If Walls Could Talk
Since 1862, the statuesque Jemison-Van de Graaff Mansion has occupied a prominent position at 1305 Greensboro Avenue in Tuscaloosa. When I first visited the mansion, I was a bit disconcerted. Despite its obvious beauty and history, the mansion’s exterior has seen better days and suggests a backdrop for an episode of Ghost Hunters, a television show that investigates paranormal activity in old buildings.
At odds with the exterior is the eternally cheerful Ian Crawford, director of the Jemison-Van de Graaff Mansion. His job is to curate the 1859 House Museums Collection, maintain preservation outreach and education, and secure funding to restore the mansion to her former glory.
“It’s been an interesting and unique challenge, working with everything and everyone it takes to keep this place going,” Crawford explains, citing the difficulty of the restoration as one of the reasons he returned to Tuscaloosa after finishing his master’s degree in Preservation Studies at Tulane University School of Architecture.
Another draw for Crawford is the mansion’s history, 150 years that are etched into its walls. The magnificent house was built from 1859-1862, one of the last elaborate homes built before the Civil War. Its historic backdrop attracts various literature readings and writing series, such as Slashpine Press, MFA readings, and the Bankhead Visiting Writers Series.
“It’s hard to put a number on how many [literary events] we host because we host so many, but we love to have them,” Crawford says.
He also agrees that there’s definitely a connection between all of the humanities, something that runs deeper than just being picked on by math majors. Art, history, and literature speak to our souls, to the most human parts of us. They have a life of their own.
“Merging literature, history, and the architectural environment augments each experience,” Crawford explains, when asked why he thinks the mansion hosts so many readings. “Often, you need to leave your comfort zone to experience something in a new way.”
The mansion is definitely outside of most people’s comfort zones. The façade needs a little repair, but I think a literature-loving soul would find something familiar about its slightly disheveled appearance. Books, too, are snapshots of history. Like the stories old buildings guard in their walls and foundations, books also immortalize in paper and ink snapshots of their eras and those who made them.
Like all old places, Jemison Mansion has its own atmosphere. While the faded exterior might suggest creepy ghosts to those familiar with horror movies and the southern gothic, the interior conveys warmth and welcome.
Referring to the popularity of Ghost Hunters, Crawford admits, “We’ve had many groups come through to investigate paranormal activity, and some have even found some difficult-to-explain phenomena. If the house is haunted, though, it’s not an angry or negative feeling. I’ve spent many hours alone in the house during the day and night, and it certainly can be eerie, but it’s not at all scary.” Despite frequent questions about ghosts, Crawford never gets sick of answering them.
However, Crawford and many others who frequent the mansion have been in the house and have heard a tremendous crashing sound coming from the upper floor, as if a great china cabinet had toppled over, splintering wood, shattering crystal, and breaking china. Yet when Crawford and others investigate the source of the noise, nothing is ever out of place.
“It has happened to me, when the law firm was downstairs,” Crawford said. “It sounded like the belvedere just fell through the roof. I ran upstairs and there was nothing. The law firm called asking what happened. They’d heard it, too, and it’s a sound from inside the house. People always describe it the same way, like a china cabinet falling over.”
Whatever may or may not be lingering around the Jemison-Van de Graaff Mansion, the home certainly occupies a unique place in Tuscaloosa’s history, and will hopefully attract more visitors in the future.