Merrill House Museum Celebrates 15 Years
This year marks 15 years since the opening of the Merrill House Museum. On November 17, 2005 the Jacksonville Historical Society held a grand opening preview party for the James E. Merrill History House.
The official opening was attended by over 100 society members and descendants of the original Merrill family. As the oldest Merrill descendant, 91-year-old Ann Merrill Gillette was given the key to unlock the front door. She was the daughter of James Campbell Merrill, the oldest son of Mr. and Mrs. James Eugene Merrill, and she was born in the house in 1914. Mrs. Gillett died in February 2006, a few months after the grand opening. In the photo above, Mrs. Gillette, left, is with her sister-in-law, Roxie Merrill, shortly after the renovations were complete in April 2005.
The Merrill House is a place to teach history. Since its opening, many groups and organizations have toured the house. School children have an opportunity to learn about life in 1903 and are shown many old items which were new to them. During the holidays, the house is decorated for the Gingerbread Extravaganza and looks and feels like Christmas. In connection with weddings held at Old St. Andrew’s Church, the bride uses the upstairs chambers of the Merrill House to prepare for her big day.
James Eugene Merrill came to Jacksonville from Charleston, S.C., with his family in 1865. He was the oldest of 11 children. He started an ironworks company in 1876 and eventually made his mark as a major ship builder by founding the Merrill-Stevens Engineering Company. According to his son, James Campbell Merrill, the Merrill family home was constructed in 1879. In 1881, James Eugene Merrill married Helen Pearly Small and in 1886 the small cottage-style house was enlarged into an Eastlake Victorian house to accommodate his aging parents. The Merrill family lived in the house from 1879 to 1920, eventually moving to Riverside. The Merrill house was sold to Alfred Leach in 1920, and his son, George, sold the house to the City of Jacksonville in 1999 after it had been vacant for many years.
In 1999 the declining Lafayette Street house was set for demolition by the City when the Jacksonville Historical Society approached the City to save and restore it. The City provided the society with a lease on the house and agreed to move it next to Old St. Andrew’s Church. The photo above shows the move. Then, in 2001, during final plans for the new baseball park, the City notified the society that the Merrill House would have to be moved for a second time from what is now third base in the ballpark to its present location at the corner of A. Philip Randolph Blvd. and Duval Street.
Restoration work began to support the structure and re-roofing. Other work needed was the repair and replacement of existing wood siding, restoration of 42 windows (84 total sashes), additional windows, and repairing the steps, posts and rails for the porches. The National Park Service provided thousands of dollars in heart of pine to use in the structural repair of the home. The house’s wood siding was removed piece by piece, marked, restored, and returned, when possible, to the original position. During this process, the front porch was stolen. Luckily, the thieves dropped three front porch spindles. Those spindles were then recreated. After interior work was completed and with donated furnishings to pre-date 1901, the interior of the house was decorated to reflect and tell the story of life during the Victorian period in Jacksonville in 1903. We are fortunate to also have some of the Merrill family items. The restoration project took six years.
As a docent for the Merrill House, it has been my honor to welcome visitors and share the story of the house and the Merrill family. When I give a tour, I go early to open the house and I like to sit in the bay window area of the dining room. With the silence, I try to imagine how life was in this house with no air-conditioning, no bathroom, no television, and the long dresses worn in the Florida heat. But this house was modern for them at that time. You can look around at all the furnishings and they too have stories to tell. The house is such a wonderful part of history and the historical society takes care of it and shares it with all who wish to be transported back in time to life in 1903 in Jacksonville and the history of the James Eugene Merrill family.
Nancy Gandy, Merrill House Museum Docent