Jemison-Van de Graaff Mansion
1305 Greensboro Avenue
Tuscaloosa, AL 35403
The Jemison-Van de Graaff Mansion was constructed by state senator Robert Jemison, Jr. between 1859-1862. Being a prominent politician and businessman, Jemison wanted a home closer to Tuscaloosa, which had served as the state capital from 1826 to 1846. Jemison originally built this mansion for entertaining and housing visiting colleagues.
The Jemison’s spared no expense creating this state-of-the-art city home. 14 different types of wood were used in the construction of the house. All but two came through Jemison Land Holdings. He wanted to showcase not only his personal wealth but also the wealth of the region. This house, Jemison’s weekend house, cost him $89,000 to build. The state of Alabama spent $50,000 building the state capital building, and that was for the land, materials, labor, and so forth. Jemison did not pay for the labor. He did not buy the materials. He obtained them from his own mill and land companies. Jemison spent almost twice the amount it took for the state capitol building just in the frills.
The Italianate-style house was designed by Philadelphia architect John Stewart who was in Tuscaloosa supervising the construction of Bryce Hospital.
The Jemison home incorporated the latest innovations in design and technology including an elaborate plumbing system that included running water, flush toilets, and a copper bathtub; a large conservatory to be warmed by a central heating plant (which was never installed due to the Yankee blockade) and indoor lighting fueled by coal gas manufactured in a machine located in the basement. Other modern features incorporated in the design were a boiler for producing hot water, a gas stove, an early form of “refrigerator” and a dumb waiter from the basement kitchen to the pantry located above.
The Jemison Mansion had the first built-in bathtub in the state. It was also the first house built with an indoor toilet as well.
The home remained in the family well into this century. Four generations of Jemison’s and Van de Graff's have lived in the home carrying on the tradition of service to the community and the University. Among them are Colonel Andrew Coleman Hargrove, the Confederate Army Office and one-time dean of the University Law School who married Jemison's daughter Cherokee Mims Jemison. Their daughter, Minnie Cherokee Hargrove married A.S. Van de Graff, a circuit court judge.
After the Van de Graaff’s sold the house in 1936, the mansion was used as an apartment complex for numerous years.
The mansion saw its second set of owners in 1945 when the home was purchased by J.P. & Nell Burchfield. They returned it to a single-family residence and made some major renovations. Mrs. Burchfield painted everything white and green and added a few modern touches, as well.
The structure was in danger of being demolished in 1955, at which time, Hugo Friedman (Battle-Friedman Home) bought the mansion and presented it to the Tuscaloosa County Commission to be used as a public library. Between 1955-1957, the structure was renovated to meet the needs of a public library. The house served a generation of Tuscaloosans as the Friedman Public Library before it once again returned to private hands.
In 1979, Gray Boone purchased the property to serve as offices for Antique Monthly, with expectations that the house be restored, preserved, and maintained.
The house was jointly purchased August 8, 1991, by Historic Tuscaloosa (TCPS) and the Heritage Commission of Tuscaloosa County with block grant funds made available by the City of Tuscaloosa.
Significant People of the Mansion
Senator Jemison was not the only important historical figure in this family. Colonel Andrew Hargrove, the senator's son-in-law, was originally a colonel in the Civil War, but went on to be Speaker of the Alabama House and dean of the UA Law School. Hargrove's grandsons also went on to make names for themselves.
Jemison served in the Alabama state legislature, initially in the Senate and then in the House, from 1840-1851. He returned to the Senate from 1851-1863. In 1861, he was a Delegate to the Convention and voted against the Ordinance of Secession. He was elected unanimously to be President of the Alabama Senate in 1863; soon after, he was elected to the Confederate States Senate, replacing William Lowndes Yancey, who had died of a kidney ailment.
Jemison owned multiple businesses. A primary source of capital was his plantations. His papers show that he owned 120 slaves in 1851, including 44 children under the age of 10. He owned six plantations in western Alabama, totaling 10,000 acres. In 1858, he attempted to sell the plantations, 70 slaves and other land in Tuscaloosa, including another residence, a livery stable and the Indian Queen Hotel. Jemison's other ventures included a stagecoach line, toll roads, toll bridges, grist mills, sawmills, turnpikes, stables, a hotel, and plank roads. His largest enterprise was a 4,000-acre Cherokee Place plantation in what is now Northport where he lived before building the Jemison-Van de Graaff Mansion in Tuscaloosa.
Jemison advocated for the creation of a state-owned mental hospital which eventually became Bryce Hospital, and hired the same Philadelphia architectural firm to design both his private Tuscaloosa mansion and the hospital. After the Civil War, Jemison's wealth was significantly diminished, and eventually he lost his family mansion due to debt.
One of his businesses was the Tuscaloosa Bridge Company. It built two of the first covered bridges across the Black Warrior River. Jemison hired Horace King, a skilled multiracial enslaved person from Russell County to build bridges in eastern Mississippi. King became one of the most respected bridge designers and builders in the Deep South. In 1846, Jemison, along with King's owner, John Godwin, obtained his freedom through an act of the Alabama Legislature, which exempted King from the manumission laws. King built the last covered bridge at Tuscaloosa and Northport over the Black Warrior in 1872 just a few months after Jemison's death on October 16, 1871. Jemison made an arrangement with Tuscaloosa County for King to build the bridge and this bridge was the first of many that the county would build.
William Van de Graaff was Alabama's first All-American football player and his brother, Robert Van de Graaff was a brilliant physicist most well-known for his invention of the Van de Graaff Generator. Robert Van de Graaff's accomplishments led to his legacy in the science community as the Father of Modern Physics. Learn more about the amazing people who called this mansion home on one of our free-to-the-public tours!
Visit the Mansion
The Mansion is available for historic tours Tuesday-Saturday at 3:30pm.
Group and school tours are also available by calling or emailing Historic Tuscaloosa
A History Buff's Dream. Grounds and house are beautifully done and well worth the visit. The historical background is excellent.
Welcomed at the door as if we were family. The docent explained all the rooms and was very amenable to questions. Take the time to look at everything. The second floor has the first copper tub in the state. I can't imagine polishing it! The whole place is wonderful and I can picture a houseful of children and teenagers inhabiting it with their parents. A MUST when you are in Tuscaloosa!
Step back in Time:
Beautifully maintained, historically accurate, wonderfully friendly staff. A Tuscaloosa must-see treasure.
Want to see more of the Mansion before you visit?
Check out the video below for some beautiful footage and fun facts about the Jemison-Van de Graaff Mansion.