Jemison's House

Phillip M. Burrow

Birmingham, Alabama, United States

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Jemison’s House

The Jemison-Van de Graaff Mansion (constructed 1859-1862) was one of the last and most elaborate great houses to be built in Alabama before the state’s economy was devastated by the Civil War. The builder, wealthy planter and business man, Robert Jemison, Jr., spared no expense to create a “state of the art” home for his family. The Italianate style house was designed by Philadelphia architect John Stewart who was in Tuscaloosa supervising the construction of the Alabama Insane Hospital (now Bryce Hospital). This enormous structure had been designed by Stewart’s partner Samuel Sloan, who also designed famous “Longwood” in Natchez, Mississippi. Jemison’s home incorporated the latest innovations in design and technology including an elaborate plumbing system with running water, flush toilets, and a copper bathtub. It also featured a large conservatory to be warmed by a central heating plant (unfortunately never installed because of the Yankee blockades), 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 and, an early form of “refrigerator” consisting of a deep dry well in the basement that kept food fresh even in hot Alabama summers. This dry well seems to be the source of an enduring myth about the house which says that there is a tunnel from here to the river.

The Jemison-Van de Graaff Mansion was almost burned during the waning days of the Civil War. When Tuscaloosa and The University of Alabama were threatened by Union troops, Senator Jemison fled for his life and spent several days hiding in the swamp near his plantation. In retribution, Union soldiers sought to burn the home of this leading Confederate senator. Mrs. Jemison was given fifteen minutes to take what possessions she needed from the house before it was put to the torch. Fortunately, during those few minutes young boys, playing a trick on the invading Yankees, rode down Greensboro Avenue crying, “Forrest is coming, hurrah for Forrest!” The Yankee commander, fearful of this legendary rebel general, ordered his troops to retreat. In their haste, they neglected to burn down the Jemison Mansion.
The Jemison Mansion

Artwork Comments

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