Tuesday, June 11, 2013

SAVANNAH, GEORGIA, LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT



Map of the Southern Charm tour courtesy of Collette Vacations

She Saw Mercer House, May She Rest In Peace!

Before the bus even rolled to a stop at the Savannah Visitor Center, I was ready to bolt out of the door and head straight for Mercer House. Seeing this home that was the setting for the book, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” had been on the top of my ‘must see’ list ever since I read it. John Berendt’s true story of a deadly lover’s quarrel set in one of the most impressive of all Savannah homes captured my imagination in a way that very few books ever have. His description of the sublime beauty of Savannah’s magnificently restored homes and the 22 lovely park-like squares they are built around, each with its own design and personality made Savannah the star character in the book. I wanted to understand and feel that same seductive pull on Berendt from Savannah that made him extend what had been only a visit to a stay of eight years.


I had talked Mercer House up so much with my other tour mates that several of them wanted to come with me to catch the last tour of the day. We didn’t have much time, so as soon as the bus parked we headed straight for Monterrey Square and its iconic house. The map of historic downtown Savannah showed Mercer House several blocks away from the Visitor Center and I was prepared to sprint if I had to, however Savannah’s blocks are surprisingly small and we arrived in no time. Mercer House, its garden and a large two story carriage house in the back, took up an entire Savannah block. We bought our tickets and milled around in the former carriage house turned ticket office and gift shop while we waited our turn. I honestly felt like a bride awaiting my walk to the alter as I stood there shifting my weight from one foot to the other until the door opened and I could be escorted into the pages of Berendt’s mesmerizing book. Finally, a distinguished southern gentleman guide opened the door and took me, Alice, into wonderland. 

 Mercer House sits to the right of Monterey Square.


First though, I should give you a little background about the house and the man who made it famous, Jim Williams. Mr. Williams was a wealthy antiques dealer, but more importantly, he played an important role in saving historic downtown Savannah from decline. He, along with a committee of concerned Savannah families starting mid-century, bought dozens of decaying elegant old homes slated to be torn down and replaced by parking lots and shopping centers and implemented their restoration. He lovingly restored many of them himself, one of which was Mercer House. The great-grandfather of Johnny Mercer, the lyricist, began construction of the home in 1860 but died before its completion. As it turned out, no Mercer ever lived there but the home would always bear the Mercer name. But to me, it will always be the Williams House.

 Armstrong House, one of the 50 homes Williams bought and restored.

 This extraordinary home (now law offices) is just around the corner from Mercer House
and breathtaking Forsyth Park.

In the early 80’s, Mr. Williams employed a handsome and unstable handyman by the name of Danny Hansford with whom he had an affair. After a violent confrontation in the study of his home in Mercer House, Mr. Williams shot and killed the young man. Over the next ten years, he was tried four times and finally acquitted of the charge of murder. He died six months later of pneumonia and heart failure just a few feet away from where Danny bled to death.

Our gracious host guided us through the garden area that Mr. Williams had added to the property. Like everything about the mansion, it was tastefully designed consisting of a sunken brick patio area, now moss covered, with a quiet burbling fountain at its head. As I entered into the home, I expected to see Mr. Williams at every turn. All of his expensive belongings were in their places just as he left them almost 25 years ago. Even though I hated that we weren’t able to take any pictures of the interior, I could see the wisdom. The home is occupied and owned by Mr. Williams’ sister and still contains millions of dollars of his priceless art and furnishings. It was exquisite. 

 Mercer House is one block away from picturesque Forsyth Park.

The mansion is not large; the rooms feel cozy and intimate, due in great part by the considerable design skills of its restorer. The large floor to ceiling windows, all with tree shaded views made me feel like a bird in an elegant aerie. I could have stayed there forever.

Then I walked into the study. It was so much smaller than I imagined. The shooting scene in the book describes Danny entering the room and brandishing a pistol as Mr. Williams sits behind his desk. According to Mr. Williams’ testimony, Danny fires at him and misses and in his defense, Mr. Williams takes a pistol out of his desk and fires back at Danny killing him. As I read the scene in the book, I pictured a large study with Danny standing several feet away from the desk, but because the room was so small, he would have had no other option than to stand right in front of it, aiming his gun point blank at Williams’ chest.

I can only say that I felt the same sort of awe when I stood in the Forum in Rome where Julius Caesar was stabbed, and again when I stood on the streets of Pompeii, looking like the day before Mt. Vesuvius covered it in hundreds of feet of ash, and again when I stood on the spot where pregnant Mary Queen of Scots witnessed her personal secretary Rizzio being stabbed to death in Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh. To me, history as immediate as an arm’s length away is what travel is all about.

The Rest of Savannah

The next morning we had more time to enjoy the rest of historic Savannah during a very enjoyable walking tour. First, our guide took us into St. John the Baptist Church, built in 1873. It is a beautiful church and its interior reflected the town's wealth and self esteem.

The magnificent organ in St. John's

We strolled along the narrow streets, leisurely enjoying the exteriors of Savannah's finest homes and landmarks.



 Dome of City Hall

The Andrew Low Home faces Lafayette Square, just one of Savannah's 22 breathtaking squares.

We ended by touring the Andrew Low Home and Gardens, former residence of Juliette Low founder of the Girl Scouts. It was very similar to the Mercer House in size and layout, except without the glamor, but it was still worth seeing. Again, we were not allowed to take pictures, just this shot of the fountain in the garden.


Next time: Jekyll Island Club and St. Augustine, Florida

**Click on any picture for a full screen slide show.

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