Mercer House, Natchez Mississippi

Date added: November 07, 2023 Categories:
Wall Street (facade or easterly) elevation and State Street (southerly) elevation, looking northerly toward the Mississippi River (1979)

The Mercer House has characteristics that are typical of Natchez ca. 1820 and for those which are unique for Natchez of that period. Quite common to the first wave of fine local residences in the Federal style is the elegant detailing of the woodwork and the use of elliptical arches on interior doors and cased openings. Without any existing parallel today, however, is the plan and the resulting massing of the garden end of the building. Although reminiscent of contemporary Georgia coastal houses with projecting bays and round or octagonal-ended rooms, the Mercer House plan is rendered much more sophisticated and livable by the location of a square room at the back center of the building overlooking the garden, rather than the usual hall running straight through the building. This sophisticated comfort is a mark of Natchez houses of the early decades of the nineteenth century. The architect and the builder are unknown.

The historic name of the Mercer House derives from its association with Dr. William Newton Mercer, a distinguished citizen of Natchez and New Orleans, where his house designed by James Gallier, Sr., in 1844 is today the Boston Club. Tradition has it that the Mercer House was used as an auxiliary to Mrs. Mercer's plantation, Laurel Hill, outside Natchez, providing a place for people arriving and departing by steamboat and for normal town visits.

A late 19th or early 20th-century photograph in the Gandy Collection at Natchez shows the house with its present portico, dormer, stucco, and a now disappeared two-story porch in the Eastlake style overlooking the "garden side". An Eastlake front door was set in the original transomed frame. According to the present owner, the Fosters added the three-story mortuary building in the 1920s, tying it into the old building. He also says that in 1959 the first-floor back center room was further remodeled, the most significant change being removing the walls with original single-acting doors between this room and the two round-ended rooms flanking it.

The front portico represents a late 19th-century version of a typical Natchez pedimented portico motif introduced at Auburn in 1812 and popular through the 19th century (see Magnolia Hall). Although undistinguished, the portico thus has a certain historical interest. The architectural importance of the house, however, is in the fine quality of its plan and proportions and in its uniqueness of type, closely suggesting certain Federal houses found along the coast of Georgia. The present portico entirely distorts the historic character of the building, one of the most sophisticated of the early buildings of Natchez. The dormers are late 19th century work, grossly done, and add unwarranted shapes to the low-pitched roof.

The mid-1920s three-story mortuary addition at the back and the remodeling of the original work where it butts into the old buildings are all clearly objectionable intrusions. The Portland cement stucco, probably of the late 19th century, again changes the building's character. Tightly bonded to the brick, it probably cannot be removed.

Building Description

The Mercer House is a two-story brick structure raised over a full basement which is somewhat below grade. The front sits back from the property line somewhat; one side is at the property line, and there are an ample side yard and a very deep backyard. The site pitches down from the front of the property. Assumed to have been exposed brick on the exterior, the house is now stuccoed. A portico was added to the front and a later three-story building butts the older house at the back. A low-pitched roof with later dormers drains to a boxed gutter faced with a cornice detailed in Greek Revival moldings.

The main entrance has a large elliptical arch with side lights and a transom and Eastlake doors; it is flanked by a typical twelve-over-twelve sash. Upstairs in the center is a twelve-over-twelve sash, flanked by sash extended down to allow access to the portico, but originally the flanking sash was also twelve-over-twelve. This central area projects from the main mass of the house, and on each side of it there is a twelve-over-twelve sash upstairs and downstairs. All openings line up truly, and the windows once had fixed two-panel slat blinds. On one side of the front, concrete steps go up to the portico; on the other (corner) side, concrete steps go down to an opening in the basement. Along the front property line are two fine square fence posts of wrought and cast iron, as well as vestiges of a woven wire fence, the remainder of which the owner has stored.

The side street elevation continues the typical lining of a twelve-over-twelve sash, with three small sash with later millwork opening into the cellar. All chimneys have been removed. Two smaller windows have been cut into the house toward the back.

The opposite (garden) side elevation also features the twelve-over-twelve windows, and two smaller windows toward the back have been added. Access to the cellar occurs at the front corner and toward the back; neither opening has the original sash. An entry door to the stairhall comes out onto a concrete landing with steps; the frame is original except for the exterior trim, but the doors are Eastlake. Above this door a twelve-over-twelve sash formerly lit the stairs, but the sash were replaced by French doors when an Eastlake conservatory (non-extant) was built adjoining the building. All chimneys have been removed.

The back elevation shows twelve-over-twelve sash in the projecting pavilions on each side; these exist toward the sides but were altered where the back addition falls. Inside the back addition, a large elliptical-headed opening is centered in the rear wall upstairs; presumably it was repeated downstairs where the back wall of the building has been opened up to join the old construction with the newer.

The plan is almost repetitive on all three floors and is a combination of Federal geometric volumes and the needs, apparently, of the family who built it. There are eight rooms and a stairhall on the first floor and seven rooms and a stairhall on the second floor, including a bath and bath-hall. One enters a hall terminated by an elliptical door with a fanlight. On each side is a square room the depth of the hall. In back, another square room occurs on center with elliptical-headed openings on each side toward the front, the one to the right going to the stairhall, the one to the left to a modern hall and bath. On the back portions of the side walls of the center room, the walls have been opened up, but presumably, there was a single-leaf door on each side, leading to long narrow rooms ending in a semicircle. The back wall of the center room is opened up into the later back addition, but presumably, it had an elliptical-headed opening the frame of which repeated that above it on the second floor. On the exterior of the semicircular rooms, the masonry is laid up in five flat planes, two of which have openings, forming pavilions and extending past the center back wall of the building. A porch probably crossed the building at both floor levels.

Doors give access on the street side from the front parlor to the hall, to the long room, and on the other side from the front parlor to the stairhall. The left front room and the two semicircular rooms have original wood mantels; the right front room features a marble mantel of ca. 1860. A ca. 1860 marble lavatory top and basin exist (perhaps re-set) in the bath, and there are handmade lead plumbing lines in the house.

The stairhall extends to the attic in a simple Federal design with the exterior end formed to make a semicircular well. On the second floor, an open elliptical arch leads into the back center room.

The second-floor plan repeats closely that of the first except there are two rooms on the front: one over the left parlor and hall, the other over the right parlor. The partition between these rooms is old but not in its original location, as opening up the wall showed. Access to a bath and hall over the first-floor bath is through a later door to the back center room. The second-floor bath and hall may have been made out of one end of a room extending the length of the side of the house and ending not in a semicircle, as directly below, but in five flat planes with two openings. Above the other first-floor semicircular room is a room with an identical flat-planed end. The center room contains an original elliptical-headed frame. Access to the addition to the back is from the two side back rooms.

The attic shows clearly the original framing of the roof, which was remodeled with later dormers on the sides and back and the added portico on the front. The attic is sheathed in narrow beaded tongue-and-groove woodwork.

The basement, with a twentieth-century furnace, piping, and wire, still contains extensive evidence of stuccoed walls and a fireplace under the back right room. Further work may clearly show kitchens and storerooms once existing here and ante-dating a frame kitchen later built to the back of the house.

Apart from certain obvious missing doors, the house is remarkably intact and appears to be in good condition. Its repetitive, symmetrical character is encouraging for the restoration of missing doors and windows. The Portland stucco on the outside seems hard and probably must stay.

Mercer House, Natchez Mississippi The mantel in the downstairs parlor, looking south (1979)
The mantel in the downstairs parlor, looking south (1979)

Mercer House, Natchez Mississippi First floor back center room (1979)
First floor back center room (1979)

Mercer House, Natchez Mississippi The second floor stair landing looking north (1979)
The second floor stair landing looking north (1979)

Mercer House, Natchez Mississippi State Street (southerly) elevation and rear (westerly) elevation, looking easterly toward Adams County Courthouse. (1978)
State Street (southerly) elevation and rear (westerly) elevation, looking easterly toward Adams County Courthouse. (1978)

Mercer House, Natchez Mississippi Northerly elevation, looking easterly toward Adams County Courthouse. (1978)
Northerly elevation, looking easterly toward Adams County Courthouse. (1978)

Mercer House, Natchez Mississippi Wall Street (facade or easterly) elevation and State Street (southerly) elevation, looking northerly toward the Mississippi River (1979)
Wall Street (facade or easterly) elevation and State Street (southerly) elevation, looking northerly toward the Mississippi River (1979)