I am in the living room of a count and countess. There is an antique oil painting on the wall with tiny holes cut out at eye level. Everywhere I look there are inlaid marble and alabaster tables; carved busts of Italian nobility; rich, dark oil paintings; intricate chandeliers; hulking ceramic urns; and ornate furniture. Here is a 16th-century Italian palace in the middle of Charleston.
If it’s hard for you to believe such a place exists, it’s going to be even harder for you to believe that just a year ago this was a dilapidated apartment building.
Before we get to the transformation story, let me introduce you to the masterminds behind the metamorphosis, Donatella and Giulio della Porta. You may know the della Portas as the proprietors of The Hidden Countship, that lovely mecca for handmade Italian furnishings, clothing and art tucked away on Burns Lane in downtown Charleston. Yes, Giulio really is a count and Donatella really is a countess, owing to an aristocratic heritage that reaches back to the 1500s.
As a preservationist and designer, Giulio’s first mission was to restore all the homes and buildings on his ancestral land in Gubbio, Italy, and get the farms working again. Once that was complete (his remarkable results were featured in Architectural Digest), he and Donatella vacationed in Charleston and fell in love with the city. They relocated, bought two properties, restored them and then started all over again with this property.
Located in the Harleston neighborhood, their Queen Anne-style home was built in 1890 by Bernard Wohler. Original features include high ceilings, stained glass, a copper roof, turrets, and pocket doors that are over four feet wide. The couple found it in shambles.
“When I first saw this house, it was chopped up into apartments,” Donatella says. “The yard was a jungle. I told Giulio, yes, let’s help her. Let’s give her back her dignity.”
Donatella and I began our friendship during their first restoration, so I can tell you that although she feigns exasperation with Giulio’s renovation obsessions, she is just as devoted to the results, and shares his delightful and slightly mad sense of adventure.
The della Portas rehabilitated the entire three-story building from top to bottom in just four months by hiring a crew to live in the house and work alongside Giulio nonstop. The original floor plan was restored and improved. Floors and woodwork were brought to life, bathrooms were revitalized and a new kitchen was installed.
Upstairs there is a marvelous master bedroom and bath suite, comfortable guest rooms, and a third-floor hideaway complete with a shower with floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the Charleston skyline.
Outside, the overgrown jungle of a backyard became a well-mannered Italian courtyard complete with statuary, a reflecting pool, and a quaint structure meant to host intimate concerts or evenings of wine, cheese and philosophy.
“Work on a Queen Anne-style house was such an adventure,” Giulio says. “We learned so many new things. … The whole process was a lovely lesson on a style that we don’t have in Italy.”
Once the structural renovations were finished, the couple started installing their family heirlooms and treasures. Everything from the medallions on the ceiling to the fireplace mantel the chandeliers, furniture and art is from their ancestral home in Italy.
“Some people pack suitcases. We pack shipping containers,” Donatella says. “We are like snails, we carry our home with us.”
And that painting with the eyeholes? “This was a common way for aristocrats to spy on each other in Gubbio,” Donatella says.
Today, this formerly neglected Charleston beauty is regal and once again full of life. It’s a place for the couple to host magical dinner parties, house visiting dignitaries (who decline a hotel at the offer of a guest room here), and simply relax.
Robin Howard is a full-time freelance writer in Charleston. See more of her work at robinhowardwrites.com.