How the Wilcox Mansion came to be – and how it was almost lost

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

This week, we’re taking a look at Delaware Avenue.

It was a neon sign for the Kathryn Lawrence Dining Rooms, instead of a historic marker which welcomed guests to the Theodore Roosevelt inaugural site from 1939-59. (Buffalo Stories archives)

Few spots along Delaware Avenue, or anywhere else in the city for that matter, are at the center of more interesting stories of Buffalo’s – and America’s – history than the home generally referred to as the Ansley Wilcox Mansion.

1. The house wasn’t always “on Delaware Avenue.”

In the midst of a complicated diplomatic crisis between the U.S., Britain and anti-British Canadian rebels known as the Caroline Affair, the federal government built an Army post in Buffalo in 1837 to help protect the border. The Buffalo Barracks were built on what was then Buffalo’s northern outskirts, between North and Allen streets to the north and south and Main and Delaware to the east and west.

Only four years later, construction began on the more strategically located Fort Porter, which stood where the Buffalo side of the Peace Bridge now stands. The Buffalo Barracks were dismantled, except for one building – the home of the commanding officer and post surgeon. Part of the row of housing for officers, the house “faced” the parade ground – and therefore Main Street – even though it was much closer to Delaware.

The house was remodeled and expanded by architect Thomas Tilden in 1848, when the home was occupied by Judge Joseph G. Masten (of Masten Avenue, Masten High School and Masten District fame).

Masten called the place “Chestnut Lawn.” An 1852 visitor described it as “a beautiful residence in the upper part of the city toward Niagara,” where “the sounds of dropping chestnuts could almost be heard” as one “drove into the grounds that front the pleasant mansion.”

As Delaware Street became Delaware Avenue, and the address carried with it an increasing social status, a porch and front entrance were built on the Delaware Avenue side of the building, sometime before it was given to Ansley Wilcox as a wedding present in 1883.

Under the direction of Wilcox, architect George Cary – who also designed the Buffalo History Museum – redesigned the two parlors of the original barracks residence into the library where Theodore Roosevelt would be sworn in as president.

The Wilcox House in 1901.

2. The Buffalo connection to the naming of the poinsettia.

The Buffalo Barracks were formally known as the Poinsett Barracks for Joel Robert Poinsett, who was a visitor to Buffalo during the time of uncertainty with Britain and Canada as President Martin Van Buren’s secretary of war.

His previous diplomatic posts included a stint as the ambassador to Mexico, where the envoy’s interest in botany led him to send clippings of a wild-growing red plant back to his stateside greenhouse. Poinsett introduced the species to Americans, and lives on in Christmas celebrations with the poinsettia – which is a good thing because the base named in his honor didn’t last even a decade.

3. Theodore Roosevelt wasn’t the home’s only presidential visitor.

The Poinsett Barracks and final remaining vestige, the Wilcox Mansion, have quite the presidential pedigree.

President William Howard Taft, front, stands on the steps of the Ansley Wilcox House. Wilcox is over Taft’s left shoulder, with a white mustache.

The first presidential visitor – President Van Buren – was there to dedicate the barracks on May 6, 1839.

Future President Zachary Taylor visited the Buffalo Barracks in 1840 – his daughter was the wife of the post surgeon. They lived in the house that became the Wilcox Mansion.

Scholars have listed President John Tyler as one of the presidential visitors to the home; he may have done so on a visit to Niagara Falls in 1841.

Former President John Quincy Adams visited Buffalo and the barracks in the summer of 1843 where “he was received with every possible demonstration of respect.”

Millard Fillmore was known to have visited many times in the days before he was president when the place was still the Buffalo Barracks, all the way through several owners of the property up until his death in 1876. One of Grover Cleveland’s law partners owned the home and the future president was a guest there as well.

Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses Grant, William McKinley, William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt were all visitors to the barracks and/or the Wilcox House.

If 13 U.S. presidents aren’t enough, you can also add a Confederate president. Jefferson Davis was stationed at the Buffalo Barracks during his time serving in the Union Army.

 

4. Roosevelt had previously spent time in Buffalo

Theodore Roosevelt, with a Buffalo Police officer and others, around 1900.

Both before and after his swearing in as president at the Wilcox Mansion, Theodore Roosevelt made no fewer than two dozen trips to Buffalo and Western New York.

Theodore Roosevelt speaks at Buffalo’s Music Hall, Main  and Edward streets, 1898.

5. From the 1930s to the 1950s, the Wilcox Mansion was more a home of light refreshments than a historic site.

In September 1935, the original furnishings of the Wilcox Mansion were sold at auction – and soon after the Lawrence family bought the place to serve as a home to its restaurant.

Eventually the Kathryn Lawrence Tea Room became the Kathryn Lawrence Dining Room when the Senate Bar was added, but from 1939 to 1959, Buffalonians were eating and drinking in the Ansley Wilcox and White Rooms, which were decorated to remind patrons of the history that had happened there.

6. One of Buffalo’s most revered historical sites nearly became a parking lot.

After the restaurant closed, Benderson Development bought the property and announced that a wrecking firm had been contracted to clear the property to make way for a parking lot.

Congressman Thaddeus Dulski worked to find money in Washington to save the building, but a unanimous vote of the house was needed – there were three no votes. Dulski’s efforts were bolstered by Buffalo native Leo O’Brien, a congressman from Albany.

“One of the things that bother me is that we don’t recognize history soon enough,” O’Brien told reporters as the efforts to save the Wilcox Mansion faltered. “About 50 years from now, a great many people are to cuss us as they realize that the Wilcox House is under a parking lot or hot dog stand.”

Luckily, it never came to cussing.

Liberty Bank eventually bought the building, and worked to raise money in the community until it made sense for the National Parks System to take over the building as a national historic space.

Published by

Steve Cichon

Steve Cichon is a proud Buffalonian helping the world experience the city he loves. writing about the people, places, and ideas that make Buffalo unique and special. The storyteller and historian has written six books, worn bow ties since the 80s, and is the News Director at WECK Radio. A 25 year Buffalo media veteran, Steve's contributed more than 1400 Buffalo History stories to The Buffalo News, worked at WIVB-TV, Empire Sports Network, and spent ten years as a newsman and News Director at WBEN Radio. He's also put his communication skills to work as an adjunct professor, a producer of PBS documentaries, and even run for Erie County Clerk. Steve's Buffalo roots run deep: all eight of his great-grandparents called Buffalo home, with his first ancestors arriving here in 1827.