Charleston Architectural Myths

Prior to our recent visit to Charleston, I decided to do a little reading to find out where some of the better spots were for photographing (as if ANY spot on the little peninsula is not a perfect spot!) The research led me to two Charleston tidbits….the Rainbow Row houses and the Charleston houses.

I had some cursory knowledge of “Charleston houses’ as I’ve seen some new housing developments in the area being marketed as such. Having now seen them in their ‘natural’ surroundings and having read more about them, it all makes sense now! Here are some photos of a few of such homes in Charleston and some of the myths and facts surrounding them afterward.

As you can see from the photos, the predominant architecture of these homes is narrow and tall…but why would anyone not prefer a more sprawling footprint for their property?

First of all….the construction of Charleston single houses dates back to near the 1860’s origins of Charleston when it was actually named Charles Town. This single house is very often (but not always) identified by the long porches, called verandas that ran the length of the homes. The interiors of Charleston single houses, however, remained quite consistent with nearly always just one room wide and two or more rooms long.

The common myth as to why homes were built this way was to avoid paying the high taxes associated with very wide frontage on the street which makes perfect sense given the tax structure. This however, was not at all the case. Early Charleston was built on a small peninsula between rivers in order to maximize their maritime trade business. Additionally, Charleston was a walled city in order to protect itself from attack. Given the scarcity of land, it was deemed necessary to build up instead of out in order to maximize the efficiency of the limited land.

Equally important is the fact that Charleston exists in a sub-tropical environment. If you’ve visited in mid August…you’ll know what that means. The construction of the homes in this fashion afforded them maximum ventilation and allowed the homes to remain reasonably cool throughout the hot summer months. You’ll also notice that Charleston is built on a grid system with homes laid out east-west or north-south. What this results in is the porches are always on the south or west sides to protect from late afternoon sun, when Charleston is at its hottest.

Rainbow Row Houses

OK….aside from the obvious colors of the rainbow….why is it called ‘rainbow row’? First off, let’s explain that these homes are located on East Bay St, along the battery at the southern tip of the peninsula. A little history first, Rainbow Row dates back to about 1740 and these homes used to belong to merchants who owned the stores on the ground floor and lived above them. After the Civil War, this area was rather run-down and considered a slum. That all changed in 1931 when Dorothy Porcher Legge and her husband Judge Lionel Legge purchased the section of houses on East Bay Street. The Legges painted them a light shade of pink and that trend continued as new owners took over some of the other buildings and painted them other shades of pastels.

But the question still remains…why colorful pastels? Well…since they are all facing east towards the river where so much of the maritime activity took place, one theory had it that the homes were painted brightly so that the drunken sailors could more easily find their way home! Any additional thought was that the various colors were the merchants’ way of indicating what types of items were sold in their businesses. Finally, and what might be the most convincing argument, is that given the hot and humid summers of Charleston, the soft, pastel colors helped dissipate some of the heat in the buildings. Whatever the reason, however, Rainbow Ray is a must see on your walking tour of Charleston.

Hopefully, these little tidbits may have added to your arsenal of worthless trivia knowledge that you’ll never use at your next barroom trivia contest! 🙂

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