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