Visiting the Wilcox Mansion, Buffalo, New York: The Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site
Residence of President Roosevelt's friend, who had a mind of his own
Tragedy struck suddenly on September 6, 1901. President William McKinley was shot by an anarchist at the Pan-American Exposition, Buffalo, New York, dying on September 14.
It quickly fell to the already larger-than-life, former New York Governor, Vice President Theodore R. Roosevelt to take the oath of office to become President of the United States.
In the grief and upheavals of the moment, the question arose: where to find a suitable venue for the swearing in? At the time, T R Roosevelt was staying at the residence of his friend Ansley Wilcox at 641 Delaware Road, Buffalo. It had been suggested that after paying respects to President McKinley's widow at a nearby residence he should take the oath there and then in the same building. But T R Roosevelt felt that this would be somewhat unseemly, with the remains of the late President in the same building. Instead, he opted to return to the Ansley Wilcox mansion, where, in the library, at 3.30PM he took the oath of office as 26th President of the United States, administered by Federal Judge John. R. Hazel.
T R Roosevelt went on to fulfill a distinguished Presidency, being reelected in 1904, and was noted for anti-trust legislation which curbed the power of large corporations. He also won the Nobel Prize for Peace for his efforts to end the Russo-Japanese War.
Wilcox breaks with TR and backs Taft instead
Host Ansley Wilcox, though a friend of Theodore Roosevelt, certainly proved that he was not overawed by him. In 1912 TR Roosevelt ran again for President and this time Mr Wilcox declined to support him, backing William H. Taft instead.
Surprising? Not really. Despite his history of friendship with Theodore Roosevelt, Ansley Wilcox was very much a party man, respectful of the Republican Party's nomination process, by which Taft in 1912, already the sitting President, had been re-nominated. When Roosevelt, who had also back Taft in 1908, decided that he would withdraw his support for Taft and run again himself independently of the Republican Party, he found that his previous strong supporters were not longer available.
As a seasoned political observer, Ansley Wilcox perceived more clearly than Roosevelt did what is arguably a cardinal point of the American political system: personal loyalties count for far less than the nomination of a party. In 1912, Roosevelt did not break the mold of the system; he then returned to private life, dying in 1919. While many Americans had happened to agree with him about the issue around which he was in disagreement with the Taft Administration — i.e., lack of progress on anti-trust legislation — yet then, as today, the widespread assumption among many Americans was that any needed change needs to come from within the established party system, rather than independently, through a demagoguic figure (1).
I think that the Wilcox Mansion is thus as much a monument to Ansley Wilcox as it is to Theodore Roosevelt. Mr Wilcox was precisely a friend of TR Roosevelt because the latter was at the time working within the established political system. But he was not one to let anyone's assumptions of personal greatness or grandeur supposedly take precedence over the party nomination system. Even if that person was his larger-than-life friend, President Theodore Roosevelt.
Mr. Wilcox was born in 1856 and became a successful lawyer. He was a noted conservationist and worked to preserve the American part of the Niagara Falls. He also created the United States first day care center for working mothers. He retired from his law practice in 1917 and died in 1930.
Some features of the house
Visitors may see the library, where this historic event took place; this library has been restored with period specific décor and books. In an adjoining room, the desk upon which Theodore Roosevelt wrote his first Presidential Proclamation, regarding a day of mourning for the late President MacKinley, may also be viewed. The building also exhibits a great deal of background information about the circumstances of the Pan American Exposition held at Buffalo in 1901.
The Wilcox Mansion, with its striking, Greek Revival, pillared frontage, later became a restuarant, and, when this business ceased to function, the threat of demolition loomed. After the intervention of a number of prominent, public figures, the property passed to the National Parks Service and was designated a National Historic Site in 1966.
(1) As well as 1912, there was another occasion in 20th century American public life when — albeit briefly — a popular, almost mythical, demagoguic figure was feared by some observers as having the power to sweep away the established political system. This was in 1952, when General Douglas MacArthur was relieved of his command by an at the time unpopular President, Harry S. Truman. However, events proved in 1952, as in 1912, that the path to bringing about popularly desired changes — or not, as the case may be — was through the existing system rather than in opposition to it.
Also worth seeing
In Buffalo itself:
Broderick Park , Black Rock, Buffalo, has poignant memories of the Underground Railroad. Notable buildings in Buffalo include: the Ellicott Square Building (which was originally the world's largest office building); the Electric Tower (originally known as the Niagara Mohawk Building); the Art Deco City Hall.
Old Fort Erie , Fort Erie, Ontario (distance: 11.2 kilometres); this stone fort has many memories of the War of 1812.
Bergholz , New York (distance: approx. 25.2 kilometres); the site of an historic German Lutheran Settlement. Bergholz's 'Das Haus' German Heritage Museum is sponsored by the Historical Society of North German Settlements in Western New York.
The US Post Office, Niagara Falls , New York (distance: 32.8 kilometres) at the Main Street and Walnut Avenue intersection, is a very fine building which dates from 1904-1907, and was designed in French Neoclassical style, with Beaux Arts details, by James Knox Taylor. The American Falls themselves are of course an outstanding visitor attraction.
Lewiston , New York (distance: 40.2 kilometres); the historic Frontier House, which in its day was classed as an outstanding hotel, is one of various, noted buildings in Lewiston's Historic District. The first railway in the US was built at Lewiston in 1764. This remarkable locality also has significant associations with the War of 1812.
How to get there: Continental Airlines flies from New York Newark to Buffalo Niagara International Airport, where car rental is available. Buffalo, NY is linked with Albany, NY via the I-290 and I-90. From Canada, accessible via the Peace Bridge, the QEW links Fort Erie, ON with Hamilton and Toronto. Please check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information. Please refer to appropriate consular sources for any special border crossing arrangements which may apply to citizens of certain nationalities.
MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.