Perhaps you’ve noticed them while driving along South Primrose Drive or East Church Street in the Milk District. This community of 43 pastel-colored townhomes, known as Charles Towne, has a rather interesting history.
Who owned the city block bounded by Church and Pine Streets, Graham Avenue and Primrose Drive in the early days of Orlando has proven to be elusive. In the late 1800s, before any of these streets even existed, it was part of the “Joseph Bumby Homestead,” which included a substantial citrus grove. By the late 1950s, the land was the planned site of a grocery store. When this plan failed to materialize, the land was sold to Murphy Properties, Inc. on May 10, 1983, for $225,000.
Bill Murphy, a well-known local developer purchased the land, despite concerns about the price. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Murphy was engaged in the construction of one-story duplexes throughout the greater downtown area. Most had distinctive angled carports, and came to be known by city officials as, “Murphy Duplexes.” Murphy’s original “vision” for what would later become Charles Towne called for building 16 duplexes on the property.
A chance meeting in an elevator at the old Orlando City Hall changed Murphy’s idea for his planned development. City staffers Deena Wilde and Bruce Hossfield advised him that new zoning ordinances allowed for greater density in Downtown Orlando. Hoping that he might be swayed to build something “more interesting” than duplexes, they suggested two-story townhouses, which were rather uncommon in Central Florida at the time. Intrigued by the idea, Murphy hired local architect Alan Arthur to design a community of 43 townhomes.
Arthur, who still has an office on Robinson Street, was excited about the prospect of doing so because it offered a unique opportunity to design an entire city block. He especially liked the idea of being able to “hide” the garages behind each home so as to not be visible from the street. Adjacent to the garage, each home would also have a small “courtyard.” Initially, the Orlando Fire Department tried to block the layout of the driveway due to concerns about the ability of firefighting equipment to negotiate area. After some back-and-forth discussion, however, they eventually agreed to the design.
Paul Reep, an associate of Murphy’s, was instrumental in the development of the Charles Towne “theme” for the community. It started when he and his wife visited Charleston, South Carolina. One of the city’s most famous architectural landmarks, “Rainbow Row,” is a line of 18th-century commercial buildings built along East Bay Street to service the bustling wharfs and docks of the city’s port, the very center of Charleston’s commerce. Merchants had stores on the first floor and lived on the floors above.
After the civil war, this area of Charleston devolved into near-slum conditions. In 1920, the destruction of historic buildings inspired the forming of the Society for Preservation of Old Dwelling Houses. The buildings along East Bay Street became the focal point for the organization’s restoration efforts. In 1931, Dorothy Legge purchased and renovated the homes at 99 and 101 East Bay. She chose a Colonial Caribbean color scheme and painted the houses pink.
Other owners and future owners followed suit, using a variety of pastel colors to create the now-famous “rainbow.” Today, as private residences, these structures represent the very first style of Charleston homes and are great examples of the city’s adaptive use of historic buildings.
Several common myths surround the colors of “Rainbow Row.” One such story said the houses were painted in various colors so that drunken sailors coming in from the port could remember which houses they were to bunk in. Although there is no proof that this story is true, it is known that the area surrounding “Rainbow Row” served as the setting for the opera “Porgy and Bess.” The style and colors gave Reep an idea.
After returning to Orlando, he began working with the architect on what would later be named Charles Towne. He developed the various facades for the homes, including use of decorative concrete columns, coins and sconces. As part of the project, he returned to Charleston and visited the local historical society to research various color combinations used on homes in the original “Rainbow Row.” Reep also served as the on-site supervisor during the construction of Charles Towne.
Construction of the first Charles Towne homes began in late 1983. Marketing materials for the community touted “18th-century Styling in the Heart of Orlando.” Sales of the new homes were brisk, with many contracts signed before actual construction even began. The average price for each home was around $64,000. The first residents were George and Theresa Quinones, who took possession of their Pine Street home on June 1, 1984. Construction was completed in December 1985.
Almost 35 years later, the homes now sell for over $200,000, the colors remain unchanged, and the homeowner’s association works to ensure that the original concept of the community is preserved. As the Milk District continues to evolve, Charles Towne residents find themselves in the heart of an area that has become quite popular.
Richard Neilan is a 30-year resident of Charles Towne and a REALTOR at Colonialtown Realty.