In 1880, eighty-six-year-old Samuel Watkins–soldier, brick mason, brick manufacturer, and businessman–died. Reputedly the richest man in Nashville, Watkins left one hundred thousand dollars and a lot at the corner of High Street (Sixth Avenue) and Church in trust to the State of Tennessee to establish a school where free lectures on physical and natural science would be given to promote knowledge and provide the city’s poorer youth with the opportunity to acquire useful information. He stipulated that the basement and first floor of the building to be erected be rented to provide revenue for the school. He authorized three commissioners, appointed by the governor, to equip a second-floor library and a third-floor lecture hall. The three commissioners suggested by Watkins and appointed by the governor were James Whitworth, John M. Lea, and William P. Cooper.
The commissioners soon realized that Watkins’s required lectures were not reaching the intended audience. In 1889 they started the Watkins Institute Free Night School with three classes–Elementary, Primary, and Technical–which lasted for a term of four months. The overwhelming response prompted the commissioners to add additional subjects and classes to the curriculum as demand required.
Local sponsors of foreign immigrants brought them to Watkins Institute to take the elementary classes. Institute teachers soon organized separate Americanization classes to prepare immigrants for self-sufficient living and encourage them to become naturalized citizens.
In 1902 Ann E. Webber, a local business woman who was attracted by the school’s ability to adapt its curriculum to student needs, transferred two store buildings to the state. She directed the income from the buildings to the support of the night school in order to extend the term and increase the number and content of the technical courses.
From its beginning, art has played a key role at Watkins, first achieving prominence under the auspices of the Nashville Art Association. In 1910 Edwin Gardner was hired to teach in the Industrial Art Department and introduced his students to the fine arts, which have continued to flourish at Watkins.
The 1930s were the most successful years at Watkins. As the Great Depression took hold, people flocked to Watkins to take courses that would help them get a job, and the institute responded with a wide variety of courses. For the next forty years, Watkins Institute was the center for adult education in Nashville.
The high school received state accreditation in 1943. In 1976 a three-year professional course in interior design was organized, and an Associate degree in Art and Interior Design was approved by the state in 1979. In 1994 Watkins merged its schools of art and interior design, forming the Watkins Institute of Art and Design, which, in addition to an accredited interior design curriculum, offers programs in fine arts, graphic design, photography. In 1995 the Watkins Film School was added.
George C. Grise, “Samuel Watkins,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 6 (1947): 251-64