The next morning, my first time waking up in Savannah, I was still hot and exhausted. But I was eager to get out and about. This too would be a long day but another good one. We were going to get out and get our bearings. I would also get to see something that was high on my list of attractions, the Mercer Williams house.
Once again, this is from “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” which is commonly referred to in Savannah as “the book”. In “the book” this is where the center of the action is. I will not spill any tea here but you definitely need to read this book and then see the movie. They are both fantastic.
The first item on our agenda was of course food related. It was time for breakfast. We decided to keep it simple and eat in the hotel restaurant. We were staying at the Hilton De Soto hotel, which is in the heart of Savannah. It is easy to walk pretty much where you want to go. It is famous in its own right, even Elvis Presley stayed there during his heydays.
The dining room was lovely as was their delicious French toast. However my drink order was a problem. I asked for an iced coffee and got the strangest looks. This would be a problem I would have over and over again in this city. I found it so odd that iced coffee wasn’t a “thing” here. Sometimes I swear my inner New Yorker gets away from me. Apparently the only way to get iced coffee in this part of the South was for me to ask for hot coffee, a glass of ice, and mix. Problem solved.
Next up we walked over to the Mercer Williams house. It turns out we were a bit too early so we bought our tickets and then decided to walk around the nearest squares. In doing so we got an opportunity to spend some time in the squares accumulating an appreciation for them. We also got a chance to see a few other notable buildings. For instance the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. This is a national historic landmark and one of the most beautiful churches I have ever seen. Next I got to see the Green Meldrim House. It is now the Parish House for St. John’s Episcopal Church, which was the site of General Sherman’s residence during the Civil War. It is from this address that he sent a letter to President Lincoln offering him Savannah as a Christmas present. In truth the fact that Savannah was left in tact and not burned to the ground, is a rarity about Southern cities at that time. We all remember what happened to Scarlet in Atlanta.
We also walked to Chippewa Square that early afternoon. This is where that infamous bench scene from “Forrest Gump” was filmed. The bench is no longer there as it sits in Savannah’s History Museum. But there is a statute of Georgia’s founder General James Oglethorpe standing in all his glory. Then it was time to return to our hot spot.
General Hugh Mercer commissioned this house before the start of the Civil War and it was finished in 1868. General Mercer never actually lived in the house and after its completion it had new owners. The name Mercer might sound familiar to you that’s because General Mercer is the great-grandfather of singer Johnny Mercer. Johnny Mercer’s statute in Ellis Square was featured in the last blog.
In 1969 Jim Williams buys and begins a two-year remodel before he resides at Mercer Williams house. This house was one of the very first to be restored and preserved by the brand new Historic Savannah Foundation. This was the turning point for Savannah. Considering how many historic and well-preserved houses there are it’s hard to imagine it any other way. I am glad that foundation started raising money and protecting the uniqueness of the city for all of us to appreciate.
When you arrive at the house you enter through the rear in the former carriage house that is now the gift shop. It is where you purchase your tickets and where Mr. Williams used to store and sell his antiques. I tried so hard to picture it during Mr. Williams' time but it seems unreal. The carriage house is enormous. It has two rooms one even has an upstairs. It is the carriage house where you wait for the tour to begin.
Once it was time to go we made our way towards the back of the house passing through the interior garden and fountain. It is probably where many hours of fun took place during the beyond infamous Christmas parties Jim threw.
I was so excited to be in this house. It was exactly how I pictured it. It was full of precious mementos from all over the world and part of Jim Williams' collection. Even the paint had been maintained from his time with each room an original color created for this home and the recipe kept so that touch ups were possible. That’s the level of preservation we are talking about.
As we passed through each room and listened to the stories in the places where we stood I was transported back in time. However one enormous disappointment was that we were not allowed upstairs at all. There were two additional levels including a ballroom with a historic organ that I was desperate to see. Apparently the fire marshal deemed it unsafe for tours. That is such b.s. I dreamed of being allowed up that winding staircase. But alas I would have to settle for the main floor only.
The movie version was directed by Clint Eastwood and staring Kevin Spacey. In the blue study where the most dramatic scenes occur is a picture of the two men in a frame. It was life-imitating art imitating life.
Now Jim’s sister is the sole resident of this home (the reason the third floor was off limits). When I was passing by that morning to buy my tickets I saw her come out of the front door for her newspaper. It was strange to be visiting a home that doubles as a museum. This appears to be the theme of this trip, of Savannah really, walking through living history.
After this tour we were ready for lunch. We went to a little place near our hotel called J. Christopher’s. I had the Malibu chicken sandwich, which was grilled chicken topped with crispy bacon and melted Swiss cheese with a side of Zapps potato chips. Damn that was delicious. Now I needed a rest and to get ready for our evening out.
The restaurant we would be eating at this night was the reason I created a Savannah folder a few years ago. A co-worker brought me back the brochure from this place and I have kept it all this time aching for a taste of their fried green tomatoes, supposedly the best in the country. Excited isn’t even the word for it.
As we set out that evening the heat had started to cool down to a respectable eighty-five degrees or so not counting the humidity. But the sun was setting and turning the sky a pretty shade of purplish pink. The restaurant, Vic’s on the River, is on the River Street on the original train tracks to the city right by the Savannah River. It is a below the regular street level sort of like a hidden city. There are a whole slew of stores, restaurants, and sightseeing that could take an entire day if you want to see everything.
There was a cool breeze coming off the river and I enjoyed the few shops I made it into. One of the most interesting things was a World War II memorial that was built as one world sphere spilt in half. In the opposite direction on River Street is the statute of the Waving Girl. She would wave a white handkerchief during the day and a lantern at night to welcome in the ships passing by.
With this accomplished we were ready to go back up to the regular street level for dinner. On the way we passed Todee’s Tavern an institution since the time of our founding fathers. In fact the Declaration of Independence was read here for the first time anywhere in Georgia. It is also a Diners Choice Winner and serves an array of foods.
We arrived at Vic’s a little bit early but our table was already waiting for us. It was a beautiful space filled with the light coming off the water from the sunset. The other views showed the street and all of the people out on strolls. It was a scene that you would picture of Savannah with all it’s picturesque charm. The smile on my face couldn’t have been bigger.
When it came time to order I already knew what I wanted, the fried green tomatoes and the shrimp and grits for my entrée. There was also a lettuce wedge salad with my name on it. My companions got the pork chop, meatloaf, and scallops.
Right away I knew this would be my favorite place to eat despite my limited time in this city. The ambience had won me over. Once the food started to arrive that feeling got stronger and stronger. My first bite of the fried green tomato was emotional. It was definitely one of the best I have had. Despite that, the taste is still a little bitter than I would prefer. I have come to realize that perhaps I am not a person who needs this food in my life. I am glad to have saved the best for last though.
The salad was good, filling. I had never had shrimp and grits before but I knew it was a Southern staple so I wanted to have some before I went home. Since this was our last night in Savannah and I was at this special restaurant it was the time to go for it. It was definitely different than anything I have ever eaten before but I enjoyed it. I hardly made a dent in it. I felt like the more I ate the more was on my plate. I don’t know that I will crave it any time soon nevertheless it is what I was meant to have at Vic’s. Everyone else was raving about their dishes.
As if this meal wasn’t big enough we had to order dessert. They all sounded amazing better than the one before. Since we were a party of four we ordered two desserts: the praline berry basket and the peach trio (banana pudding, cheesecake, ice cream). I must let you in on a little joke the four of us shared; all of the time we were planning this trip we kept imagining how the peaches would taste and if we could ship some home this being the peach state and all. I want you to know in three days I was there this was the only peach in sight. Like you couldn’t tell from these photos, these desserts were unbelievable.
Since Vic’s owns the whole building (three floors) we were able to go out on a balcony and look down at River Street by the water and take some amazing pictures. The view was incredible and standing there taking it all in brought such a sense of peace and happiness. I had made it here.
The next and last thing we would do in Savannah on day two is something you will only guess if you did happen to catch that episode of the “Real Housewives of Atlanta”. It is very popular in this town and certainly not an experience you can have just anywhere. We were going to ride in a hearse, alive.
Let me back up. After dinner we were walking back to the hotel and stopping at all of the squares I hadn’t seen before. This is mostly because I was melting and need to take some breaks. Once we were back and freshened up our driver and his hearse picked us up outside of our hotel. It is a real hearse with the top cut off and ten seats placed high above with a floor underneath you but above where the casket would go. Every evening there were several tours that drove around Savannah telling you all of the ghostly tales they are known for. You will see them out and about which makes it seem less odd.
We had no idea what to expect but we got more than we bargained for. Our driver, whose name escapes me, was nothing short of a lunatic. I think he may have been drunk or psychotic or a bit of both. It was like he was let out of the loony bin just for this purpose. It was mostly fun and then terrifying. Apparently when you are sitting in tiny seats on top of your fellow tourists and the hearse makes sharp short turns you can see your life flash before you eyes. I guess we were in the right place for that to happen.
We were lucky enough to have great people on this journey with us and we had so many laughs before, and after as our ride swirled around the city often pulling over on roads that didn’t seem to be drivable. There was also that time he almost ran over the homeless man and you know drove over the sidewalk- again not so much fun when your elevated hanging outside a vehicle not meant for these activities.
I heard many stories none of which I can recall with a quickness. I also got to see many buildings that were on my list like the Second African Baptist Church. This church was established in 1802 for the purpose of training black ministers. It was here General Sherman read the Emancipation Proclamation in 1864 and where Martin Luther King Jr. read his “I Have a Dream” speech in March of 1963 prior to the march in Washington D.C. The people on my tour were happy to learn these facts as I gave my own tour around the city.
It was the longest hour of my life. It might also have been the most interesting. I’m just grateful I didn’t end up as part of the stories on the tours that were yet to come.
For More Information:
For “Hard Hearted Hannah the Vamp of Savannah GA”