Even before we left Knoxville for that sweet Southern town of Savannah, we knew two places we wanted to see: Mercer Williams House Museum and Gryphon. But it was not until we arrived that we found the two were fairly close to each other in the historic district — and even better than we imagined!
The first, Mercer Williams Museum House, was the actual residence of Jim Williams, antiques dealer, preservationist, and central figure in the very popular book by John Berendt — Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, published in 1994. Originally, the building of Mercer House, an Italianate villa, was begun in 1860 by General Hugh Mercer, great grandfather of the famous lyricist Johnny Mercer, but the Civil War delayed the construction. The house was finally completed in 1869, but it changed hands, fell into disrepair, and later restored by Jim Williams in 1969.
This stately mansion built with classic rose-colored bricks known as “Philadelphia Reds” offers an elegant 15-foot tall entry and floor-to-ceiling windows. Jim Williams added elegant tiles in the entryway as well as his signature art, fabrics, and antiques which are still on display today. Tours are available, but photos of the interior are not allowed.
Inside, our favorite details included the spiral staircase to the second floor, the stained glass window above the stairwell, and the movable walls that could open rooms for large-scale entertaining. But outside, we were smitten with these glorious windows, most of which pair with ornate iron balconies and sport sculptural hood molds of cast iron.
But, if you ask us, it’s the book that brought us to the house, not just the amazing details and collected beauty of Williams’ possessions. Before we left home, we checked out an audible version from our own Knox County Public Library and set off for Savannah. Told by a reporter (John Kelso) on assignment in Savannah, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil chronicles not only the society parties Kelso was sent to cover, but also the murder (or was it self-defense?) of young Danny Hansford, an employee of Williams, as well as side stories of the Lady Chablis, a black drag queen, and Minerva, a voodoo priestess. The cover of the book features a statue of “bird girl” originally photographed in Bonaventure Cemetery, a photo so popular that many tourists wanted to “visit” her in the cemetery. So many, in fact, that city officials moved her into the Telfair Museums for safe keeping!
When we returned home, we immediately rented the movie version of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, directed by Clint Eastwood, and starring Kevin Spacey (Jim Williams), Jude Law (Danny Hansford), John Cusack (John Kelso), and Lady Chablis as herself! After all, we wanted to see the interior of the Mercer Williams House Museum as the backdrop for this movie — and we weren’t disappointed!
But after a tour like this, you, too, might be looking for a unique place to eat! So we went in search of a restaurant we had both loved on a previous trip: Gryphon.
The name comes from the two gryphons that flank the clock on one side of the restaurant. (See photo at the top of this post.)
Touches of the pharmacy can be seen on the labeled wooden drawers.
Stained glass windows feature mortar and pestle central motifs.
But perhaps what charms old book lovers like us the most is seeing good books repurposed. Impressive groupings of books arranged by color and flanking tomes re-opened in artful ways just made us smile.
If you love history, be sure to tour Mercer Williams House Museum. And if you love good food (and large pots of tea) in an artful place, try Gryphon. Who knew Savannah would have so much history, art, and whimsy rolled into one intriguing place to visit!
Rusha & Bert
- Cover of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil — Amazon
- Photo from movie Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil — YouTube