It’s easy to overlook how some decisions, made with the best intentions, can change the course of history. Visiting the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site is a chance to experience a place where America entered a tense crossroads that helped to define its next one hundred years.
Sound like an overstatement? I thought so too until learning more from a terrific tour of the historic Buffalo home. Early in the visit, you learn that the TR Inaugural Site exists, in part, because of a decision made by President William McKinley to greet the public for a ten-minute window. This led to his shooting, which led to the Roosevelt presidency.
The site offers plenty of surprises and fun facts during one of its guided tours:
Buffalo at the Center of It All
McKinley’s assassination came during a time for Buffalo in the great Pan American Exposition of 1901. The TR Inaugural Site provides terrific information on the elaborate city architecture and planning that featured Buffalo on the world’s stage.
McKinley’s shooting obviously changed things, prompting then-Vice President Roosevelt to hustle back from an Adirondacks holiday (travel “hustle” was no small feat in 1901). The Buffalo mansion where the inauguration took place – today’s site – previously served as a private residence of prominent scholar and lawyer Ansley Wilcox. Visitors can get an immersive room-to-room tour to learn about the conversations and high uncertainty in the following hours and days.
Small Rooms with Big Stories
Several rooms are meticulously recreated and restored, right down to the folds in the carpet. In the library, the stately site where the inauguration took place, you can visualize volumes of people packed into a mid-sized room of ornate tables, lamps and floor-to-ceiling books. You see the exact spot where Roosevelt took his oath – in a borrowed suit. And you also see the area where jostling photographers (whose equipment size I can’t imagine) accidentally knocked a camera to the ground, where the lens shattered. Roosevelt was apparently enraged enough to kick them both out – hence, there is no photographic documentation of the event. Today, a small table stands in the spot where he took the oath.
Other highlights include the elegant dining room where Roosevelt read more about the news of McKinley’s assassination, and the “Morning Room” (not to be confused with “Mourning”) – a bright, elegant parlor with fireplace and desk where Roosevelt drafted his first message to the American public. No small feat for a 42-year-old politician just six months on the job.
Interactive Learning Experience
There are opportunities to learn about the historical context during this important time. A first floor exhibit includes a stereo-sound presentation, with interactive lights that follow the narrator’s story about the men and women, places and events that provided a backdrop for the time. (This author’s two-year-old daughter loved it. Especially the bald eagle.)
Upstairs, there are touchscreens to learn more about the historical figures that helped to shape this period in time. These are featured in a recreated office for President Roosevelt that includes a touchscreen desk where visitors can type messages and feel what it’s like to sit in the position of a world leader.
A Unique Collaborative Effort
The site is a unit of the National Park Service (the only NPS location in Western New York), in collaboration with the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site Foundation. This partnership allows both organizations to share operating costs and ensure the site’s preservation.
By design, the TR Inaugural Site offers an experience rooted in history that’s starkly relevant today. Appropriately, this honors the “larger than life” legacy of Theodore Roosevelt, and a time where Buffalo hosted an event that would shape future generations.