National Historic Registry
The mansion was listed on the National Historic Registry in 1976, described as:
“Hassinger House, 2028 Highland Avenue, 2898, Thomas U Walter III architect. One of two survivors of the time when the lower leg of Highland Avenue was lined with grand residences, this house reflects a traditional Victorian style of asymmetrically massing with Classical details, its most prominent feature being the corner turret and high conical roof. The long-time home of industrialist William H. Hassinger and his family, it has for many years been occupied by Daniels Opticians”.
“This 12,500 square foot house has two stories plus full attic and full basement, 4 stacked stories of the structure. Its steep complex roof is adorned with numerous gables and decorative finales, the house has a wraparound veranda porch, and brownstone style porch constructed of limestone with scalloped limestone porch enclosure. All window lintels and sills are limestone and it has a well-appointed brick exterior with joisted masonry interior. The Ionic columns of the porch verandah are classically inspired, as well as Ionic columns at the foyer interior. The athenaeum in the pediment over the front door entry has elaborate scroll-work unique to the mansions of this neighborhood and time period. The east side has a circular staircase between the 1st and 2nd floors with the beautiful Victorian stained glass still intact with vivid gold, orange and blue colors, including a Heraldry theme in the central curved stained glass. Above these stairs in the attic are 2 twin stained glass windows and a Griffin theme orange and gold stained glass window in the Foyer. The original roof has failed and water damage through 4 stories is evident. Hardware floors and mahogany pocket doors are present but in varying states of decay. Some circa 1950-1960 non-bearing partitions subdivide some historic rooms and when removed, the original floor plan and décor will be revealed. Eight (8) Victorian fireplaces and surrounds are present in varying conditions and 4 chimneys. The building has knob and tube original electrical wiring, prior intermittent fire damage evidence, partial heating, no air conditioning, and lead plumbing”.
First Owners – William and Virginia Hassinger
Silk Stocking Row Builders
The history of the mansion is also the history of Birmingham. Birmingham started as a little village in the mid-19th Century located at the end of the Appalachian Mountain range in the area called Jones Valley which had fertile soils above limestone and iron ore geologic formations below. During the Civil War (1961 to 1965), the Tannehill Foundry (southwest of today’s downtown Birmingham) became the sole source of iron cannonballs for the Confederate Army. This juxtaposition of the war producing armaments foundry to the farming village caused this area to be a target of the Union Army as they progressed towards the Confederate Capital.
After the Civil War, the iron industry progressed and by the 1890s, William H Hassinger was a wealthy and important iron industry leader. He employed hundreds of workers whose products had a national market. He and his wife Virginia built and founded the Hassinger Mansion at 2028 Highland Ave South, Birmingham, AL. Their first 4 children moved in with their parents in 1898. Within a few years, 2 other children were born to the family while they lived in the mansion.
While Alabama produces good quality architectural limestone, the Hassingers could afford the more expensive Indiana limestone for their front fence, porch features, and door and window surrounds. All of the mansion’s windows and doors are extra wide and tall, allowing for wonderful sun-filled spaces. Natural lighting is important since the mansion was built when Birmingham did not have electricity. Lit by gas sconces, shared light via transom windows were graciously provided via the architect to allow lighting in the hallways while still retaining the privacy of rooms. At this time, gas did not have an aroma like it does today. If a sconce was lit but the flame blew out, someone walking into space with a flame (smoker) could ignite the escaped gas, causing an explosion. Some beautiful neighboring homes exploded in this way during this time period but fortunately, the Hassinger Mansion survived.
Turn of the Century Life Style
Servants of the Hassinger family lived both within the property and other locations. The original cooking kitchen was external to the main house, located adjacent to the alley behind the property since it contained a wood-burning stove that could get out of control and burn the mansion down if indoors. The hidden servant stair on the north end of the mansion, at the area where a 1908 addition was made to the original floor plan, is a reminder that the average person was smaller than today’s population during this time period. Coal to fuel the coal stoker heating furnace on the first floor and groceries were delivered via oxen and wagon from the alley side. Ice horse-drawn delivery vehicles brought precious ice for the family’s ice boxes. Business and social guests of the family arrived and entered from the Highland Ave South side.
At the turn of the century, the Hassinger Mansion was one of the finest structures in the new rapidly growing city. It had all the stylish architectural features the wealthy could afford, including an architectural turret, New England slate roof, Greco-Roman style hand-carved moldings and pilasters. Exquisite door and window hardware were used. At a time when most of Birmingham homes had outdoor privies, the Hassinger Mansion had 3 operating large Victorian bathrooms with footed claw tubs, hot and cold water, and overhead showers with flushing toilets.
Prominent citizens would promenade and walk their babies in strollers along the scenic wide sidewalks with manicured gardens of Highland Ave. There was a community public transit operation utilizing mules hauling the San Francisco looking street cars along Highland Ave out front. The trolley ran from downtown (Lynn Park and Court House area) up to 20th Street South then east on Highland Ave to Lake View, a very popular swimming and social gathering place.
William Henry Hassinger
Husband of Virginia Emelie Del Bondio Hassinger
Born May 25, 1863 in New Orleans, LA
Died age 72 March 28, 1935 in Birmingham, AL
William was the 3rd child and oldest son of Jacob and Catherine Hassinger. He graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York on June 17, 2885, with a major in civil engineering and chemistry. For 2 years following college, he was Chief Chemist for the Youngstown Steel Company of Youngstown, Ohio, but Birmingham attracted him during its “Boom Period” because of the abundant local coal, ironer ore, and limestone.
In 1887, at almost age 24, he incorporated and formed the Alabama Rolling Mill Company and established a plant on 30 acres in the Gate City area of Birmingham. He built an all iron sheet metal building with numerous furnaces and machinery, and started production a year later in February 1888, making pig iron bars, bands, hoops, cotton ties, light T’s and street rails. The next year, at age 25, he became a Director of the Henderson Steel Company that made steel from the local coal, iron ore, and limestone. In 1906, he became a Director of the First National Bank of Birmingham and remained in that capacity until his death in 1935. Visiting the bank became a daily habit for him. Officers of the bank grew to look for these visits, it is said.
In 1899, the year after finishing the Hassinger Mansion, he sold his Alabama Rolling Mill Company to Republic Iron and Steel Company and became the Southern territory manager, and later Executive Vice President of Republic Iron and Steel. Under his direction, coal from the Big Seam was first washed and coked. He also built the first large furnace of 250 tons capacity.
He retired from Republic Iron and Steel in 19067 and reorganized the bankrupt Southern Steel Company as the Southern Iron and Steel Company and became its President. He remodeled and enlarged the steel furnaces and it became the Gulf States Company. At this time, he also helped organize the American Case Iron and Pipe Company and served on its board.
In 1916, he became a member of the Board of Directors of the Alabama Power Company and was a pioneer in securing electricity for industrial and domestic use.
Virginia Emelie Del Bondio Hassinger
Wife of William Henry Hassinger
Born September 22, 1869 in New Orleans, LA
Died age 85 April 13, 1954 in Birmingham, AL
Virginia was the daughter of Emile Ferdinand Del Bondio and Wilhelmina Ziegler, born in New Orleans and died in Birmingham, AL. She married William Hassinger on February 8, 1893, at age 24 (he was 30) in New Orleans. The couple had 4 children as they moved into the Hassinger Mansion and 2 others were while the family lived in the mansion. They owned the mansion until 1975 when they sold it to Roy and Venoa Daniels, who had been their renters from 1946 to 1975.
Supervision of the household servants and daily family activities of the mansion would have been the role of Virginia Hassinger. Historians believe that the main level of the mansion acted as the entry reception parlor, waiting parlor, ladies parlor, and gentlemen parlor along with the dining room. The original kitchen was to the north of the mansion along the alley, to avoid possible fire damage and/or destruction of the building. The second kitchen on the property was inside the brick 1908 northern addition to the mansion, which coincided to after electricity was brought to Highland Ave and safer cooking practices were possible. She would have supervised the household collection, washing, and drying of clothing, which took place in the lower level (now the Art Studio) inside the soapstone 3 compartment sink. The mansion had a cistern method of rainwater collection and dispersal which centered on the lower level. A coal-fired, potbelly style furnace fired up the hot water, which was distributed to the clothes washing, kitchen, and 3 bathrooms.
The mansion is a passive solar structure with sustainable green architectural traits, with significant thermal mass achieved via the high fired exterior brick exterior masonry, then a 4-inch air pocket, then an interior brick wall construction, followed by one hour lath and plaster system with horsehair plaster system. The high roof structure with slate roof allowed rainwater to shed quickly into the downspouts thus avoiding standing water harm to the structure or standing water where mosquitos and other pests might flourish.
Second Owners – Roy and Venoa Daniels
Daniels Optical Live Work
Roy Daniels was an Optician and helped numerous active-duty soldiers during WWII. His sweetheart and wife, was Venoa, a nurse and relator during active periods of her life. The young couple rented the mansion from the Hassingers from 1946 to 1976. They created a life-work operation with their optician clinic plus a pediatrician lease on the main floor. They leased the upper level to bookkeepers where Serafim and Camelot rooms are today and dentists in what are now the Peacock and Garden View rooms. Fortunately, in their time period, they did not tear down or remove the crucial Victorian features that later became very important. For example, they built a wall covering up the Victorian Butlers Pantry so no harm would come to it. They covered up the Victorian fireplace in the restored dining room which allowed it to go into a time warp and be a highlight feature during the restoration. All original fireplace surrounds, tiles, and hardware was intact when the third owners bought it.
When Dr. Daniels died, Mrs. Daniels continued living in the mansion and refused offers to purchase it as neighbors had done which ultimately caused their destruction. Thankfully, she held forth and loved the vision of a Victorian “Grand Lady” Mansion.
Third Owners – Ira and Sheila Chaffin
Bed and Breakfast with Art Studio
In 1998, Sheila Chaffin, an Architect and City Planner, was recruited from New York City by the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) to be their Executive Director for Campus Planning. She was tasked with redesigning the campus master plan, identifying real estate to be purchased, utilities to be undergrounded, buildings to be built and/or renovated, and establish a town/campus edge of mutual support. She successfully did so for almost 20 years until her retirement. She was honored for this body of work by the American Planning Association with the “Distinguished Career Professional Planner in the State of Alabama” award.
Her husband, Ira Chaffin, a life-long professional sculptor, also made Birmingham his adopted home. The couple purchased an 1898 Victorian Mansion of 4,000 SF at 1309 19th Street South, 2 blocks from the Hassinger Mansion, in the same Five Points Historic District. After several years of restoration, it was ready for occupancy. It became the city of Birmingham and 7-county region’s first Bed and Breakfast.
Unknown to them at the time, Mrs. Venoa Daniels quietly watched as the couple restored their Victorian Mansion into the state of Alabama’s largest bed and breakfast. One day, she appeared at the Chaffin’s b&b front door and asked to tour. Ira introduced himself and toured her. She was very complimentary. She returned several times with peachtree suckers from the Hassinger Mansion yard for the Chaffin’s yard. Mrs. Daniels attended many public hearings and saw Sheila present UAB projects and knew she was an architect and city planner.
Ira established his Chaffin Carousel Carving Art Studio on the floor above Dave’s Pub in the Terrace Court Building, at the corner of 20th Street South and Highland Avenue South. At night, the sculpted carousel animals came to life with spotlights and their bright colors, some even turned on a turn-style. Mrs. Daniels admired these creations in the windows and asked to see the art school. She came from time to time and would quietly sit and watch as Ira’s adult students would follow his instructions and create horses, giraffes, lions, and the occasional elephant or eagle.
In 2010, Mrs. Daniels needed to go to assisted living and she sought to sell the mansion to someone who would restore and love it in perpetuity. The family received a proposal from a developer who intended to demolish it and build back a new building at a higher density that current zoning would allow. Mrs. Daniels asked her family to accept her preferred proposal from the Chaffins to restore it back to its 1898 Silk Stocking Victorian glory and establish a bed and breakfast and art studio in the 12,500 SF Mansion.
The Chaffins went through the Design Review of the City, Part I, Part II and Part III of the National Historic Registry, and consultations with the Birmingham Historical Society and Jefferson County Historical Society. The building needed a lot of TLC to bring it back to its glory days, but they did it. Hassinger Mansion was the tour subject of an Alabama Historical Commission professional symposium in 2012. It was on the “Most in Peril Historic Structures” listing of the Commission. Sheila gave tours and discussed historic construction techniques then in process of the Mansion.
Today Hassinger Daniels Mansion is a 4-story, beautifully restored Victorian Mansion offering guest lodging on three floors and an art studio on one story.