Tag Archive | Savannah

Discovering Savannah: Mercer Williams House Museum

Mercer Williams House Museum

On the last day of our Savannah trip, we visited the Mercer Williams House Museum. The 1994 non-fiction book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, written by John Berendt, is based on events that occurred there in the 1980s. The story is about Jim Williams, an antique dealer and restorationist, who’s on trial for the murder of his assistant. There were four trials. Mr. Williams was finally acquitted; the jury believed it was self-defense. There is also a film based on the book, which was directed by Clint Eastwood and released in 1997.

Before we got inside the house, we bought our tickets at the gift shop. The gift shop was once the carriage house for horses. Unfortunately, the tour guide informed us that no photographs are allowed on the tour. We first entered the beautiful garden, which was designed by Jim Williams. Plants bloomed with pollen dusting some surfaces. There are two levels of raised terraces built with Savannah grey brick, and the walkways are slate. Some of the plants include banana trees, palms, ginger lilies, ferns, grapevines, tea olive, and Carolina cherry. Also planted in the mix is a sweet shrub bush from Mr. Williams’s grandmother’s garden.

After going through the large entryway at the back of the house, we entered the dining room. Many portraits are displayed on the walls. Most of the furniture and art in the house are from Mr. Williams’s private collection. The artwork includes 18th and 19th century English and American portraits and Chinese export porcelain. Some portraits are of people who used to live in Savannah. General Hugh Mercer (great-grandfather of the songwriter Johnny Mercer) bought the land and had John S. Norris, an architect from New York, draw up plans. From the museum brochure: “In his design for Mercer House, Norris added Renaissance Revival elements to his standard mix of Greek and Italiante. The house and carriage house are constructed of deep rose-colored bricks called Philadelphia Reds, which were brought to Savannah aboard barges towed by sailing vessels. Using a symmetrical interior design, Norris combined 15-foot ceilings with floor-length windows and anchored the first floor plan with a 60-foot entrance hall that retains its original ceramic tile made in England at Stoke-on-Trent.” Construction began in 1860 but was interrupted by the Civil War. The house was finally completed around 1868. The Mercer family never lived there. The property was sold to John Randolph Wilder, a cotton merchant. After Wilder moved on, the Shriners used the building for their meetings. The members used to roller skate up and down the entryway! The floor tiles are original and remain in good shape. The house was vacant for 10 years and was about to be sold to the city. Fortunately, Jim Williams purchased it in 1969 and saved it from becoming a parking lot. It took him two years to restore the house. Jim Williams saved over 50 houses in Savannah and the Lowcountry.

As we left the dining room, the guide pointed out the 15-inch-wide door jambs. He also explained how the house is designed to cool, by air flowing up from the basement. We admired the beautiful spiral staircase but were not able to climb it. The Fire Department doesn’t allow visitors upstairs, because there is only one way down. When we entered the living room, the guide told us how, at an early age, Mr. Williams took in old furniture, fixed it up, and re-sold it. That is how he began creating his fortune. There are a lot of beautiful period pieces to admire. During the filming of the movie, Clint Eastwood had the original furniture replicated, with the originals going into storage, because he didn’t want any of the original items to get damaged.

We also saw Mr. Williams’s office. The original shutters still hang in the windows on the main floor, with no heavy drapes collecting dust. There are collections of Audubon engravings, ivory tusks and shells from Cabbage Island, an island Mr. Williams owned for a time. Many trophied stuffed animal heads peeked at us with glassy eyes! Mr. Williams had a cat for many years and scratch marks can still be seen on some of the furniture. We didn’t see the kitchen and there was no mention of it. My guess is that it’s adjacent to the dining room, but I didn’t think to ask at the time. The bathroom is quite large and the walls are covered in red, velvety wallpaper.

At the end of the tour, the guide informed us that Mr. Williams died of a heart attack in 1990, at the age of 59, eight months after his acquittal. We wondered if it was caused by the stress of the trials. Jim Williams’s sister, Dorothy Williams Kingery, currently owns the house. Her daughter, Susan, helps manage the museum.

The book and movie made tourism flourish in Savannah. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil “became a New York Times Best-Seller for 216 weeks following its debut and remains one of the longest-standing New York Times Best-Sellers.” My Book Club read it back in the day, but I don’t remember too much about it. My only memory is that many parties took place in the house.

Other beautiful homes in the neighborhood.

Monterey Square – Happy Spring!

Be sure to take a carriage ride, if you go! We hope to visit the “Hostess City of the South” again.

Wherever you go becomes a part of you somehow. ~Anita Desai


Discovering Savannah: Historic Places and People

Lafayette Square

On the third day of our Savannah trip, we found more historic places and learned about interesting people.

This was Juliette Gordon Low’s home, which is across from Lafayette Square. Mrs. Low lived in this house when she founded Girl Scouts. “Juliette Gordon Low (1860–1927), also affectionately known by her nickname “Daisy,” founded Girl Scouts of the USA in 1912. She imagined a movement where all girls could come together and embrace their unique strengths and passions—and as Girl Scouts has done since, she made that dream a reality.”

I never knew her nickname was Daisy! In case you didn’t know, a Daisy is the first stage of being a Girl Scout.

Behind the home is the first Girl Scout headquarters.

The Girl Scout plaque reads:

“The house adjacent to this building was the home of Juliette Gordon Low at the time she founded Girl Scouting in the United States, March 12, 1912. Formerly the carriage-house and stable of the Low Mansion, this building became that year the first Girl Scout headquarters in America.

At the death of Mrs. Low in 1927 the Founder of Girl Scouts of the USA willed the original headquarters to the Girl Scouts of Savannah (now the Girl Scout Council of Savannah, Georgia, Inc.). This building has been continuously used for Girl Scouting longer than any other in this country.”

Another famous person, the author Mary Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964), grew up across from Lafayette Square. Here is a picture of her childhood home.

Did you notice from the photo above that today is Mary Flannery O’Connor’s Birthday?

Flannery O’Connor wrote two novels and 31 short stories. Over the years, I’ve stumbled upon articles about her. Many times, I’ve thought about checking out her books at the library, but I never got around to it. Later that day, we went to the Book Lady Book Store on Liberty Street. As I walked in, I felt as if I was in the middle of a Harry Potter movie. Old books are lined up side-by-side and up and down the shelves. The first book I was drawn to though was a brand new copy of “The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor,” my one and only purchase. Later that afternoon, I sat in the hotel to read the first short story, because I thought it would be cool to read part of her book while being in her hometown!

The title of the first story is “The Geranium.” Ms. O’Connor’s writing was not what I expected, but the story definitely has a moral. Flannery O’Connor wrote how people spoke at the time. The tale contains words most of society frowns upon these days, but I will give the rest of the stories a try. I know I will learn something.

While trying to find out more about her, I came across a PBS documentary titled “Uncommon Grace: The Life of Flannery O’Connor.” If you’d like to watch it, click here. Her first brush with fame was when she received attention from the news at the age of six.  “Pathé News filmed “Little Mary O’Connor” with her trained chicken and showed the film around the country. She said: ‘When I was six I had a chicken that walked backward and was in the Pathé News. I was in it too with the chicken. I was just there to assist the chicken but it was the high point in my life. Everything since has been an anticlimax.’” You can watch the “Do You Reverse” 1932 film, by clicking here.

Doesn’t she sound like a hoot? I’m looking forward to reading more of her stories. Sadly, she passed away at the age of 39 from lupus. Her doctors told her she had five years to live, but she fought and lived 10 years after her diagnosis. Writing short stories helped bring income in more quickly than writing novels. The documentary states that her stories are timeless since they all have a parable.

Another adventure that day was when we visited a cemetery.

The entrance to Colonial Cemetery. “Erected by Savannah Chapter Daughters of American Revolution 1913. In memory of Patriots of War – American Revolution 1775-1783. Resting in Colonial Cemetery.”

Colonial Park – “This cemetery, the second in Colonial Savannah, was the burial ground for the city from about 1750 until it was closed against burials in 1853.” There are a lot of “distinguished dead” who I am not familiar with. A few very alive people were walking around. A lot of the markers were very difficult to read. The engraving has worn off over the years. Funny how the place did not seem as creepy as the Savannah River, which we visited the day before.

That night, we went to the Public Kitchen & Bar, which ended up being our favorite restaurant.

I had the grilled salmon filet, with garlic whipped potatoes, grilled asparagus and adobo cream sauce. My husband had the pork chop with the same sides as mine. We topped it off with the chocolate pecan pie, with berries and cream.

The next day we headed home, but we had time to tour a mansion! Stay tuned…

I find that most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one. ~Flannery O’Connor

One of America’s Most Haunted Cities

Mirabelle’s (to the right)

On the second day of our Savannah trip, we found Mirabelle’s, a little pop-in restaurant, where we ordered a waffle and a panini at the counter. Many people enjoyed eating their breakfast or having a cup of coffee inside or on the patio. The restaurant is across the street from the Cathedral. Hubby enjoyed the Lemon Zinger, a waffle with lemon-lavender curd crème, served with raspberry and cardamom jam and whipped cream. I liked the Tacchino, a panini with honey roasted turkey, applewood bacon, Swiss cheese, fig mustard, arugula, pressed on sourdough. Once we found this place, we kept going back every morning. It was a short walk and reasonably priced.

We were happy we didn’t get a car, since we were able to walk everywhere. There’s a free shuttle, called the “dot” that runs along Drayton and Whitaker Streets. The dot goes to the Savannah River, by or near the Squares, and travels pass Forsyth Park, with many stops along the way. After breakfast, we decided to wait for the shuttle. It’s supposed to swing by every 10 minutes. We waited about five minutes, without seeing one of the purple and green buses and hoped we could catch a ride later. We took a short walk to Bull Street, where we could discover and walk through more Squares. It was only a 15-minute walk to the Savannah River.

The closer we got to the river, the more busy it became with traffic and people visiting shops. After we crossed Bay Street, we walked down steep stairs to find a dark and creepy tunnel. The cobblestones are tricky. People need to watch their step as a few have come undone and are naturally bumpy. The river was calm and there weren’t many boats cruising by. River Street is over 300 years old. “The port was once the primary location for incoming goods and was the leader in exporting cotton. Today’s shops, bars, galleries and restaurants that line River Street were once cotton warehouses. Initially, the stones that make up the 200-year-old cobblestone streets were ballast material on ships that sailed into the Savannah harbor.”

We walked along the river and explored a few shops on the way.

Only one ship was docked close by that day – the American Independence.

When we headed back to our hotel, we walked up what is called the “Stone Stairs of Death,” which has 33 historic steps on the western end of River Street. There’s a railing to hang on to, so it wasn’t as bad as what the name makes it out to be! Later in the afternoon, we ended up walking back to River Street for dinner at the Olympia Cafe. The food was served practically before we sat down! I had Dolmades (stuffed grape leaves) and Hubby had a Gyro Dinner. The food was very good, and we ate it up before I thought about taking pictures of our delicious meals.

On the way back to the hotel, we saw the dot bus heading towards us. We decided to hop on and got a nice tour of the city. We got a little nervous, because we thought the bus turned by Forsyth Park. However, the bus kept going and going. I wished I had my map with me, but there is an app to download. Now is not the time to download an app, I thought to myself and wondered how much of a charge was left on my phone battery. Anyway, the bus finally took a left turn, and we ended up getting back to our hotel safe and sound. That bus ride spooked me a little, and I couldn’t help noticing the creepy feeling I had after visiting River Street.

They say Savannah is one of America’s most haunted cities. Savannah has had its share of disastrous events. Many battles have taken place there, “From the Siege of Savannah in 1779, …to the American Civil War’s Savannah capture by General T. Sherman.” Residents also suffered through the 1820 Yellow Fever epidemic, which took a tenth of Savannah’s population. There was also a terrible fire on January 11, 1820. “A rapidly spreading fire broke out in a stable. The blaze destroyed 500 buildings before dwindling that afternoon. But this wasn’t the first catastrophic fire Savannah endured. In 1796, a deadly fire ravaged the city, destroying 229 houses and 146 outbuildings.” Plus, there were “mysterious murders” and “savage slavery” that took place in the historic city. After reading about these facts, it’s not surprising to learn it is one of America’s most haunted cities. If interested in learning more, click here.

I felt better after getting back to the hotel where it was quieter and where it felt calmer. After doing a little research about haunted hotels in the area, I found out that the DeSoto Hotel only has a minimal amount of paranormal activity!

Stay tuned for Day 3…

America’s First Planned City

My husband and I enjoyed our recent visit to Savannah, Georgia. We stayed at the DeSoto Hotel. The hotel is quite charming and is located in the Madison Square neighborhood. The City of Savannah has 22 Squares that are parks with monuments and also help to name the adjoining neighborhoods. The Squares are only a few blocks apart and run through the center of the downtown area. “Savannah is known as America’s first planned city. General James Edward Oglethorpe laid the city out in a series of grids that allowed for wide open streets intertwined with shady public squares and parks that served as town meeting places and centers of business. Savannah had 24 original squares; 22 squares are still in existence today.”

The first DeSoto Hotel was built in 1890 on the site of General Oglethorpe’s Barracks and is named after the General. The current hotel was completed in 1968. The terra cotta artwork of DeSoto pictured above is from the first hotel. The original crystal chandeliers, which still shine brightly, can also be seen pictured above. The newer version of the hotel is now considered historic!

We enjoyed the view from our room! On the other side of the bridge is South Carolina.

We were greeted by beautiful music when we visited the Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Baptist, which is located in the Lafayette Square neighborhood. There were many people visiting. The docent said she couldn’t give tours while the organist was playing, but she talked to us about the stained glass windows, which were installed around 1904. When the church was first built, a lot of the parishioners didn’t know how to read. The windows tell stories about the saints. She talked about how to recognize the saints by looking at what they’re holding or carrying. She pointed to a window of St. Cecilia carrying the harp, because she’s the patron saint of music. The docent also told us about the fire that occurred in 1898. The Cathedral was destroyed, except for the outside walls and the two spires. The Rectory and St. Vincent’s Academy were saved. The cause of the fire was never determined, but it was speculated that the boiler might have malfunctioned. Many donations were received from around the country, and the parishioners finished re-building the church in 1899. The large baptismal font, located near the entrance of the church, was carved in Carrara, Italy and weighs 8,000 pounds. We enjoyed seeing the beautiful architecture of the building, which is built in the French gothic style.

The organ is located in the balcony. The sun shined too brightly to capture the details of the Great Rose Window, which is directly above and behind the organ. St. Cecelia is in the center holding her harp while angels play different instruments around her.

We took a short walk and found Chippewa Square where about 80 percent of the movie Forrest Gump was filmed. “The Battle of Chippewa was an important skirmish in the War of 1812. This square took its name from this battle. The centerpiece for this beautiful square is a Statue of General James Oglethorpe, the founder of the colony of Georgia.” We thought the bench featured in the movie would be at the Square, but it turns out it was a movie prop and is now located in the Savannah History Museum. We walked by the Historic Savannah Theatre, which is the oldest theatre in the United States. Mama Mia was showing at the time.

We walked until we found Forsyth Park, which is 30-acres and named after Georgia’s 33rd governor. “The city’s most famous fountain—installed in 1858 and modeled after the fountains at the Place de la Concorde in Paris—crowns the northern edge of the park…” It was fun to see people playing frisbee, strolling along with their children, walking their dogs, and enjoying the beautiful, warm weather.

On the way back to our hotel, we found Saints & Shamrocks, a cute gift shop. The shop caught my eye, because it had a little yard flag with a St. Patrick’s Day theme sitting out on the sidewalk. I knew my daughter would love to have it for her yard, yet I wondered if the little pole at her house was buried in snow. I decided to buy it anyway. The sales ladies could see that my husband wanted to get going, but they encouraged him to have a seat in the back, while I took my time walking around the place. Before I knew it, I had a handful of gifts for our children.

We walked about three miles our first day, and my feet were sore! Sometimes one Square looked like another Square, and I think we might have walked in circles a couple of times! That afternoon, Hubby went to the pool, which is on the second floor of the hotel, while I took a nap. 🙂

That night, we went to Treylor Park-Hitch for dinner. We only had to walk down the block and across the street to get there. I decided to try something different. We saw chicken pot pie on a couple of menus, so we thought it must be a popular item. The pot pie was prepared quite differently than what I’m used to – it’s cooked inside of a tortilla. It was a bit spicy and quite tasty. My husband enjoyed a Patty Melt. Both items were served with cooked cabbage. Somewhere during our day, we discovered that Savannah is one of the most popular destinations to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day! That might be why the restaurant served cooked cabbage that day.

We both thought the area was fun, with its 120 restaurants, 22 Squares, and southern hospitality (everyone was so polite!). We couldn’t wait to go exploring the next day. To be continued…