Unusual doors welcome visitors to Merrywood in Pass Christian
It was an offer he couldn't resist.
Since the late 1920s, Merrywood had stood on its site just off the beach in Pass Christian. It even survived Hurricane Katrina as most other structures around it collapsed or disappeared into the Sound in 2005. But as Wal-Mart built on U.S. 90 in the Pass, the house needed to find another home.
Michael Gillespie had bought a lot in downtown Pass Christian just before the monster storm, with plans "to build a mid-rise." Those plans got scuttled as the town struggled to recover from Katrina. He had an empty lot with no idea what to do with it.
A house needed a home. A man needed a house, preferably on the inexpensive side, for his empty lot. It was a match. The house was moved in late 2008 to its present site on Scenic Drive.
Gillespie is only Merrywood's third owner. Its first, Edward Price Bell, might not have a household name, but he was a pioneering journalist. Born in Indiana in 1869, he is best known for his work with the Chicago Daily News. In the late 1920s, he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his work and advocacy of Anglo-American cooperation, as well as the Pulitzer Prize. He used interviews with high-profile individuals, politicians and leaders as a means of promoting his ideology. Bell died in 1943 in Pass Christian from complications of beriberi.
It second owner, Ouida Tanner Sides, bought the home in 1972, where she hosted a Bible study group that eventually became the Church of the Good Shepherd, Gillespie said.
"She got me in touch with the family of Edward Price Bell, and they got me pictures of him," Gillespie said.
Sides, also an artist, painted a portrait of Bell that now hangs in the main foyer of Merrywood. She also retouched a mural in the house.
Gillespie has Bell-related photos throughout the main floor, including two of the writer's tiny studio that stood just behind the house on its original site.
"And there was an artesian well right by the studio," Gillespie said. "I understand it was a real attraction back then."
Heart pine throughout the house, he said, affected how he finished the interior.
"You just can't paint heart pine," he said. "It doesn't work. That's why I've left it unpainted."
Gillespie works on buildings around the country, including on the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans. When the hotel was acquired by Waldorf-Astoria, the company wanted to update parts of the ca. 1863 building. He got to save several parts, including two ornately carved wooden doors that now separate the dining and living rooms on the main floor of Merrywood. He also used other salvaged items in renovating a master bathroom added during the Sideses' years.
Throughout the house, though, there are many original features, including medicine cabinets, glass doorknobs and tiny doors that lead to the house's plumbing. The 1920s light fixtures also are original; many of them had been boxed up and stored away.
Gillespie has several possible options of what to do with the house. A wedding venue is one, and Joann York is working with him to use Merrywood as home base for her Wednesday Night Supper Club dinner delivery service.
"This is the only project in my life where I've restored a building but didn't really know what I need to do with it," he said with a laugh.