Fairfield: James E. Merrill House

by Tim Gilmore, 12/24/2017

Christmas came always as Christmas had last year gone, round in circles like the evergreen wreaths on the solid oak doors, pagan somehow—as though a much older day of trees stood behind the Savior’s birth.

And before the house was electrified, candles shone at the ends of branches on the Christmas tree rounded in the bay window. Every other year, elsewhere in the city, Christmas tree candles set somebody’s house alight.

James Eugene Merrill built this house, perhaps it was 1879, and enlarged it in 1886. Its strong showing of Queen Anne-style architecture—its asymmetry, its tower—is decorated in Eastlake ornamentation—the porch posts, spindles and brackets lathed in the Gothic Revival style of English architect and furniture designer Charles Locke Eastlake.

Perhaps it’s true Merrill looked rapt from the square tower down at his ironworks on East Bay Street. If so, he didn’t look from the house’s present corner of A. Philip Randolph Boulevard and Duval Street, because the house wasn’t here. It stood around the corner at 228 Lafayette.

History works that way. Christmases come round, but things that are the same are different from the year before. Each year, alignments fall further off. Faces aren’t quite as we remembered them and never were.

photo courtesy Jacksonville Historical Society

The Merrill House stands now, reoriented, on a different street corner, restored strong, because the Jacksonville Historical Society spent hundreds of thousands of dollars at the turn of the 21st century. Most of the city that accompanied the house has fallen far in time.

How different might things have been? The Great Fire of 1901—“An Awful Visitation / A Disastrous Conflagration Sweeps the Greater Part of Jacksonville / Millions Reduced to Ashes / The Worst Calamity that Ever Befell a Southern City,” as The Metropolis headlines screamed—never crossed the marsh-embanked Hogans Creek two and a half blocks away.

Merrill’s ironworks, boiler-making, and blacksmith forge became the Merrill-Stevens Engineering Co., one of the South’s largest shipbuilding companies. The shipyards spread metal-tentacled across the strand of the river where men built boats for world wars.

In this house, lives moved into the world and out of it. All these decades later, who stands at the back of the blurring? It can be hard to tell.

photo courtesy Jacksonville Historical Society

Certainly Helen stands to the side, locked in those buoyant thick curls. But is the baby in the stiff Victorian family portrait Helen or May, who died in 1886, age three?

It must be Kenneth, maybe three years old, dressed in the kilt, James Campbell, four years old, standing against his father’s leg beside him. So the baby is Helen. May had died the year Eugene was born; Eugene died the next year.

photo courtesy Jacksonville Historical Society

And is the toy gun that lies on the child’s bed really Arthur’s? Was it too a Christmas present? And is it really Arthur’s bed? Did Arthur lie here looking through the window onto the sleeping-porch on the second-story back of the house in his last year, his eighth year, 1906?

That’s Helen behind her mother Nell in the Ford Model T, but whose house stands behind them? Is Helen watching her mother or the road? Does her smile accompany the laughter of her excitement? How does a moment that exists so presently pass, and how is the past preserved if not present?

photo courtesy Jacksonville Historical Society

No wonder then the sense of presence beneath the fringed peach-colored draperies. No wonder the peculiarity of the hitch in the tune when you crank the roller organ and “Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling” lurches up from the years. No wonder the familiarity of touch in the greenish gold velvet brocade of the sofa your fingers have never neared.

No wonder the feeling of being at home in a place you’ve never been but somehow always known.

The Merrills called this house home for some four decades, a second family, the Leaches, decades more, and then the house waited, abandoned, lonely—since now so obviously still home.

The head of the Florida black bear roars silently from the rug on Merrill’s office floor. The large stoneware jug stamped “W.B. Dawson, Wine Merchant” sits atop the pie safe beside the ice box in the kitchen.

The old rounded birdcage hangs beneath the curtains at the second-floor window of Helen’s bedroom like a magic trick. The window and the door of the birdcage are closed, the cage empty, the door to the attic, where the children often played, stands open on the wall opposite the window.

Someone has gone. Someone is coming. In circles, evergreen. The eve of another Christmas Eve rounds midnight. Was there ever a photograph of May? Never of one-year-old Eugene?

Something stands back of the Savior’s birth, an eternal day of trees.