Monday, June 13, 2016

The Cassimus House in Alabama: Monument of Greek-American Immigration

The Cassimus House in Montgomery, AL is a testament to the history of Hellenes in that Southern U.S. City, and to Greek-American immigration overall.


THE CASSIMUS HOUSE IN AL:
MONUMENT OF GREEK-AMERICAN IMMIGRATION

Published in The National Herald, June 4-10, 2016 Issue
Authored by Steve Frangos, TNH Staff Writer

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We are excited to announce that The National Herald has given Hellenic Genealogy Geek the right to reprint articles that may be of interest to our group. 



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CHICAGO- All across the United States one can find historical monuments, statues, public buildings, pools, athletic fields, gardens, fountains, rooms, homes, plaques, public artwork, public parks, historical markers, and other commemorative sites specifically dedicated to the memories of local Greek-Americans.

The Cassimus House of Montgomery AL is yet another of these preserved historical sites. Situated on less than one acre of land this two-story frame house is a historic Queen Anne style structure which was completed in 1893. The Cassimus House is distinctive for its classical Greek revival style.

It was erected by Speridon Cassimus, the younger of two Greek brothers who, with their father, moved to Montgomery sometime around 1878, the first documented Greek immigrants to settle in that city. Curiously, historical information about the Cassimus family is sketchy at best. Initially, the family ran a wholesale fruit business on Bibb Street.

Sometime in 1935, the house was altered converting it into two individual apartments with the addition of a modern rear entrance. It is the last residential structure remaining on Jackson Street. On August 13, 1976, the House was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The House underwent extensive restoration in 1976, and ever since has been occupied by the Alabama State Employees Association. The obelisk on its right is a war memorial erected by the American Legion to honor “Alabama Veterans of all wars.”

A Nomination Form for the National Register of Historic Places that must be submitted to the Department of the Interior for every location. The Nomination Form for the House can be readily found on the Internet. There is a page provided in all such application forms for a short account of the significance of the structure being considered for inclusion. One would think such accounts are objective historic vignettes. Here is the first paragraph of the “Statement of Significance:”

“The Cassimus House is one of the few remaining examples of eccentric late Victorian architecture in Montgomery. Constructed in what was one of the finer residential areas in late 19th century Montgomery, the house not only reflects the newly–acquired prosperity of its Greek immigrant builder, but is one of the earliest landmarks associated with the Greek community in Alabama. When Speridon Cassimus built his home at 110 Jackson Street in 1893, he was a newly successful businessman and he wanted his neighbors to know it. Yet there is a curious reticence about the overall design of his house since, except for the front porch he rejected ornate, Gothic-inspired detailing for the dentil molding and egg-and-dart associated with the more classical styles of architecture.”

First, how does the unidentified writer know Cassimus built his house expressly because he “wanted his neighbors to know it?” Also, and I am making this observation as an person who has worked as a professional carpenter, I never learned to nail or add any trim to a building knowing that by doing so would make that structure either “curious” or “reticent.” It could just be that Cassimus didn’t like the kind of Gothic-inspired molding this writer seems so enamored with.

This nomination statement does have important historic information:

“Speridon Cassimus came to the United States on December 28, 1888. Funds for his trip were provided by money saved by his father and brother both named Alexander M. Cassimus. Alexander and his oldest son had arrived in Mobile, Alabama on October 23, 1873, where they opened a fruit store. After about a year, for unknown reasons, they moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where they lived until 1878 when they moved to Montgomery.

“Speridon Cassimus, a married man with two children, left his native home of Othonior, Corfu, and his family with the promise that once enough money was earned, he would return to bring them to America. From the profits of the successful wholesale fruit business which he operated on Bibb Street he accomplished this goal in 1892 and was successful enough to have purchased the lot and begun construction of the home. When he returned from Greece with his family, he brought with him fig trees, flowering Sparta bushes and many other garden variety plumb to use around the home.”

The last paragraph of this statement notes that Alex Cassimus was “one of the first Greek immigrants in the state.” And given that “the Greek communities in the state have little or no physical heritage dating much earlier than the early 20th century, when their churches were built; and the Cassimus House, currently under restoration…is possibly the oldest remaining; landmark associated with the early history of Greeks in Alabama.”

Now let us step back a minute here and review what we have been told. First it took Speridon Cassimus four to five years to earn the money to fulfill his promise. Maybe, but I find that hard to believe. Let’s do some rough calculations. Speridon Cassimus buys an acre lot in the most expensive neighborhood in town. Added to the expensive of the land Cassimus hires local workmen to build a large new finely appointed house from the ground up. Next he travels to Greece and brings back his wife and two children. All those expenses not counting the monies needed to ship and plant an unspecified number of fig trees and assorted plumbs. I don’t care how good a fruit stand merchant Speridon Cassimus might have been something must be missing from the historical account we have been provided with. While I am not sure what that might be the case since his father Alex lived with him and his family I think it is safe to assume some money was contributed by Alex Cassimus in this whole process.

But what about the Cassimus family? What happened to them? And why do we not hear more about them in the description of the house that Speridon Cassimus commissioned to be built? Newspaper articles, cemetery records and other accounts can provide us with some answers to these questions. Rather than worry that we do not have the whole story let us see what is readily known. Cemetery records report that Speridon and Mary Cassimus buried four infant children between 1895 and 1913, two boys and two girls.

While members of the extended Cassimus family arrived in Montgomery around 1878 I only managed to find newspaper accounts, for various members of the Cassimus family, starting in 1904 – a full 46 years after the family’s arrival. On October 12, 1904, Christopher J. Cassimus (b 1847) was killed by a trolley car in a horrific accident. Identified in one newspaper account as “Colonel C. J. Cassimus” we must assume that this member of the extended Cassimus kindred had received this honorary title –at least in this one news account – as an indication of the broader community’s respect for this man (Augusta Chronicle October 13, 1904). In the Montgomery Advertiser we learn that: “Mr. Cassimus was extremely popular in Montgomery. Mr. Cassimus being constantly at the stand, he was known to a large number of people. The fact that he was preparing to return to the home of his boyhood, solicited no little sympathy for the deceased and his family. On account of his large family connection around Montgomery, many fruit stands throughout the city closed yesterday evening (October 13, 1904).”

The wider history of Greeks in the United States can only be enriched by learning more about the Cassimus family, the Greek immigrants of Montgomery and the state of Alabama in general.