A family finds their dream home — and a lot of history — on Moon River
Since moving into their home on Burnside Island, Laurel and Robert McCorkle have become accustomed to a certain refrain: “You bought Johnny Mercer’s house, right?”
“We just keep meeting people who seem to know we own the house,” Laurel explains. Someone whose mother went to a party at the house; another whose uncle used to play poker with Johnny. “People are protective of this place.”
Those watchful souls, whoever they are, can rest assured. The McCorkles are the ideal family to take care of the place without changing too much.
In fact, Laurel and Robert have made exactly one addition since moving into the house in late November 2017: a fire pit in the backyard, overlooking Moon River — originally called Back River, this languid stretch of water was renamed by the city in 1962 after Mercer’s Oscar-winning tune. That song, written shortly after Mercer moved in, is presumed to be inspired by the property.
All the rest is original. The floors, the molding, the built-ins, the layout, the Savannah grey brick patio and knee walls lined with heirloom shrubs and trees. They have Mercer’s original plans to prove it. They even have his original tea towels.
“I’m not changing any of it. We want to honor the house,” Laurel says.
Look around, and you’ll see that while honoring the home’s history, the McCorkles have also made it their own. They boast an enviable, meaningful art collection, for example, featuring family portraits painted by Laurel’s late mother; landscapes from artist and friend Alan Campbell; a hand-painted “magical forest” mural in the dining room, modeled after Gracie wallpaper that Laurel created with her sister, Morgan; school art projects from their son and daughter; and artworks collected during the yearly trips they take together.
There’s a painting from Aruba, purchased on their honeymoon; works from France, Italy, Hawaii, Mexico, and England; and a Masai warrior mask from Liberia purchased on their most recent trip, a safari to celebrate their 15th wedding anniversary. Throughout the home, Laurel’s handmade floral arrangements are like living works of art. She and Robert heard that when Mercer was in Los Angeles, he had gardeners cut and send camellia blooms from his Savannah yard to remind him of home. Laurel uses those very same camellias — they’re still thriving — in her arrangements, creating a soft and palpable signature scent apparent in every room. Laurel’s decor incorporates a good deal of chinoiserie to enhance the mid-century details, like the wet bar Mercer had installed in the sunroom.
Sitting on 1.8 acres of waterfront property, the Dutch Colonial-style home, with its gabled roof and ambling footprint, is deceptively large. It stretches across 5,000 square feet to accommodate a young and very busy family — the McCorkle roster includes the two kids, ages 10 and 12, plus a cat, two dogs, guinea pigs and, eventually, chickens. Laurel is a former nurse practitioner who recently launched her own interior and floral design business, M’Liss Designs (it’s named for her late mother), and Robert is a commercial real estate attorney who still finds time to coach his son’s baseball team. With so many different schedules and pursuits, life didn’t stop moving when the family moved. But the house met them more than halfway. It also helped them slow down.
“Our old place had tall ceilings and huge rooms, but no one would ever sit in them,” Laurel recalls of their previous home on Dutch Island. “This house, it’s cozy. We actually use all the rooms here; we really live in it.”
“We never shut the blinds, because we get a sunrise over the water every morning,” Robert adds. “It never gets old. The house is great for the kids, too, because there’s not a lot of traffic,” he says. He’s not talking about road traffic, but water traffic — they’re situated on the maritime version of a cul-de-sac.
Laurel says if she could live anywhere in the entire world, this would be the place — and she’s been a lot of places. Funny though, they weren’t even planning on buying a home; it was all a bit of a fluke.
Laurel was looking at homes for her father, who was retiring to Savannah, when the listing came up. The price was too high, but a year later, the house was still empty. It had been through two hurricanes. Part of a tree fell on it during Hurricane Matthew. The sellers kept reducing the price, and Laurel finally convinced Robert to see it in person. The home’s waterfront setting and 225-foot dock won him over. Though the McCorkles are both Savannah natives, living on the water would be a shared and new experience, and the ultimate adventure. Closing wasn’t easy, though. There were contracts and contingencies, not to mention yet another hurricane, but they never gave up.
“The [previous] owners were so lovely and gracious, because they knew how much we loved it, knew we were from Savannah, knew we loved that Johnny Mercer lived here,” Laurel says. “They totally made it happen for us.” Five months after the McCorkles’ offer was accepted, they moved in. Two weeks after that, they hosted back-to-back parties.
“We had this great Christmas party where we brought in a pianist, and we were singing carols and Johnny Mercer songs,” Laurel says. The next night, they hosted a party for Robert’s Rotary Club. Other events have followed, from casual, summertime get-togethers to garden club soirees. In a few weeks, they’ll host some of Robert’s friends from law school for a waterfront oyster roast — Robert built the roasting box himself.
“This house is a blessing, and the history involved is just icing on the cake,” Robert says. “Johnny Mercer is the greatest American songwriter to ever live. The fact he used to live here is just cool.”
Owners: Robert and Laurel McCorkle
Year built: 1938
Year purchased: 2017
Square footage: 5,000
Number of bedrooms and bathrooms: 5 bedrooms, 4 full baths, 2 half baths
Time to complete renovation/remodel: 2-3 months, phase 1; phase 2 still planning
Interior designer: Laurel McCorkle owner of M’Liss Designs
Contractor/builder: Gordon Hitt
Paint/wallpaper: Low Country Wallcoverings; Gordon Hitt
Kitchen design: M’Liss Designs
Bath design: M’Liss Designs
Lighting design: M’Liss Designs
Landscape design: Mark Kreuger
Hardscape design: Mark Kreuger
Electrician: Harmon Electric
Carpenter: Gordon Hitt
Plumber: Dependable Plumbing
Landscaper: American Landscape Services
Furniture: Owners’ collection, Hodges Antiques, Whelan’s
Appliances: Livingood’s Appliances and Bedding
Kitchen and bath fixtures, tubs, toilets: Ferguson
Countertops and sinks: Counter Fitters
Accessories: Owners’ collection; One Fish, Two Fish; Garland Pillows; Seventh Heaven; Paris Market; Goldon House Gallery
Art: Owners’ collection, Alan Campbell, Brandy Dew, Daedalus Gallery, Cathy Jarman, Scarborough, the late M’Liss Williams; dining room mural, Laurel McCorkle and Morgan Zichettella
*all resources supplied by homeowners