Monday, December 12, 2011

Notable Homes: Mercer House

Mercer House, Savannah, Georgia.
Some readers of The Devoted Classicist may not think they have heard of Mercer House in Savannah, Georgia, or its most famous owner James Arthur Williams.  It is one of the most beautiful of the mid-nineteenth century Italianate mansions in town and the late Mr. Williams was a well-known antiques dealer whose shop was in the carriage house.  I first heard the tale of the man and the house related in a fascinating story at a dinner party given by the late Mills Lane, 4th, at his Manhattan apartment.  (Mills was the founder of the Beehive Press and a noted philanthropist, especially for preservation causes in Savannah, but that is another story).  Mills knew the story well, of course, but the guest who had the rest of us so enthralled that evening in 1994 was John Berendt, a former editor of "New York" magazine and columnist at "Esquire."  And the true story of High and Low Society in Savannah entwined with sex and a fatal shooting was about to be published in his book MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL.
The book cover.  Photo from Google Images.
Jim Williams, 1930-1990, began to buy, fix-up, and sell historic homes beginning in the mid-1950s.  Over a period of 33 years, he renovated 50 houses in Savannah and the surrounding Low Country area.  Williams bought Mercer House in 1969.
James "Jim" Arthur Williams.
Photo:  Sotheby's.
Mercer House was designed by New York architect John S. Norris, who also designed the Savannah Custom House, the Andrew Low House, the Green-Meldrim House, and the Unitarian Church.  Construction began in 1860 for General Hugh W. Mercer, the great grandfather of songwriter Johnny Mercer, but was halted during the Civil War.  Newspaper accounts of the period reported that wood that could be removed was done so to create temporary shacks for Union soldiers.  (General Sherman made his headquarters in the Gothic Revival Green-Meldrim house, now open as a museum, and his officers commandeered many more houses in town).  After the war, Mercer House was finally completed for John Wilder in 1868.  But it had fallen into disrepair by the time Williams bought it;  it had been vacant for 10 years after being the club house for the Shriners.
The Entrance Hall of Mercer House.
The original tile floor for the Entrance Hall remained, as did the semi-circular staircase and skylight.  But many interior architectural details were created by Williams during a two-year renovation.
The staircase and skylight with lens at Mercer House.
The Drawing Room, looking towards the front of the house.
The Drawing Room, showing the fireplace on the side of the house.
Looking into the Music Room from the Drawing Room, and into the Library beyond.
Williams was acquitted of the murder of his some-time companion Danny Hannsford after an unprecedented Georgia record of four trials.  Finally the fatal 1981 shooting was ruled a lover's quarrel and not pre-meditated murder.  Just a few months after the acquittal, Williams died of a heart attack.
The Library, the scene of the fatal shooting.
The big-screen adaptation of the story was directed by Clint Eastwood and released in 1997.  Kevin Spacey played Williams; Jude Law, Hannsford; and John Cusack, the magazine journalist.
The Dining Room of Mercer House.
The house is currently occupied by Williams' sister Dorothy Kingery, a doctor of sociology, who opens the house to the public for tours, $12.50 for adults and $8.00 for students.  For more information about visiting, see the website. 
Jim Williams' bedroom at Mercer House.
Although the interior decoration may not be considered up to par with designers such as Albert Hadley or Stephane Boudin, there were some interesting individual furnishings and they will be featured in the next post of The Devoted Classicist.  These photos, unless noted otherwise, were featured in "Architectural Digest" magazine and can be seen in the 1979 book THE WORLDS OF ARCHITECTURAL DIGEST, HISTORIC INTERIORS.

There is currently a house for sale in Savannah, also designed by the architect John S. Norris, and it is featured on a recent post of My Little Housing Blog.  Be sure to leave a comment as the blog's author, writing from Finland, would really be interested in your thoughts.


  1. One of my favorite house styles. This example has some interesting Southern touches, such as the wrought-iron balconies. I especially admire the interior, as it is full of interesting architectural features without being overly ornate. In other words, this would be a comfortable house to live in.

  2. What I would have given to have been invited to one of the "Bachelors Balls" given in this house in ite heydey. Fascinating! Reggie

  3. Parnassus, the spatial proportions combined with tall doorways and long windows make a great combination.

  4. Reggie, apparently many parties, such as at this time of year, were given in tandem, with a genteel version followed by a raunchy one. Much different from the black tie galas you are referring to of course, but not requiring any embellishments in the telling of the story either.

    1. so beautifully put.

    2. EEK! I just read the comments!

      The Duchess! She must join us!

  5. Well how nyce indeed dahhling that you are featuring a house in my garden...such an infamous house at that! Very good post. And there are still houses by Mills Lane for sale that have never sold since he, restored is not the correct word really, "preserved" them is more befitting. My good friend Baronesa de Alicante actually lives on one of his houses on a square, all she has ever done to it is add a beautiful pool in the garden but otherwise it is intact as he "preserved" it originally.

  6. I have always been interested in historic houses and this one certainly could tell a long tale. I've sent your post to John, maybe he'll leave us some interesting comments.

  7. MLHB, I think our readers will enjoy comparing the similarities and differences between this house and the one you featured on your blog.

    HRH, Savannah is such a beautiful city, filled with wonderful houses. I hope to feature more in the future.

    Liz, this house definitely falls in the If Walls Could Talk category!

    Lib, thanks for commenting.

  8. I thought these interiors were so good when first published---and they've held up well indeed.

    I do remember my surprise when the book came out---though I can't imagine why I was so surprised---it is not as if I hadn't long since known and experienced the decadence behind many a pretty facade...

  9. DED, I think the interior design really benefits from the "Good Bones" of the architecture. But considering the photos are about 35 years old, the design aspect was fairly solid. I would be interested in your thoughts after seeing the next post. Although we do not know how much the settings were rearranged for the auction presentation, there are changes in the interiors. As an antiques dealer, I am guessing that at least some of these pieces were part of his stock, but you might have thoughts on that, too. Thank you for commenting.

  10. Reading this makes me realize I need to rectify the fact that I've never been to Savannah.

  11. I truly could move into the rooms as diepicted in these photographs. Well, at least for an extended vacation. I have saved the article from the magazine as the house and the interiors, one of my most favorites. I do not think any designer today could improve upon them.

  12. I love this house, the book, the movie, the Mercer music, everything. One of my favorites. So glad you posted on this and I will make sure I visit next time I'm in Savannah.

    As a matter of fact, it would be fun to get a group going in the Spring, with Blue and Reggie...what a blast!

    1. Lindaraxa!

      wait a second! this is your idea! Fabulous idea!

      Good grief! We need someone to plan this!

      (I am good at decorating......not good at planning!) How fun would this be??

      Let's get started!

  13. MNH, it is a beautiful city. The plan with the squares is truly remarkable.

    J, it is well worth a visit.

    L, forget those fantasy sports camps; that would be my idea of the most exciting gathering of talent! Food, social traditions, interior design, and historic architecture: that is a Dream Team list if there ever was one!

  14. All fascinating- house a beauty, Savannah is a haunting place, everything the South is rumored to be and envied for- I would love to take this tour-and go to SCAD. The interiors are truly lovely and the good bones always help-but think of the good bones that have been skewed by lacy antimacassars and bad, bad very bad furniture.

  15. Looks like "one room deep"!


  16. Another Devoted ReaderJuly 11, 2013 at 1:32 PM

    Italianate is my favorite style and the Mercer house is one of the best! These rooms are gorgeous and timely, with the spirit of the original house. If one wanted, however, to be faithful to mid-Victorian style, then those lacy antimacassars, heavy drapes, swags even on fireplaces and to sum it up as the English writer, John Galworthy did, "All gilt and ormolu", would have to be included. The Victorians loved excess and stuffed their houses to the ceilings with everything they loved, especially treasures like Jim Williams acquired from the Orient. I think he would have reveled in that bounty! My grandmother had a Queen Anne house like that, bought for a song from two old spinsters; I would wander through it as a kid, dazzled at every corner!


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