State House

Luck of the Draw

Peggy and Todd Watkins drew all the aces when they bet on a historic Charleston address with a notorious past.

Charlestonians love a good story and a good strong drink, and often, the stronger the libation the more colorful the story. The legend told of the house at 122 Tradd Street begins with a turn of the cards dealt from a smoky, whiskey-scented deck. The man with the losing hand sits dazed by misfortune while the victor rejoices at the sweet cup of triumph he has received. Into that cup, time added cubes of ice cold disdain for the poor loser and spiced things up with a liberal pour of danger and intrigue. History then dropped in two teardrops of tragedy and sprinkled the surface with the sparkle of a few celebrities. Shaken gently by earthquakes and natural disasters, the story then aged over a century to make it even more delicious.

Peggy and Todd Watkins had no notion of the property’s past when they first looked at the house in the heart of Charleston’s historic district. Looking to relocate to Charleston from Atlanta, the home built circa 1835 by prosperous rice exporter William C. Bee brought them straight to the table the moment they stepped onto the piazza. Only later did they learn that Bee is said to have come by the land on which it sits through a most unfriendly card game—later placing the house flush against the property line intentionally to spite the card game’s loser who lived next door to block his view and to cut off the flow of lovely natural light.
Now familiar with the story, Peggy explains that Bee later played for even higher stakes, founding a company specializing in foiling federal authorities by dangerously transporting goods during the Civil War’s harbor blockade. Sadly for the entrepreneur, history recalls that his two sons later fought and died in that war. His remaining child, a daughter, eventually came to own the house.

The house’s colorful history was simply a bonus to the couple.  They had long felt drawn to Charleston, and Peggy had a connection to the area through a great, great grandfather who was once a physician there. An internationally renowned artist, she and Todd visited annually for her participation in the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition, and they knew they would eventually like to retire to the Lowcountry. With Todd able to commute to his business in Atlanta, they decided to make it their new home base.

After a two-year search, the Watkinses purchased the house in 2012. Despite past renovations that left the kitchen, baths and a separate guest house dated, the couple saw the potential it held. Under the guidance of architect Laura Altman, they meticulously began a year-long restoration of the three-story, 5,233 square-foot house.

The main house’s grand rooms and original woodwork had been well-maintained, and it took only three months to complete that portion of the renovation. “We were so lucky that all the people who have lived here never made any major structural changes,” says Peggy. Each of the single house’s 18’ x 18’ rooms is now true to the period and striking in their attention to detail. A fertile imagination easily envisions Bee sipping smuggled Madeira in the second-floor study. “I can only imagine the conversations that must have been held in these rooms,” she adds.

The separate carriage house and kitchen-house, which had been both rental house and bed and breakfast, respectively, prior to their renovation, took the remaining nine months. The restored kitchen and butler’s pantry are now clearly the heart of the home. The original, large brick fireplace stands alongside custom-built cabinetry. Both cabinets and countertop are crafted from reclaimed wood dating from the late 1700s and early 1800s. The embossed copper ceiling completes the warm, tavern-like feel of the comfortable, functional room.

Off the kitchen, the original carriage house has been transformed into a guest suite, and a metalwork staircase, created by local blacksmith, Michael DuBois, ascends to Peggy’s art studio and loft. From the butler’s pantry opposite, a gracious dining room leads to the drawing room. Elements original to the house are mingled with antiques and artifacts the couple have collected in their travels and unique pieces Todd found at auctions, including an oversized sideboard and mirrors in the dining room from the estate of country singer, Tammy Wynette. Peggy’s timeless sporting and wildlife art is on point over fireplaces and sideboards and displays the diversity of her talent.

The sweeping piazzas offer up views over gardens arguably among the most stunning in the historic district. President Lyndon B. Johnson, and more recently, President and Mrs. Bill Clinton, are among the luminaries to have passed through the ornate gates to be entertained there, amongst the gardens created by well-known landscape architect, Loutrel Briggs, and beautifully restored by the couple.

The tall six-over-six windows of the house now glow in the light that legend tells was denied the unfortunate gambler next door. The gleaming victory cup it represents in the story told today by tour guides and enjoyed by those drawn to the city’s history and romance overflows with bits of fact and fiction that give it an undeniably unique flavor. The gamble for 122 Tradd Street may have once depended on the luck of the draw, but in the hands of Peggy and Todd Watkins, its future looks to be full of aces.

By Susan Frampton