The Mercer Williams House sits on Monterey Square in historic Savannah. This home was made famous by the Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil Book
Visit Savannah's Monterey Square, and you can't help but notice the stunning home resting just across the way at 429 Bull Street, the Mercer Williams House. It's grandeur, and sophisticated elegance will take you back in time. And when you look past the scandal and rumors that have surrounded the home for decades, you will see the amazing architecture and stunning details, as well as the fascinating history.
Originally just the Mercer House, it was designed by John S. Norris, a New York architect, for General Hugh W. Mercer, great-grandfather of songwriter, Johnny Mercer. Norris is also known for designing the Savannah Custom House, the Andrew Low House, and the Green-Meldrim House.
The construction of the home began in 1860, but like most things in Savannah, it was interrupted by the Civil War. Construction was eventually completed in 1868, for the new owner, John Wilder. It's a shame that no member of the Mercer family ever had the chance to live in the Mercer house.
The three-story Italianate home, inspired by the farmhouses in northern Italy, is red-brick with a lovely courtyard and a carriage house. Taking up an entire city block, it's iron railing surrounds three sides of the home with a brick wall on the fourth side. With forty windows, eight iron balconies, and a classical portico, the Mercer Williams House is an example of classical architectural detail.
During a period of time in the twentieth century, the house was home to the Savannah's Shriners Alee Temple. After the Shriners' tenure, the house rested in a vacant state for nearly ten years before it finally found a new owner in 1969.
Jim Williams was a well-respected antiques dealer and preservationist, who had a deep appreciation for Savannah's history and architecture. Williams bought and restored over 50 houses in Savannah over thirty-five years. He purchased the Mercer House for $55,000. He spent two years renovating the Mercer Williams House, as it had fallen into disrepair from years of neglect.
Williams then decided to make the house his permanent residence and converted the carriage house for his antique restoration business. And the salacious history begins to write itself.
Williams was also known to throw wildly extravagant parties with a cast of fascinating characters always in attendance. But in 1981, the jovial and often nights clandestine, atmosphere came to a screeching halt. Jim's assistant and lover, Danny Hansford, was shot and killed.
Danny Hansford was a former prostitute and had a checkered past. Williams was charged with Danny's murder and tried four times for the crime. The first trial ended with life in prison sentencing. The judgment was later overturned upon the discovery of contradicting police reports. By the time they got to the third trial, it had ended in a hung jury. Two years later, trial number four, found Williams was acquitted.
Six months later, after years of investigations, court dates, and finally, a not guilty verdict, Jim Williams died in his palatial home of heart failure. Allegedly, he collapsed near the spot where Danny had been shot and killed. To this day, nobody has been charged with Hansford's murder.
Jim Williams' decadent life in Savannah inspired John Berendt to write his 1994 retelling, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, a nonfiction novel adapted for the screen and directed by Clint Eastwood.
Though the book took a few liberties with timeline and characters, it made the Mercer Williams House and Savannah, a new destination for tourists. Berendt's captivating nonfiction novel was a finalist for the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction.
When you enter the Mercer Williams House it becomes obvious that a home of this scale would have nothing less than a scandalous history. The interior of the home is a look into old world craftsmanship and design details of centuries past. Lovers of antiques and amateur collectors may find some of the extravagant pieces intimidating, if not inspiring.
On the first floor, you will find a George I 18th-century cabinet holding a collection of 19th century glazed porcelain. There are also Fabergé eggs and Brussels tapestries from the 1700s. And the mahogany dining room table is breathtaking.
As you move to the upstairs dressing room you will find nine Henrietta Johnston pastels dated back to the early 1700s, and an intricately carved mahogany four-poster bed. Mahogany definitely has a place in the home, the 1770 mahogany sofa is its own work of art.
But what many find to alone be worth the price of admission is a piece that Williams could be heard boasting about; the 19th-century Yusupov Dagger used to castrate and assassinate Rasputin. The dagger is mounted in silver gilt and turquoise. Truly one of Williams’ favorite pieces in his collection.
Today, the Mercer Williams House is owned by Jim's sister, Dorothy Williams Kingery. Jim Williams left the house and all of its contents to his mother. He left his sister, Dorothy, $10.00 and the rights to a game he invented called “Psycho Dice.” But when their mother died, she willed Jim’s house to Dorothy and Dorothy has graciously opened it up for tours that are offered daily.
We highly recommend taking a tour of the grand estate. The interior furnishings and architecture should be experienced in person.
For more information on tour tickets and visiting the Mercer Williams House, please visit their website or call them.