History Meets Eccentricity: Mercer House in Savannah

My desire to visit Savannah began when I read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. John Berendt won me over with his rich descriptions and character profiles—I wanted to see the city that inspired quotes like this one:

“The city looked inward, sealed off from the noises and distractions of the world at large. It grew inward, too, and in such a way that its people flourished like hothouse plants tended by an indulgent gardener. The ordinary became extraordinary. Eccentrics thrived. Every nuance and quirk of personality achieved greater brilliance in that lush enclosure than would have been possible anywhere else in the world.”

If you haven’t read the book, it’s told from the standpoint of Berendt himself, chronicling antiques dealer Jim Williams’ trial (and eventual acquittal) for the murder of his lover Danny Hansford, as well as the unique cast of characters he met while living in the city and inquiring about the murder.

Mecer House in Savannah, Georgia.
Mercer House is a must-visit for anyone who loves literature, interior design or antiques.

Before the trial Jim Williams was famous for buying and restoring houses throughout Savannah—in fact he restored more than 50 homes in Savannah and the surrounding Lowcountry. His home, Mercer House, was built in 1868. When Williams bought it in 1969 it had fallen into disrepair. Williams spent two years restoring the house and then lived in it until he died in the very room where he shot Danny Hansford three times.

Today the home remains privately owned, but guests are welcome to tour the bottom floor for a fee of $12.50 for adults and $8 for students—I highly recommend it for anyone who appreciates art, home décor or interior design. The tour is more focused on the architecture, restoration and decoration of the house than on the book or movie, but it’s well worth it to admire the expansive collection.

If you’re weaving this visit into a full day, call ahead to book your tour. We stopped by the Carriage House to purchase our tickets and were able to snag some for about 45 minutes after our arrival, but I suspect larger groups have a tougher time depending on the time of year. With a few minutes to kill, we wandered the area a bit and checked out the Carriage House Shop.

The Carriage House Shop was worth a browse. Sure, you’ll find a few souvenirs like the pen-and-ink notecard drawing of the house I brought home, but the inventory is more focused on fun accessories and gift items. It was easy to kill a few minutes perusing coffee table books, serving ware, jewelry and other gifty items while we waited for our tour to begin. Also, just a block or two down Whitaker Street, Custard Boutique is another good spot for fashion lovers to kill some time.

The house itself is only accessible via guided tours. You get a walk through the sunken garden and most of the downstairs, minus the kitchen since it’s still used by the homeowner. Williams’ collection is certainly impressive, spanning candlesticks given by George and Martha Washington to their daughter for her wedding, beautiful antique light fixtures, a watercolor of the last empress of China and a beautiful stained glass skylight in the main hall that you must be sure not to miss. There are also plenty of pictures of Keven Spacey and other actors from the movie along with the owners of the house, which was fun to see—the movie was actually filmed in the house, not on a set, which is pretty cool. No pictures are allowed inside the house, so you’ll have to go yourself to drool over the baubles.

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