For years, passers by and residents in Birmingham’s Southside have beenfascinated by the dilapidated Queen Anne mansion at 2028 Highland Avenue South.Inhabited by a mysterious lone elderly woman, the house has been on Alabama’s top 10 most at-risk architectural gems in danger ofsuccumbing to the commercial pressures of the area. However, a recent flurry ofconstruction activity signals a transformation that will bring full circle the history of aNational Historic Registered house that has paradoxically embodied and bucked thehistorical trends of the area.
The 24-room mansion is a fairly traditional Queen Anne architectural exampleof the “Silk Stocking Row” of high-end Highland Avenue rnansions, that flourished in early Birmingham. It was built circa 1898 by William Hassinger, an early Birmingham industrialist who lived in the home withhis wife and six children until 1930. Around this time, the post-war boom of the 1920sand the emergence of the local health care industry had begun putting commercialpressure on the neighborhood. Some mansions were demolished and replaced bycommercial structures. Others followed a common trend in the area and becamedoctors’ offices. In 1946, after a series of residential renters, the home became theoffice and residence of optician Roy Daniels and his wife Venoa, who sublet rooms for anumber of other businesses. Dr. and Mrs. Daniels would purchase the home in 1968 and name it the “Twenty Twenty-Eight Building.”
After the death of her husband in the 1990s, Venoa Daniels did somethingunusual that would ultimately be a wonderful act of historic preservation: she stayed.As exterior signs from her late husband’s practice rusted and plants overgrew the yard,maintaining the house became increasingly difficult. Although there were many offers to buy the home, it was not until December of 2010 that 94-year-old Mrs.Daniels sold the home to Ira and Sheila Chaffin, pleased with their plans to preserve itas a Bed and Breakfast.
The Chaffins are embarking on the project with the benefit of having restored thenearby Cobb Lane Bed and Breakfast (Bingham Tarrant House on National HistoricRegistry). Sheila Chaffin’s architectural experience andIra Chaffin’s fine wood working skills no doubt helps, and but the restoration isdaunting. Years of roof leaks have caused extensive water damage throughout thehouse. The main floor has clearly been little used for years, and water infiltrationhas resulted in damaged horse hairlath and plaster beneath layers of peeling paint andwallpaper. Gas lines from original fixtures protrude from walls. Electrical wiring is knob and tube, with evidence in several locations of arcing or small electrical fires.The grandeur of the home is nonetheless apparent. The main entry hall features afireplace, ships-ladder moldings, wainscoting, ionic columns, and a two storyhalf-round“silo” staircase with intricate curvedstained glass windows. Beautiful Victorian wood trim, large pocketdoors, transom windows, and claw foot bathtubs remain to be polished up, as does a rare copper child servant’s dishing washing sink. Surprisingly, eight fireplaces with beautiful wooden mantles miraculously escaped water damage.
Initial renovation has focused on immediate stabilization. The deterioratedslate roof is being replaced with new composite lamorite shingles that maintain theoriginal look of slate. The decking and eaves require extensive repair. Major systemsare being replaced (although the basement still contains a coal-fired hot water heater). James: We had coal furnace cut up and removed.
Interior work seeks a balance between preserving the architectural character ofthe home and meeting the needs and legal requirements of a bed and breakfast conversion. The first floor will include an entry room, main parlor, dining room, kitchen, and a guest room, and owner’s quarters. The second floor will house five guest rooms, including a suite and anextended stay unit with it’s own kitchen. All but one guest room on the first two floors willhave a beautiful fireplace. The unfinished attic will become four guestrooms that, while lacking fireplaces, will take advantage of the dormer windows in the roofline of the house and the upper tier of stained glass in the silo. The basement will house the Chaffin Carousel Carving School, moving over from Terrace Court Building which is run by Ira Chaffin. The inn is scheduled to open in late 2011 as theHassinger Daniels Mansion Bed and Breakfast.
With its salvation, the Hassinger-Daniels mansion has secured a unique place inthe history of a neighborhood where conversion to a doctor’s office usually presaged thedemise of a beautiful a mansion. Area residents are eager to see the home grow into it’snew role in a vibrant part of town where transformation has been the rule rather than theexception. None of it would be possible without the meticulous efforts of Sheila and IraChaffin, and the unsung contribution of Venoa Daniels — the woman who stayed.