SAVANNAH — If Savannah’s picturesque squares are its diamonds, then its historic mansions overlooking them are the platinum settings showing them off.
There are more than a half dozen majestic homes dotting the historic area of this city, each one with its own unique history and contribution to Savannah. Even for first-time visitors, these homes can add insight and flavor to a trip that might otherwise focus on a trolley tour and a trip to the buffet line at Paula Deen’s restaurant.
If you’re reconsidering a long vacation this summer, you might consider instead a weekend getaway to Savannah. It can be reached in about a tank of gas (it’s about five hours from Gainesville), is relatively inexpensive and has things to do that can keep both kids and adults happy.
On a recent trip, we visited two historic homes — the Mercer Williams House and the Owens-Thomas House. Both homes showed a range of architecture, furnishings and quirky stories that are uniquely of Savannah.
The Owens-Thomas House
Poor Richard Richardson. He spent all that money building a beautiful home in the English Regency architectural style and then, following a devastating fire in the city and a yellow fever epidemic in 1819, promptly lost the newly built home to bankruptcy.
Thankfully, it was later snatched up by George Welshman Owens, a mayor of Savannah and congressman. The home remained in the family from 1830 until 1951, when it was bequeathed to the Telfair Museum of Art.
The home’s most distinctive architectural feature is its symmetry. It has doors that open to nowhere, just so they balance with another one on the opposite side of the staircase. As was the fashion of the time, rooms are designed to feel like they are ovals, and ceilings are painted to appear as if they are domed.
The second floor is separated into two sections by a bridge — yes, a bridge — spanning the staircase below it.
“The bridge serves two purposes,” explained docent Chris Surber during the tour. “It provides access to the back rooms there without having to go through the bedrooms on either side. And second, since it is curved, it does provide support for the bridge and also more headroom coming up the steps, so you don’t bump your head coming up the steps.
“We take a lot of pride in our bridge at the Owens-Thomas House.”
The Mercer Williams House
One of the most important scenes in “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” involves an alleged shooting in the front room of a home built by the great-grandfather of legendary songwriter Johnny Mercer. And despite the “what if” scenarios floating around that tragic tale, the fact remains that the home itself is a sight to behold.
Its final owner, Jim Williams, purchased the home in 1969 and set about restoring it from top to bottom. Williams was an antiques dealer and known throughout Savannah for his dedication to restoring its historic homes, and this building turned out to be his most beloved project.
Williams died of a heart attack in 1990, and everything in the home is how he left it — the furniture is ready to entertain guests and the artwork, representing a range of styles and techniques, remains where he wanted the pieces displayed.
A tour of the home is necessary if only to see the array of interesting things this man collected over the years. The artwork alone is worthy of a museum, and each curio or trinket adorning shelves and mantelpieces has its own interesting story, too.
For example, blue and white china, innocently sitting on a butler’s table in the corner of the dining room, is actually Nanking china, which was part of a ship’s cargo that sank in a storm and sat at the bottom of the ocean for 230 years. According to tour guide Alex Reilly, Williams purchased more than 130 pieces of the china and, when he hosted dinner parties, “he said it had a rather unique characteristic,” Reilly said.
“He said when you dined upon it, it seeped salt.”
In addition to hosting a few scenes from “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” the house can also be seen in the movies “Glory,” “Swamp Thing” and “Return of Swamp Thing.”