Della Watkins, executive director of the Columbia Museum of Art, chose to relocate from Roanoke, Virginia, to Columbia because she sees it as a happening city. “I never choose a job in a place I don’t want to make my home,” she says. “I could have gone anywhere, but I wanted to come here.”
She was first introduced to the city a few years ago when Zach Eisenman, her youngest son, attended the University of South Carolina. “I’d visit him here, but all I really knew about the city was where to find the best barbecue and the cheapest beer. That’s what a college kid teaches you,” she says with a laugh. She describes herself as very organized, an extrovert, a people person, a problem solver, tenacious, and caring. “I love people, and I love art,” says Della. “To have both of those combined as my job is a gift.”
In her 23-year career working with art museums, Della discovered a love for being involved with museum renovations such as the one the CMA had planned. A huge challenge, to be sure, but as in other places Della lived, it was not enough. “I love the challenge of simultaneous home and work construction projects, so I started looking for a place to fix up and make my own.”
With the help of Michel Moore of Coldwell Banker Realty, Della searched neighborhoods within a 2-mile radius of her new job. “I come and go a lot and want to be close to the city’s action,” she says. Michel found the right spot not far from Five Points — a 1980s-era townhome recently vacated by four college boys. “Michel told me I would need my imagination, and she was right,” says Della. The home was in desperate need of updating, with worn black tile in the living room, track lighting, and a small unkempt backyard. It was Della’s kind of home. She secured the services of Ken Baker of Carolina Traditional Homes and stripped it all the way down.
When renovating a home, Della makes sure to see the contractor or subcontractors every day, sometimes twice a day. “Ken and I were attached at the hip,” she says. Della used bright pink sticky notes to keep everyone in line. If a paint color was wrong or power outlets were misplaced, she would leave a sticky note to that effect. Good work received a sticky note as well, with a heart on it. Once there was a mishap involving a water line, and she had to come home during the day. A workman was waiting on the steps whom she had never met, so she introduced herself. “He said, ‘I’ve been dying to meet the sticky note lady,’” she says with a laugh.
She believes in getting into rhythm with the contractor, having a clear vision, clear detail, being there every day, and following up. If told something might not be finished on time, she refuses to accept it as an answer. “I say, ‘No, it needs to happen on time because I have the next group of workers coming in, so how can we make this happen?’ I’ve found that working this way keeps mistakes down and keeps the team motivated.”
She loves renovating spaces because of the impact when a project is finished. When construction was complete on her townhome, Della enlisted Steven Ford, former museum board member and owner of Steven Ford Interiors, to help with the fun stuff. “Steven is very art-minded, creative, and a good listener,” she says. “He’s passionate about what he does and has an amazing way of mixing antiques with contemporary objects.” The two worked well together.
“Della is a businesswoman so she’s very decisive, which is a good thing,” says Steven.
Della knows some might assume a museum director’s home is filled with expensive art by famous artists. “That’s not my interest,” she says. Instead, her home is filled with pieces of special importance to her. In most cases, she knows the artist personally. Touching a piece of pottery or sculpture brings those friends to mind. “We based everything we did on Della’s art collection,” says Steven.
Della did not want a formal living room, so Steven recommended a radial seating area in the square room that was accomplished with four spacious swivel club chairs surrounding an artsy brass and marble cocktail table. “Della wasn’t sure about using golds, but I told her the trend was coming in big,” says Steven. “We spread it in little dollops around the house.”
The room’s focal point is a Ben Cunningham two-panel geometric silkscreen featuring Della’s favorite shape, the circle, set in contrasting geometrics of vibrant red, orange, and purple. Della found it at Red Lion Antiques & Interiors. “The pattern of round and square shapes is repeated throughout the house,” Steven says. He placed a geometric-patterned credenza underneath the piece, then scattered red items from Della’s art collection around the room to blend. Special pieces in the room include a fused-glass bowl repurposed from a discarded Roanoke hospital door, a farewell gift to Della from a Taubman Museum of Art board member. Across the room is an intriguing wax figure from her former work at Virginia Museum of Art. “The studio instructor was going to melt it down after class, and I said, ‘No! I want it!’” she says. Across the room is a silkscreen on rice paper of a Japanese polo match, brought to Della by Sophie Fleischer, her aunt. Sophie found it on her travels while working for Perle Mesta, former United States ambassador to Luxembourg.
In the hallway, beside an antique wooden hall tree Della brought from her parents’ house, is a painting of Congaree National Park by a Marine stationed at Fort Jackson. “I bought it at an art walk,” says Della. On the opposite side of the hall hangs a vibrant still life painting by Robert Watkins, Della’s father. Past it, a doorway opens to the dining room decorated in neutral colors and featuring a round dining table and chandelier and slightly metallic floor to ceiling sheer drapes. A floral abstract oil painting Della purchased at a Columbia Museum of Art Contemporaries auction gives the room a pop of color. On the opposite wall, a bright red round lamp sits on a sleek black rectangular console table. The table’s bottom shelf hosts the antique wooden mailbox top Della found at Black Dog Salvage in Roanoke, her favorite salvage store in the world. Across from the dining room is a neutral-toned powder room. An irregularly shaped vase tops the black quartz vanity. “This vase came from an artist friend in Roanoke,” says Della. “The artist didn’t like it because it’s not perfect, but that’s what I like about it.” On the walls hang framed black and white photographs by neighbor Fred McElveen.
Moving through to the family room, gleaming hardwoods replaced the black tile. Blue and green sofa and chairs face a fireplace and carved wooden mantel. The mantel features a selection of Della’s favorite ceramic pots. “I love them so much, but I couldn’t figure out where to display them,” she says. “Steven is a genius. He arranged all of them up here and it’s perfect.”
Again matching round shapes with linear ones, Della placed a rectangular dining table into the bay window of her kitchen and topped it with a sputnik chandelier. Kitchen cabinets are black on the bottom, topped by a white quartz countertop dappled with black. The upper cabinets are white, accentuating the height of the ceiling. Joining the kitchen to the dining room is a butler’s pantry. One wall features a page from an antique book, a sketch of students in an art class. It is a nod to Della’s past as an art teacher prior to her museum days. A Columbia-appropriate finale to Della’s art collection is a fleur-de-lis triptych by Ernest Lee.
With the design help of Mark Cotterill of Grimball Cotterill Landscape Architects, Della created a charming oasis in her pocket garden. Planting benches line the landing that steps down onto stone pavers. At the bottom of the steps, a comfortable seating area awaits by the lime tree her children, Alan, Kallie and Zachary Eisenman, gave her for Mother’s Day. A low red brick wall defines planting beds backed by a shiplap fence. Alternating recessed fence sections offer the perfect habitat for Star Jasmine.
“I wanted no grass and a low maintenance plan. Mark suggested appropriate native plants,” says Della. While the garden has many beautiful features, the fountain is one of her favorites. It is made from a thick granite millstone. Water bubbles out from the center down onto large river rock. A whimsical metal frog is suspended over the fountain mid-leap. To the right of it, the linear line of the fence is softened by a round metal sculpture. Under the kitchen window is a round dining set topped by an apple-green umbrella. Behind it on the garden’s back wall hangs a large, round brass plate Della rescued from her parents’ basement depicting men of old sharing drinks. It is a perfect space for entertaining.
The work Della put into her home rewards her daily, especially in times of COVID-19. It gives her a beautiful place to work remotely. Like the circles that fill her home, Della likes to say that life is a completion of experiences. She intends for the experiences in her charge, both at home and at work, to be the best. “I’ve been in museum cities all over the world,” she says. “Columbia is on the move. As a resident and art museum director, I can feel it and see it. And I’m going to do my part.”