When JoAnna Watson travels, she looks for mementos that can be added to her collections at home, an array of artifacts and art, each of which has a story to tell — and Watson has traveled extensively.
Bookcases and shelves are lined with ancient carvings, whimsical dolls and books brought back as documentation of the places she has visited and of the people she has met. On the walls throughout her home are paintings, textiles and accessories relevant to the cultures that piqued Watson’s interest.
The arched French doors on the opposite side of the living room replicate the design of the colonnade and open onto a sunroom that overlooks the pasture, where a pair of horses lazily graze in the sun.
After completing her undergraduate degree at Washington University in St. Louis, Watson attended the University of Edinburgh in Scotland for three years, pursuing a doctor of science degree. Founded in 1582, the university was one of the first English speaking universities in the world with a campus that includes some of Scotland’s oldest buildings.
Surrounded by ancient history, Watson immersed herself in the fields of anthropology and archeology and indulged her curiosity by traveling to countries, all over the world, that honored and preserved their history.
Although she was dean of the university college at Mercer University in Macon until 1996, Watson taught anthropology and archeology until she retired from Mercer in 2012. One can imagine the number of students who left her class imbued with Watson’s fascination to know more about the mysteries hidden in the earth’s crust for centuries by natural and man-made disasters, or to pursue unanswered questions about the evolution of fauna and flora.
A REPOSITORY FOR THE COLLECTIONS
In 1996, Watson found acreage in northwest Macon that could accommodate the house she had sketched on a sheet of notebook paper, drawing on her travels and her vision for a modern interpretation of a Greco-Roman house — not the familiar Greek revival architecture seen all over the South, but a comfortable house for a family.
“After discussing my ideas and drawing for the house with (local architect) Charles Brittain, he recommended Gus Yarbrough as the draftsman to complete a working plan,” she said. She gives Yarborough high praise for refining her plan with proper proportions and for understanding the architectural details she wanted to incorporate.
Minoa, a city in Greece whose settlement dates to the Bronze Age, is known for the palaces that were built like small self-sufficient cities. However, there also were villas that were single-family homes. Watson had visited Greece several times and liked the open plans of the houses in Minoa, many of which are ruins left behind after the civilizations disappeared or were ousted. Eschewing the formality of the palace, Watson incorporated a center arched colonnade, supported by columns, that connects the living area on the southern side to the private quarters on the northern exposure, and opens into the large living room in the center of the house.
The arched French doors on the opposite side of the living room replicate the design of the colonnade and open onto a sunroom that overlooks the pasture, where a pair of horses lazily graze in the sun. The facade and recessed entrance to the house repeat the arches and are in line with the colonnade arches and with the French doors leading to the sunroom, across the living area. Although the front elevation is not symmetrical, the proportions of the asymmetrical arrangement are well balanced with a distinctive European ambiance.
There are reminders of Watson’s visits to far flung countries throughout the house. However, the study surrounds the owner with the most valuable and storied treasures. In one wall-hung case is an arrangement of mother goddesses, small primitive shapes in clay and stone that were revered by civilizations as early as the Paleolithic period, according to earliest recorded documentation, in the far east, near east, Europe and pre-Columbian America. The goddess represented fertility and creation — all of the riches offered by nature — and was feared for the destruction she could wreak on those who defied her.
Intricate designs painted on wood, found in the mountains of Peru, hang above another display case of native handmade dolls. The mere mention of some of the masks, woven textiles and regional charts, unrecognizable by today’s remapping of countries, can start a conversation about another hemisphere. Items that need to be added to the collection of memories are neatly stacked in one corner waiting for an available spot on the wall.
Hanging in the gallery of the colonnade is a life-size grave rubbing of a warrior felled in the 1300s in the second crusade. Grave rubbings are done with charcoal on paper, over three-dimensional carvings or images on gravestones. This warrior’s grave was adorned with a brass image of the fallen crusader. Watson’s grave rubbing is one of the last allowed on the brass-covered gravestone because of the damage caused by the numerous images made over the centuries.
According to Watson, the man’s heroics are told in the rubbing — his legs, crossed at the knees, mean he was a warrior; he is standing on a lion in this image, which means he fought and died in the crusades.
MAKING ROOM FOR THE HORSES
Like most girls, Watson fell in love with horses when she was 12 — but it was not just a passing fancy. Since then, she has ridden gaited, saddle bred and, in recent years, Tennessee walking horses, known for their easy gait and for comfortable trail riding. During construction of the home in 1996, she planned the stable close by, within sight of the southern end of the house, “so I can watch my horses having breakfast in the barn while I enjoy my coffee at the breakfast table.”
Saber, the larger of the two horses, was born on the property. His first days as a foal cavorting in the pasture are recorded in photographs on the wall of the kitchen seating area. Other members of the extended “family” have been nine rescue dogs, four barn cats and six horses, which have shared her home since 1997.
Hunt prints, paintings of horses and photographs of memorable times riding to the hounds or trail riding with friends cover the walls near the kitchen and back hall. Thanks to Watson’s son, a Macon attorney who lives nearby with his wife, she went to the Kentucky Derby, memorialized in a photograph of Watson standing in the paddock at Churchill Downs, wearing the requisite flashy hat. Among her favorite memories are the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta where Watson served as one of 30 mounted marshals.
Watson was a trailblazer at Mercer, which did not have a department of anthropology or archeology before her arrival. She has followed her instincts and her dreams around the world — through mountain ranges and into archeological digs — and built a house that translates the pages of her travelogue.
And, this renaissance woman calls Macon her home: “After my sister and brother-in-law realized I would never return to St. Louis, they moved to Macon. I could never leave this wonderful home.”