I’m going to be completely honest, I don’t understand why Rainbow Row is such a big deal. The line of colored buildings are pretty to look at the first couple times you see them. But there’s no long-term appeal of this historic Charleston tourist attraction.
I actually joked with a friend the other day that I am tempted to dress as a homeless person and hang out at Rainbow Row. I could then force people to pay me not to be in their pictures of the site. But that would go against one of the tenets of Charleston: being one of the friendliest places in the world.
So instead I’ll just write about Rainbow Row and give you a better idea of what to look for while you’re there. As you walk by, slowly. That first visit will be enough. I don’t hate Rainbow Row, I just think it’s not a place to linger for too long. There are so many other attractions around Broad Street to occupy your time, like the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist.
Alright, Fine. Add Your Photo to the Pile of Rainbow Row Images
Rainbow Row is arguably iconic Charleston. It is one of the most photographed locations in all Charleston, South Carolina. In my opinion, it is a place to stop and take one photo to put on Instagram to prove you’ve seen it.
Other Nearby Iconic Charleston Points of Interest
You can then continue your walk to nearby attractions like:
Rainbow Row dates back to around 1740. The line of Georgian row houses fronted the Cooper River when they were first built. There are a few local legends on why the houses were first painted such bright colors.
Why is Rainbow Row Painted in Rainbow Colors?
One theory relates to the various stores owned and operated on the street. When the homes were first built, merchants operated shops on the first floors of the houses. They then lived on the upper floors. Different colored homes allowed slaveowners to send illiterate slaves to the correct building for the days’ purchases.
Another theory for the colors of Rainbow Row was to help visiting drunk sailors. Different colors told them which building they were sleeping in when they stumbled back from the taverns.
Still another theory claims that European settlers from Barbados introduced the practice from their home islands of painting their homes bright colors. The practice helps keep the houses cool on the inside in the hot Barbadoan. And the practice seemed to work quite well for Lowcountry summers, as well.
Either way, there was a local tradition of this line of 13 homes on East Bay Street being painted bright colors.
Later History of Rainbow Row
The row of houses fell into disrepair after the Civil War.
They remained in a sorry state until Susan Pringle Frost, founder of the Preservation Society of Charleston, bought six of the houses. Her first purchases were 87 and 91 East Bay in 1920.
Ms. Frost was not capable financially of restoring all the houses. And yet, she did set the precedent for turning-around the neighborhood.
Dorothy Haskell Porcher Legge purchased the houses numbered 99 through 101 East Bay Street shortly after. She painted her houses in a colonial Caribbean theme, a practice her new neighbors followed when restoring their homes in the 1930s and ’40s.
Are Any of the Houses on Rainbow Row for Sale?
Today, Rainbow Row real estate is some of the most expensive real estate in Charleston. Condos in these homes, most of which share walls with their neighbors, can be worth millions of dollars.
Personally, I’d rather not spend all that money to have tourists gawk at my house all day, but I’m no fiduciary.
The South of Broad Neighborhood Around Rainbow Row
There is some appeal to living on that little stretch of housing north of Tradd Street and south of Elliot Street, though.
Taking a stroll around the South of Broad neighborhood
Exploring the local art galleries
Meandering up to the Dock Street Theatre across from the Huguenot church
All have a certain appeal. Plus, you’d have the pride in knowing that your home is among one of the most important examples of historic Charleston architecture. That’s big for a city well known for its architectural importance in American history. But still, that’s a lot of money, ignoring the money pit those historic houses are to maintain in their pristine conditions.
The Darker Side of Rainbow Row Charleston’s History
If you’re visiting Rainbow Row, Lowndes Grove, or any other attractions in historic downtown Charleston, don’t forget the obvious. Namely, that the wealth and culture of South Carolina was derived from the hard work of thousands of enslaved.
After you get your pictures and see how wealthy folks lived in historic Charleston homes, check out monuments to the former enslaved population. Nearby attractions include Ryan’s Mart, the only former slave-trading site still standing in Charleston.
An avid traveler, Colin Pearson loves to settle in an area and discover every little bit of that spot. And having lived on various places on three continents, Charleston, South Carolina, is one of his favorite places he's ever lived.