Mercer House (Savannah, Georgia)
|Mercer Williams House Museum|
Mercer House in 2017
|Former names||Mercer House|
|Location||Savannah, Georgia, United States|
|Address||429 Bull Street|
|Owner||1860 – 1868|
Hugh W. Mercer
1868 – unknown
John R. Wilder
Unknown – 1959
1969 – 1990
1990 – present
Dorothy Williams Kingery
|Floor count||3 (including basement)|
|Floor area||7,000 sq.ft.|
|Design and construction|
|Architect||John S. Norris|
(further drawings by Muller and Bruyn)
The house is currently owned by Dorothy Williams Kingery, Williams' sister, and is open to the public for tours. Kingery's daughter and Williams' niece, Susan, manages the museum, which is based out of the carriage house at the rear of the property.
Designed by John S. Norris for General Hugh Mercer (great-grandfather of the songwriter Johnny Mercer), construction of the house began in 1860. Construction was interrupted by the American Civil War, and finally completed around 1868 by the new owner, John R. Wilder. Nobody of the Mercer name ever lived in the house.
In 1969, 11-year-old Tommy Downs fell from the roof of the house and was killed after being impaled on the iron fence on the West Gordon Street (southern) side of the house. It is believed he was hunting pigeons. One of the two spiked prongs he landed on is still broken.
For a period in the twentieth century, the building was used as the Savannah Shriners Alee Temple. It then lay vacant for a decade until 1969, when Jim Williams, one of Savannah's earliest and most dedicated private restorationists, bought the house for $55,000 and fully restored it over two years. Williams died in 1990, and Dorothy Kingery put the house up for sale later that decade with a price tag of just under $9,000,000. This was later reduced to about $7,000,000.
Jackie Onassis, the widow of former U.S. President John F. Kennedy, visited Mercer House with her friend, Maurice Tempelsman, in the early 1980s. They had been traveling down the east coast on Tempelsman's yacht.
The red-brick property is three stories, including a basement, where Williams' restoration workshop was. It consists of a front yard, the house, a courtyard and a carriage house. It takes up a city trust lot — the only building in Savannah in private ownership to do so. An iron railing surrounds the northern, eastern and southern sides of the house, with a brick wall continuing either side between the courtyard and the carriage house.
The main façade, facing east onto Monterey Square, has five French windows (two on the first floor, three on the second). Except for the window above the double front doors, each French window on the three open sides of the house has a balcony surrounded by an iron railing. Each window on the first and second levels of these three open sides is crowned with a sculptural hood mold of cast iron. A classical portico, with two columns at each of the front corners, covers the front doors. Both sets of columns are adjoined at their bases (the base on the left is adorned with a plaque denoting the year construction on the house was begun; the right, the home’s number).
Both the northern and southern (long) sides have a French window in the middle of both the first and second floors, flanked by two single windows on each side.
The windows of the basement level mirror the size of the window immediately above.
At the rear, both the first and second levels open out onto verandas. The first floor has a double door with a French window on each side; the second floor has three windows and one door in the middle. The section without a window is where the ballroom organ is installed.
In total, there are 40 windows (including the basement level) and eight iron balconies.
In 1997, Dorothy Kingery established a trademark for the home's façade, and her layer dispatched letters to local artists demanding that they either stop using photographs of it for their own gain, or give her 10% of their proceeds.
Layout and furnishings
Many of Williams' antiques and furnishings were sold by Williams' sister at a Sotheby's auction on October 20, 2000. Where their locations in the house were known, they are mentioned in the relevant section below.
- First floor
Looking at the front of the house, at the bottom right is the drawing room, with a fireplace on the side of the house flanking West Wayne Street to the north. A George I Chinoiserie Japanned cabinet dating from around 1720, on a later George I-style stand, was located in this room. On top of this were three Chinese sang-de-bœuf glazed porcelain vases from the 19th century. Also in the drawing room, Williams kept an "assortment of curiosities", including Fabergé items such as its jeweled eggs. His first purchase, made in London in 1971, was a large silver-gilt and enamel-mounted leather box, or presentation casket, bearing the Imperial coat-of-arms and the gold-crowned cypher of Tsar Nicholas II. It is dated 1899 and is estimated at around $10,000. It was given by the Tsar to the Shah of Persia to commemorate the settlement of a long-standing border dispute. Williams put it on the jade-green coffee table in the drawing room, where it stayed for thirty years. He also owned a large silver-gilt and enamel-mounted leather desk folio, with the initial N 11 and the corners decorated with Imperial eagles. It was made for Tsar Nicholas II and was purchased by Williams at a Sotheby Parke Bernet sale in New York in 1979. The folio is estimated at $25,000.
An American carved wooden eagle with outspread wings, which was perched on a bracket in the drawing room and used on the first tug boat to ply the Savannah harbor, is estimated at $4,000. More than one hundred pieces of Chinese blue and white porcelain from the Nanking cargo – a wreck of treasures which sank in the South China Sea in 1752 – is also included, with an estimate of $5,500–8,500. The Sotheby lot comprised soup plates, plates with scallop borders and plain rims, octagonal plates and a pair of large chargers with scalloped borders. They were displayed in a breakfront cabinet.
Facing the rear of the house from the drawing room, there is the music room, in which, on the left-hand side, there was a William IV mahogany sideboard, Irish, circa 1835. Above this was one of two Brussels tapestries from the 18th century, depicting a couple (possibly Venus and Adonis) embracing, with Cupid holding a shield emblazoned with a heart. Each tapestry was estimated to be around $25,000 in value. Either side of the sideboard was a pair of Regency giltwood torchères with later circular painted tops. Also in the music room was a pair of Regency fauteuils, dating from around 1730.
The piano sat across from the sideboard, in front of the French window.
Through a set of pocket doors, at the right rear is the library, which includes another fireplace. Also in the library, sitting on an easel, was a framed ormolu fitting from the state carriage used at the coronation of Emperor Napoleon in 1804. After Williams' death, his sister hung a painting of him in this room, with Williams holding his cat, Sheldon.
Williams owned nine pastels on paper depicting members of the Southwell and Perceval families, attributed to artist Henrietta Johnston, with seven in their original black frames. Williams kept these in a shuttered upstairs dressing room to protect them from sunlight. Of the nine portraits, seven are inscribed Dublin, Ireland and are dated from 1704 to 1705. One, which Williams had on display in the library for a period after its purchase in early 1980, shows John Perceval, head of the Trustees for Establishing the Colony of Georgia. Williams acquired the portraits at a sale of property from Belvedere House, Westmeath County, Ireland. Williams said: "The thought of owning nine works by America's first panelist and first woman artist kept me awake the rest of the night." The nine portraits were sold together and are estimated at $100–125,000.
The study, where the shooting of Danny Hansford took place, is at the front left of the house, the side bounded by West Gordon Street to the south. A Louis XV ormolu-mounted Boulle marquetry bracket clock with conforming bracket hung on the wall of the study. It was signed Laurent Dey, a master of the Paris Clockmakers' Guild. In front of the clock was a white statuary marble bust of Edward VII, English, dated 1906, by Walter Merrett, on a late-19th-century green marble column. There is also a fireplace in this room, on its southern wall.
The semi-circular staircases leading down to the basement and up to the second floor is halfway along the left side of the entrance hall, just before which was the grandfather clock that Hansford knocked over immediately prior to his death. On the right-hand wall of the entrance hall was another 18th-century Brussels tapestry, woven with silk, wool and metallic threads, depicting Diana and her nymphs bathing beside a fountain. In front of the tapestry was a Regency-period inlaid mahogany parcel-gilt side table from the early 19th century. Either side of the table was a pair of George III-style carved giltwood torchères from around 1900. Immediately inside the front door, to the left, was a George III mahogany linen press, albeit with some replacement parts.
The hallway was designed to double as a summer living room.
The dining room is at the left rear, also featuring a fireplace. Above the fireplace was a Louis XVI-style painted and parcel-gilt mirror, continental, late 19th century. A pair of paintings by Thomas Hudson, portraits of Mr. and Mrs. James Hilhouse of Cornwallis House, Clifton, Bristol, were hung in this room. Also in the dining room was a Regency gilt-metal mounted dining room pedestal, circa 1815, in the manner of Thomas Hope. The dining table was a Regency mahogany, made in the first quarter 19th century, and was in two parts. The eight chairs around it were a set of George II-style red-Japanned and parcel-gilted moderns. Also, a mahogany three-tier server, which Williams had found in poor condition in the countryside around the island of Grenada, where it is known as a "cupping table" – referring to its use to hold cups and dishes beside the dining table. It is estimated at $4,000.
Williams used the carriage house, which fronts onto Whitaker Street to the west, as a guest house for visitors.
Between the house and the carriage house is a courtyard.
- Second floor
Directly across the hallway from the top of the staircase, on the northern side of the house, is the ballroom. Against the wall to the right of the door to the ballroom was an eight-legged George III mahogany sofa, circa 1770. Either side of the sofa was a pair of carved polychrome and giltwood lamps in the Chinese taste. They were standing on a pair of painted wood and tole pedestals. Above the sofa was a portrait of the Reverend Rhodes by Thomas Hudson.
Inside the ballroom was a painted and gilted modern center table with a marble top, in addition to the main attraction at the rear of the room: the pipe organ. Above the fireplace, on the northern wall, was one of a pair of rococo-style giltwood and composition pier mirrors, American, mid-19th century, nine feet high.
One of the two guest rooms is dominated by a mahogany four-poster bed, hand-carved in Grenada in the 19th century with foliage designs. The posts were carved with spiral flutes and a nutmeg design. It is estimated at about $10,000. There were also several pieces of 19th-century furniture from Guatemala.
A stained-glass dome skylight was installed above the top of the stairs. It contains vents to cool the house.
The second floor is not included in guided tours of the home.
- A carved walnut and parcel-gilt column lamp, part 17th century.
- The dagger that, Williams claimed, Prince Felix Yusupov used to castrate Rasputin.
- A pair of legs, painted in oil and attributed to Sir Joshua Reynolds. It was customary after the 18th century, when ceiling heights were often lowered, for a painting to be cut to fit the size of a room. The legs appear to have been a victim of this downsizing. The panel is estimated at about $1,500.
- "MERCER HOUSE, SAVANNAH. THE COLLECTION OF THE LATE JAMES A. WILLIAMS. CONTENTS TO BE SOLD BY SOTHEBY’S NEW YORK ON OCTOBER 20" - Sothebys
- The National Trust Guide to Savannah, Roulhac Toledano
- "Mercer House Museum site".
- "30 years after death of Jim Williams, his iconic Savannah home is being restored" - Augusta Chronicle, January 17, 2020
- "Tragedy Ends Pigeon Hunt" - Savannah Morning News, 1969
- Savannah Morning News, May 2 1981
- John Berendt on Good Morning America, 1998
- "INSIDE ART; The Getty Acquires A New Old Master" - New York Times, July 14, 2000
- "MURDER TALE, SOUTHERN STYLE, PUTS SAVANNAH ON THE MAP" - Daily Press, June 12, 1994
- New Standard Enterprises' Instagram page, December 10, 2019
- New Standard Enterprises' Instagram page, December 17, 2019
- "'For Sale' Sign Goes Up in the Garden of Good and Evil" - New York Times, June 3, 1999
- Southern Bound: A Gulf Coast Journalist on Books, Writers, and Literary Pilgrimages of the Heart, John S. Sledge (2013)
- Southern Music Network - Mercer House
- "The Furnishings: Mercer House" - The Devoted Classicist, December 16, 2011
- "Notable Homes: Mercer House" - The Devoted Classicist, December 12, 2011
- "Jim Williams: The center of ‘the Garden’" - Savannah Morning News, March 25, 2010
- "A return trip to Savannah in honor of 25th anniversary of ‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil’" - Palm Beach Daily News, March 23, 2019
- "Mercer-Williams House" - Old Town Trolley Tours
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