Exploring Buffalo’s fascinating link to President Teddy Roosevelt.

By Christopher Joslin

The peaceful transition of presidential powers has been a time-honored precedent in the US that traditionally unfolds on the steps of the Capitol building in Washington, DC. Rarely has a president taken the oath of office outside of the Capitol. 

Yet, one such instance occurred right here in New York State. On September 14, 1901, Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt took the oath of office in the library of the home of his friend, Ansley Wilcox, following the assassination of President William McKinley to become the 26th president of the United States. 

The Wilcox House in Buffalo, NY is one of many opulent homes built in the Greek Revival architectural style toward the turn of the 19th century by wealthy industrialists on Delaware Avenue. Today, the Wilcox House is one of the few National Historical sites outside of DC and is a must-see for history aficionados when traveling through western New York. 

Beautifully restored to its original grandeur, visitors enter at the rear of the mansion and are greeted by a gift shop that’s everything “Teddy.” An assortment of prize-winning books from historical literary heavyweights such as David McCullough, Edmund Morris and Doris Kearns Goodwin line the shelves. Of course, stuffed teddy bears are displayed prominently in honor of the POTUS who famously refused to shoot a bear. But it’s upstairs where the magnificence of this historical site takes you on a journey back in time to tell the story of the unlikely beginnings of the Roosevelt presidency.

When you visit, a volunteer guide who’s quite knowledgeable and passionate about Theodore Roosevelt, ushers ten visitors through the first of many displays and immersive interactive exhibits located throughout the house. 

You’ll be taken back to the Pan American Exposition of 1901 by an exhibit that displays photographs and other items that would’ve been seen by attendees of the World’s Fair in Buffalo, then the eighth largest city in America. It was at this exposition, on September 6, 1901, that President McKinley was shot while attending a public reception at the fair. As you walk into the Wilcox dining room, past the stunning architecture, with its multilayered floor and crown moldings, marble fireplace mantle, ornate ceiling medallion and crystal chandelier, you’re told that while climbing Mount Marcy, Roosevelt learned from a runner that President McKinley was dying; he was needed in Buffalo immediately. 

In his haste to get back to Buffalo, Roosevelt didn’t have time to gather his formal attire. In the Wilcox library, you’re catapulted back to that fateful September afternoon in 1901. You hear Roosevelt’s voice, wearing borrowed clothes, taking the oath to support the Constitution and laws of our nation. 

As you leave the library, you’re invited to take a seat on a long wooden bench in a small theater. The theater holds a full-scale diorama and other imagery that highlight five issues that were surely on Roosevelt’s mind that day. This exhibit is perhaps the most thought-provoking, because the issues facing Roosevelt and the country then are many of the same issues facing us today: immigration and urban poverty, race and social inequality, the environment and conservation, business and labor, and the country’s role in global affairs. 

Be sure to take a seat behind the interactive desk in Roosevelt’s recreated presidential office and wonder what he may have been thinking as he embarked on the journey of a lifetime. Also, pick up a National Parks passport in the gift shop, have it stamped to commemorate your visit to this remarkable historical treasure and take it with you the next time you explore US history. It’s a trip well worth taking. 

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