2220 Highland Avenue So. History

Highland Avenue began during the real estate boom of the 1880s as a dusty main street of Highland, Birmingham’s first suburban streetcar neighborhood.  Initially running three blocks, from 20th to 23rd streets, Highland Avenue’s early architecture was predominantly Victorian Queen Anne replete with turrets and gingerbread fretwork.

The Merritt House, now known as Veranda on Highland, was built in 1908 and is one of less than a dozen extant examples of more than ninety elegant homes that graced the avenue in the first quarter of the 20th century. The architect of the Merritt house is unknown, although attention to exterior and interior detail suggests that the home was individually designed rather being a mail order plan popular in that day.  An enhanced version of the American Foursquare style, as originally built, the home featured expansive porches, dormers and stained and leaded glass.

The 1909 Birmingham City Directory was the first to place William H. and Mary A. Merritt at 2220 Highland Avenue.  The Merritts were Georgians, both born in the 1850s.  Married in 1878, they welcomed the first of twelve children, eight of whom would survive into adulthood.  W. H. Merritt died December 31, 1909, and was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery.  1910 found Mary Alice Merritt occupying 2220 Highland with eight children ranging in age from ten to twenty.  After her death in May of 1913, Charles, Nellie, Sallie, Bessie, Katie, Harry, John and Frank Merritt rotated in and out of residency in the house for a period of time.  Sallie and Katie married at home.

The 1920 United States Federal Census names 41-year-old Charles Merritt, an unmarried salesman of iron and steel and 40-year-old Marvin Wise, a manager of motion pictures, as joint heads of the household.  After Wise’s death in 1925, his widow Sallie stayed on at 2220, raising three children and, unusual for the day, continuing to operate her husband’s chain of “amusement theaters.”  “My grandmother took over the theatres and employed the Merritt brothers and sisters,” remembers Cathy Cobb Stevenson.  “She lived to the age of 96 and never learned to drive.”  A streetcar line in front of the house provided convenient transportation to her classic downtown movie houses, including the Strand, Lyric, Empire and Melba theatres.

Sallie shared the house with various siblings, boarders and live-in servants until moving to a retirement home in the 1970s.  When the grand homes of her neighbors began to come down for commercial development she took change in stride.  “When the fire station and the shopping center replaced the big houses, Mother still considered Highland Avenue a wonderful place to be,” recalls Sallie’s daughter Sara Henry.  “She liked having the firemen, who were very protective of her, next door, and she enjoyed the convenience of the shopping center.”

Over the years, exterior modifications, including the addition of outdoor dining areas, have taken place in the conversion to a restaurant. While William and Mary Alice Merritt’s descendants agree that the original owners could walk into their 1908 dream house and feel right at home, great-grandson Joe Cleage cites a few notable exceptions.  “My grandmother would be surprised to find a bar in her living room, and my mother finds it amusing to be shown to a dinner table in Aunt Katie’s bedroom.  The house still has the character it enjoyed way back when.”

The Pillars and Merritt House restaurants occupied the building over a period of time before the Veranda on Highland began welcoming diners in December 2006.