travel guide.

Written by

Jason Barnette

on

August 5, 2020

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COVID-19 has changed the world. The tourism industry has been one of the hardest hit areas of the global pandemic. Local restaurants, museums, state and national parks have all changed hours of operation, procedures, and some have gone out of business altogether.

Please verify current operations of any places you want to visit mentioned in these articles, and contact me if a business has permanently closed so I can update the article. Thank you and stay safe out there!

Just about any search for things to do in Charleston includes a visit to Rainbow Row. The string of thirteen pastel-colored rowhouses is one of the most popular places in the city for photography. But beyond the iconic color scheme, what makes Rainbow Row such an interesting place to visit?

As I began to write a simple travel guide on how to visit Rainbow Row, I quickly realized there was a fascinating story behind it. The houses of Rainbow Row are not architecturally significant; however, the history connected with the homes has had a lasting impact throughout Charleston.

Here is my travel guide on how to visit Rainbow Row, mixed with a little bit of history, the story of two influential Charleston women, and everything you need to know about reaching this iconic destination.

The corner of East Bay Street and South Adgers Wharf is near the southern end of Rainbow Row.

Getting to Rainbow Row

Rainbow Row stretches one block from 79-107 East Bay Street between Elliot and Tradd. It’s located in the neighborhood called South of Broad, which includes all the homes south of Broad Street. It’s a peaceful place to explore, and relatively easy to get to.

The closest public parking to Rainbow Row is along Broad Street, but it’s difficult at best to find an available space along the widest street in Charleston. Instead, I recommend using the Prioleau Parking Garage two blocks away. Parking is roughly a dollar an hour, with a sixteen dollar maximum, so it’s a great place to park for a day of exploration.

The iconic homes run along the west side of East Bay Street. There are pedestrian crossings at Broad Street and Tradd Street, and I highly recommend using those crossings because traffic is often heavy on the street.

READ MORE: The Coffee Lover’s Guide to My Favorite Coffee Shops in Charleston, SC

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Susan Pringle Frost

The Union bombardment of Charleston during the Civil War was the most prolonged shelling of a city in world history at the time. Almost every structure south of Broad Street was damaged or destroyed. After the War Between the States, the economy of the south was left in ruins along with the city.

Susan Pringle Frost was born into this world in 1873. She grew up watching once glorious residences and beautiful examples of architecture fall into disrepair. Somewhere throughout her early life, Frost developed a passion for historic preservation.

In 1909, Frost borrowed money from a family friend and purchased two small homes on Tradd Street. After restoring the houses, she listed them on the market and sold them for a modest profit, becoming Charleston’s first female realtor. In 1920, along with her sister Nell McColl Pringle, she founded the Preservation Society of Charleston.

Did you know?

The advent of the automobile in the early 1900s led to many changes across America. One of the most devastating to preservation efforts was the need for gas stations. With small gas tanks and limited range, the need for a gas station every few miles was essential.

In 1920, Standard Oil Company announced plans to purchase the historic Joseph Manigault House at 350 Meeting Street and demolish it to make way for a gas station. Determined to prevent this from happening, Susan Pringle Forst and Nell McCool Pringle founded The Society for the Preservation of Old Dwellings, today called the Preservation Society of Charleston.

The newly formed society purchased the Joseph Manigault House, restored it, and eventually sold it to The Charleston Museum. Since that time, the Preservation Society has worked to preserve the history and architecture throughout Charleston.

Window planter boxes are as common in Charleston as she-crab soup and balmy humidity. Locals consider it a badge of honor to have the best display.

The Beginning of Rainbow Row

Early houses on East Bay Street were destroyed during the Great Fire of 1740. When the embers faded and the smoke cleared, new homes were built along the street that once stood opposite the shipping wharves on the Cooper River. The first floor of the buildings held offices supporting the merchants, while the upper floors served as residences.

After the Civil War, the area where Rainbow Row stands today became one of the worst slums in the city. Buildings were often abandoned by their owners and left to squatters. The city of Charleston eventually announced plans to demolish the entire street.

Susan Pringle Frost quickly took out another sizable loan from a friend and purchased six of the homes along the street. However, she had no funds left for restoring the houses this time. Instead, she simply held on to them to prevent their demolition.

READ MORE: Book Review: 100 Things to Do in Charleston Before You Die by Lynn and Cele Seldon

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Dorothy Porcher Legge

In 1895, Dorothy Haskell Porcher was born in Osceola, Florida. In 1920, she moved to Charleston to marry Judge Lionel Legge. Shortly after her arrival, she heard about the work conducted by the Preservation Society of Charleston.

In 1931, Legge purchased the Othniel Beale House at 97-101 East Bay Street from Susan Pringle Frost. The two homes were initially built as separate residences by Othniel Beale shortly after the Fire of 1740. During the restoration, Legge separated the house into the two original residences and kept 99-101 East Bay Street for herself.

Every house along Rainbow Row is painted a unique pastel color.

The Colonial Caribbean Paint Scheme

During the restoration, Legge made a choice that would have a profound impact on Rainbow Row. When considering an exterior color for the Othniel Beal House, she chose to go with a Colonial Caribbean color scheme. She painted her house at 99-101 East Bay Street a pastel pink, and the house next door a pastel blue.

The style quickly caught on. As the other homes along East Bay Street were purchased and restored, the color scheme was coopted. Soon, a street of pastel pinks, blues, and yellows lines East Bay Street. Rainbow Row, built for merchants, ravaged by the Civil War, fallen into slums, was reborn as one of the most popular destinations in Charleston.

READ MORE: First Timer’s Guide to Charleston, SC

Best Time to Visit Rainbow Row

There isn’t a bad time to visit Rainbow Row, but there are better times than some.

Traffic along East Bay Street gets busy later in the day. It’s the main thoroughfare for people heading to The Battery and White Point Garden. Foot traffic also increases throughout the day as visitors from the French Quarter starts to wander that direction.

READ MORE: Take a Walk on Wonders Way Across the Ravenel Bridge in Charleston, SC

The best time to visit Rainbow Row is early in the morning, about an hour after sunrise. The first rays of light each day are blocked by the buildings between Rainbow Row and the Cooper River, but about an hour later, the first sunlight of the day bathes the pastel colors. This can be a wonderful time of day to visit Rainbow Row before heading off into Charleston for the other thousand things you simply must see.

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