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History lives in Millionaire’s Row mansions

Apr 30, 2017

A stroll along Millionaire’s Row takes you past the stunning architectural masterpieces that were the former residences of some of the city’s most prominent citizens. Events that shaped the city’s social and political life took place inside these mansions, but one home in particular, the Wilcox Mansion at 641 Delaware Ave., is really special. As the site of President Theodore Roosevelt’s inauguration, it played a major role in America’s history.*

The oldest part of the Wilcox house, recognizable by its large front porch with six soaring columns, was built about 1840 to house officers of the U.S. Army. A series of private owners, including a Buffalo mayor and a state legislator, resided there until 1883, when the father of Mary Grace Rumsey purchased it as a wedding gift. Mary Grace and her new husband, lawyer Ansley Wilcox, remodeled the old officers’ quarters and added considerable square footage.

Wilcox was active in charitable organizations and keenly interested in New York politics. He met Theodore Roosevelt when both served on a special commission on civil service reform. One of the most significant events in American history took place in this building—the inauguration of President Theodore Roosevelt on Sept. 14, 1901.

Buffalo was the site that year of the Pan-American Exposition, an elaborate world’s fair that celebrated innovation. The soaring Electric Tower dominated the fairgrounds on the west side of Delaware Park, and the expo also included structures such as the New York State Building, the Machinery and Transportation Building and the Temple of Music, all designed by prominent architects. The fair ran from May 1 through Nov. 2, 1901.

Earlier that year, President William McKinley made the fateful decision to visit the fair with his wife, Ida. Personable and popular, McKinley was elected in 1896 and re-elected in 1900. During his first term, he was a champion of American industry and presided over a period of prosperity.

McKinley was a president who liked to speak in public and mingle with his constituents, which was somewhat worrisome to his aides. After his re-election, he and Ida undertook a six-week tour of America. His appearance at the Pan-American Expo was to be the concluding stop, but the visit was postponed until the fall after the First Lady became ill.

Arriving in Buffalo on Sept. 5, McKinley gave a well-received speech outlining his second-term priorities. Among the 50,000 people who attended was Leon Czolgosz, an unemployed steelworker from Cleveland. Czolgosz was known as a “rabid anarchist,” according to a contemporary account in The New York Times, and viewed McKinley as an enemy of working people.

The next day, Sept. 6, McKinley was the guest of honor at a public reception at the Temple of Music. At 4:07 p.m., the president was greeting citizens in a receiving line when Czolgosz stepped up to meet him. As McKinley reached out to greet him, Czolgosz fired two shots at point blank range from a revolver concealed in a bandage on his hand. One of the shots ricocheted off a button on McKinley’s coat, but the second bullet penetrated his abdomen.

Surgeons were unable to locate the bullet during an operation at the Exposition hospital and closed the wound without retrieving it. McKinley was then moved to the home of John Milburn, president of the Expo, to recover. Eight days later, on Sept. 14, the president died from an infection that developed from the wound.

Then-Vice President Roosevelt rushed to Buffalo on Sept. 7 and stayed at the Delaware Avenue home of his friend Ansley Wilcox. Four days later, he left Buffalo when the president appeared to rally. But on Sept. 13, McKinley’s condition worsened, and Roosevelt hurried back to Buffalo, arriving early in the morning of Sept. 14. While en route, he learned that McKinley had died.

Ansley Wilcox met Roosevelt at the Buffalo train station. Just after 3:30 p.m. Sept. 14, surrounded by eight of McKinley’s Cabinet members, Roosevelt was sworn in as president by Judge John Hazel in the library of the Wilcox mansion.

The Wilcoxes remained in the home until they passed away in the early 1930s. After that, the house was unoccupied for a time and nearly was demolished. But it gained a new life in the 1940s as a popular restaurant and banquet venue run by Oliver and Kathryn Lawrence.

After the restaurant closed in the early 1960s, the house was vacant and again came close to destruction. It was saved by citizens who valued its history and sought to have it deemed a National Historic Site. In November 1966, Congress authorized National Historic status for the building and allocated funds to refurbish it.

Many of the home’s original features were restored, and on Sept. 14, 1971, the 70th anniversary of Roosevelt’s inauguration, the building reopened as the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site. The site offers guided tours that allow you to step back into the early 20th century and walk through the rooms where the dramatic events of 1901 unfolded. Among the small pieces of history you can see there are items from the Exposition, including the key to the Temple of Music, and furnishings owned by the Wilcoxes. Learn more here about the Wilcox Mansion and the Theodore Roosevelt Historic Site.

The Wilcox Mansion is not the only historic Millionaire’s Row house with stories connected to the McKinley assassination.

An elaborate party was planned for McKinley on the evening of Sept. 6 at the Williams-Butler House, 672 Delaware Ave. This beautiful 40-room mansion was built in the late 1890s by prominent banker George Williams. It was, reportedly, the most expensive and palatial home in town at the time. Williams and his wife, Annie, compiled a guest list of hundreds of the elite from Buffalo, New York state and Washington for the party with McKinley as the guest of honor. But the event was canceled when McKinley was shot just two hours before the guests were set to arrive. The home was later purchased by Edward Butler, publisher of The Buffalo Evening News.

George Williams’ brother, banker Charles H Howard, and his wife, Emma Alice, also hosted lavish parties at their enormous home, the Williams-Pratt House at 690 Delaware Ave. Renowned for its huge drawing room, the house was transformed into a tropical garden for the Oriental Ball, held in 1926. It fell into disrepair following the Great Depression but was acquired by the city and dedicated in 1940 to the Veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). In 1955 it was sought after by two real estate companies that wanted to raze and replace it with an office building. Thanks to vigorous opposition by veterans groups, the Common Council voted against the sale. It was sold in 1978 to a Buffalo businessman. An engineering firm occupies the house today.

Some Pan-American Expo visitors paid the then-exorbitant price of $3 a night to stay at a hotel at 414 Delaware Ave., owned by Samuel C. Trubee. Originally known as the Charles F. Sternberg House, it was built in 1869 by Sternberg, the owner of a grain elevator, for his bride, Mary. Not a lot is known about Sternberg, but he surely had elaborate tastes. The 20,000-square-foot house had 18-foot ceilings and more than 200 windows. Architect George Allison’s Second Empire design featured Corinthian columns, delicate iron scrollwork, gargoyles and hand-carved stone cornices. Trubee bought the house in the 1880s, built an addition and converted the house into a 100-room hotel. In a later incarnation, it housed the Victor Hugo Wine Cellar. In 2001, it was renovated and reborn as The Mansion, a 28-room luxury hotel.

Canterbury Woods Gates Circle is rising on the site of another historic Buffalo property, the former Millard Fillmore Gates Circle Hospital, and like these properties, this beautiful new continuing care retirement community is destined to become a vital part of the Buffalo scene.

When it’s completed this fall, Canterbury Woods Gates Circle will be home to a group of residents who are as vital and interesting as the city of Buffalo itself. The community offers both cutting-edge style and services, and proximity to the historic charm and amenities of Elmwood Village and Millionaire’s Row.

For more information about this unique retirement community, please contact us at (716) 929-5817 or send us a message.

*Major sources for this story: Buffalo Architecture and History; The Buffalo News, “Meet the Mansions: A stroll along Buffalo’s historic Delaware Avenue,” by Susan Martin, Oct. 20, 2013; Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site.

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