Rainbow Row Part I - Othniel Beale House


Mention "Rainbow Row" and most people know you're talking about Charleston. This colorful row of early structures extends from 79 East Bay Street at the corner of East Bay and Tradd to 107 East Bay. On my bus and walking tours, Rainbow Row is the one part of the city that everyone wants to see. The next few posts will concentrate on several of the Rainbow Row houses.

With their common walls and, in some cases, a shared roof, this row of houses brings to mind the medieval character of early Charles Town. The earliest of these structures date to 1740, probably built immediately after the great fire of 1740. At the time, these structures overlooked the Cooper River waterfront of the fourth largest largest port in America.

The structures on this row were originally built to house a business on the ground floor with living quarters on the upper floors. As there were no inside stairs from the business to the upper floors, one had to go around the block to access the residence by an outside staircase behind the house. 

Colonel Othniel Beale, originally from Massachusetts, built four of these structures across from his wharf; these now comprise 95-101 East Bay Street. 99-101 East Bay Street, circa 1740, were originally used together as Beale's house with two separate storefronts on the ground floor. This structure now stands out as the pink house with the wrought iron balcony. It was the first house on this row to be restored in the 1930s.

In the 1920s, this area had become a slum, and the buildings continued to fall into disrepair. After the Civil War, Reconstruction, the 1886 earthquake, and hurricanes, Charleston was poor and a lot of our historic buildings were in danger of being demolished. Susan Pringle Frost, founder of the Preservation Society of Charleston, purchased at least one of these row houses with money borrowed from a DuPont friend.

Dorothy and Lionel Legge bought 99-101 East Bay and restored it. For example, the wrought iron balcony is recycled from a house on Elizabeth Street, and the interior cypress walls had many coats of paint removed to reclaim the beauty of the original wood. The garden out back was designed by famous landscape artist Loutrel Briggs. Dorothy Legge decided to paint this house a color she liked, a Caribbean pink. Others followed her lead, purchasing other buildings on this row, restoring them and painting them bright colors.

Lionel Legge, born in Charleston, was an attorney and later an Associate of Justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court. He married Dorothy Haskell Porcher in 1920. For most of her childhood, Dorothy lived at Mulberry Plantation on the Cooper River where her father planted rice. Her paternal ancestry was French Huguenot, and her maternal great-grandfather was Reverend John Bachman, pastor of St. John's Lutheran Church on Archdale Street and good friend of John James Audubon. In Charleston, this kind of heritage is referred to as "well-connected."

In any event, love of Charleston and her historic buildings came naturally to Dorothy; she continued to be a leader in historic preservation until her death in 2000.

We'll look at some other Rainbow Row houses next week.