Casa mia, casa tua
Italian couple brings European elegance to Holy City home
By Rob Young
Photos by Jim Somerset
Here’s how to renovate a house in four months: Have the crew live with you. Of course, it helps when the residents have a steeped background in architecture restoration, such as Donatella and Giulio Della Porta, owners of a Montagu Street in downtown Charleston.
Giulio has spent more than 30 years in architecture restoration, focusing on 16th and 17th century farmhouses. His first complex project involved the restoration of the homes and buildings on his family’s land in Gubbio, Italy, as he strived to turn the structures and land to a working farm again. His results were featured in Architectural Digest.
Donatella Cappelletti Della Porta worked for 26 years as a journalist, mainly as a crime reporter and editor for a major newspaper in Perugia, the capital city of Umbria, in central Italy. Like her husband, she developed a love for architecture early, inheriting the passion from her father and paternal grandfather. Her father was an accomplished artist who specialized in statuary molding techniques of ancient Rome.
“Work on a renovation is simply the most enjoyable thing to do for us,” Donatello says. “We enjoyed doing it all by ourselves. In the last 20 years, we did together 18 houses between Italy and Charleston. Of course, for Montagu Street, we had a great crew of builders and carpenters.”
Built in 1890 by Bernard Wohler in the Harleston neighborhood, their home is a wonderful example of Eastlake architecture, part of the Queen Anne style of Victorian architecture. The period era is well preserved, truly defining the home’s interior and exterior aesthetic. The tall ceilings, typical in post-Civil War buildings to help keep the home cool, provide lovely grandeur.
Stick framing makes possible the Victorian style seen throughout the house, including unusual shapes, turrets and asymmetric features. The original copper roof—in actuality a series of roofs—is composed of various shapes and sophisticated decorations. The turret window is a standout feature. The couple transported each piece of furniture—even the fireplace—from their Umbiran residence.
“We love every single room,” Donatello says. “It is also a house with beautiful light and the very tall ceilings make the ambience so great.”
‘A beautiful girl with a string of pearls’
The couple fell in love with the Holy City upon vacationing in the southeast United States toward the tail end of 2009.
“Our trip had to end in Savannah, but while visiting it, I read in an Italian guide a description that made us very curious about Charleston: ‘Savannah is a beautiful girl with a soiled face. Charleston is a beautiful girl with a string of pearls,’” Donatella recalls.
The Holy City’s historic district and downtown area made them believers.
“We drove to Charleston and since we are very much into architecture, the beauty of Charleston was just an incredible experience,” Donatella says. “We went back home and we spent Christmas time dreaming about the possibility of owning a house in downtown Charleston. Browsing online, my husband stumbled upon a charming little house on Queen Street for sale and we decided to buy it right away. Also, our son Valerio started to study in the U.S. (in Virginia) and we decided to be as close as possible to him.”
Umbria, their birthplace in Italy, is also home to the ancient city of Spoleto.
“We didn’t realize at first that Charleston was the famous city chosen by Maestro Gian Carlo Menotti to have the sister festival. That was another beautiful surprise.”
Bringing it together
On Montagu Street, the renovation was a laborious effort that miraculously only required a few months. Giulio and Donatello worked nonstop. So did the crew they hired to live and work in the house at the time.
The home was split into apartments at the time of purchase.
“When we saw the house for the first time, we could barely figure out the outdoor space. It was incredibly overgrown with weeds and the large trees everywhere,” Donatella says.
Since the renovation, the couple say they particularly enjoy the house layout and private garden space. “Before that house, we lived for four years downtown in a Greek revival home at 57 Laurens Street that we also renovated,” Donatello says. “It was interesting to work on a Victorian-style house, which is a style we don’t have in Italy. So, it was fun to discover its features and the richness of huge pocket doors and windows, and crown molding. Even the original hardware was amazing.”
The upstairs bedroom and bath suite are situated upstairs, along with guest rooms that boasts floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Charleston. The outdoor space no longer resembles a forest. In its place: a tidy Italian courtyard with a statuary and reflecting pool.
“I designed the garden by myself looking for extreme simplicity,” Donatella said.
Entertainers at heart
With a home like theirs, it’s no wonder the Della Portas enjoy entertaining.
“The house is incredibly great for parties. We have parties all the time, which actually is a constant in our lives,” she says. “One of the reasons we fell in love with Charleston was the warmth of the society. The warmth of the people created the magic. After the first year, we had so many friends that we became addicted to our life in Charleston.”
Champions of their home country, the Della Portas own The Hidden Countship, a downtown Charleston boutique set on Burns Alley that sells curated Italian products, such as jewelry, linen, handbags, scarves, clothing and art. Every item in the shop is handmade.
The couple also has supported events such as Charleston’s Nuovo Cinema Italiano Festival, and hosted events for Italian playwright and actor Massimiliano, director Finazzer Flory and even Florentine Princess Giorgiana Corsini.
Of course, entertaining the city’s largest festival each spring is a source of pride in their Italian heritage.
“We host so many parties in our garden, opening the doors to Spoleto Festival after-parties and many others,” Donatella said.