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Jemison-Van de Graaff Mansion

Joshua Shiver, Auburn University
Jemison-Van de Graaff Mansion
The Jemison-Van de Graaff Mansion is an Italianate-style mansion in Tuscaloosa, Tuscaloosa County, built for Alabama politician, planter, and business magnate Robert Jemison Jr. as his "town" home. Constructed from 1859-1862, the home stands as one of the first Italianate-style homes in the county. Noted engineer and physicist Robert Jemison Van de Graaff, great-grandson of Robert Jemison Jr., was born in the house in 1901 and lived there until he graduated from the University of Alabama. The home stayed in the Jemison family until the 1940s, after which it served various functions until 1991, when it was purchased by the city of Tuscaloosa. The main floor has been restored to its original 1860s appearance and currently serves as a rental property for weddings, parties, and receptions.
Originally from Georgia, Robert Jemison Jr. served in the Alabama Senate and House, the state's Confederate government after secession, and the Confederate States of America government in Richmond, Virginia. He amassed a vast fortune, owning or investing in various businesses ranging from plantations with as many as 500 slaves and 10,000 acres to toll roads, a foundry, a coal mine, stagecoach line, grist and saw mills, a stable, and a hotel. His bridge-building company is notable for employing famed enslaved engineer Horace King, and Jemison was instrumental in King's emancipation.
Like many wealthy planters, Jemison wanted a "town house" and solicited the plans for his new home from prominent Philadelphia architects John Stewart and Samuel Sloan, both of whom also designed the nearby Alabama State Hospital for the Insane (later Bryce Hospital) that was the first inpatient psychiatric facility in Alabama and built on Jemison's Cherokee Plantation. In 1859, construction on the new home was begun using materials from Jemison's various plantations and employing skilled slave labor under the supervision of the craftsmen from Philadelphia.
The outbreak of the American Civil War, however, interrupted and prevented the completion of the house as it was designed, owing to wartime Union blockades. By the time of the main structure's completion in 1862, the home was still left with many unfinished touches. The blockade prevented the furnace, ironwork, and marble mantels ordered from Philadelphia from ever making their way to Jemison's home, and the heating system was never completed and the lighting and plumbing systems were only partially completed. Despite this, the home was the first in Tuscaloosa boasting indoor plumbing, gas lighting, a gas stove, a permanent copper bathtub that was rare at the time, and an early form of refrigeration in the form of a deep dry well in the basement.
The brick and stucco exterior was originally scored to look like stone. It features an ornate wrap-around porch that opens to the west. There is a semi-octagonal bay room and extended wing to the rear-facing east and a cupola on the roof. The interior consisted of 26 rooms, 18-foot ceilings, decorative woodwork, and a large staircase to the mezzanine level. Some architectural historians believe there was some competition between Jemison and builder-planter John R. Drish, who built a similarly styled mansion a few present-day city blocks to the south.
Jemison's family moved into the home in 1863, and that same year, Jemison was unanimously elected as president of the Alabama Senate. Upon the death of William Lowndes Yancey in July, Jemison was appointed to the Confederate States Senate in Richmond, Virginia, and served in this position until the end of the war in 1865. Jemison lost most of his fortune after the war and spent his remaining years rebuilding it; he died in his Tuscaloosa mansion on October 16, 1871.
In 1934, the house was catalogued by the New Deal Historic American Buildings Survey, which documented an adjacent two-story structure for housing servants. The home remained in the family until 1945, when local business magnate Joseph P. Burchfield and his wife Nell purchased and fully restored it. In 1955, the home was purchased by the local YMCA as part of an exchange agreement with local businessman and philanthropist Victor Hugo Friedman, for the northern half of the block, which also included the nearby Battle-Friedman House, which dates from 1835. The YMCA then built its new central YMCA building on part of this property. In 1958, Friedman gave the Jemison Mansion to Tuscaloosa County for use as a public library, and it was named the Friedman Public Library in his honor. On April 19, 1972, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places for its historical and architectural significance. In 1979, the county built a new public library on what is now Jack Warner Parkway, and the Jemison-Van der Graaff Mansion then served as publishing house offices for the local Horizons and Antique Monthly magazines. The property next passed to the Tuscaloosa County Preservation Society and the Heritage Commission of Tuscaloosa, who oversaw its second restoration.
In 1991, the city of Tuscaloosa acquired the mansion, and deeded it in 1992 to the Jemison-Van de Graaff Mansion Foundation formed that year to manage the house. This foundation became responsible for the restoration and upkeep of the mansion for the city of Tuscaloosa and the Tuscaloosa County Preservation Society. Research and restoration on the property continues into the present day. Currently, the main floor has been carefully restored to its original 1860s appearance and can be rented out to the public for weddings, parties, and receptions. The mansion, which also serves as a museum, is free and open to the public Monday through Friday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

Additional Resources

Elebash, Camille. "Jemison Mansion Family Histories." Alabama Heritage 26 (Fall 1992) 35-43.
Gregory, Melanie Betz. "Alabama?s Italianate Houses." Alabama Heritage 89 (Summer 2008) 4-7.
Mellown, Robert. "The Jemison Mansion and Longwood: Antebellum Italianate Villas." Alabama Heritage 26 (Fall 1992) 24-34
Published:  July 12, 2018   |   Last updated:  July 12, 2018