Walking in footsteps of Buffalo presidents - The Buffalo News

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Walking in footsteps of Buffalo presidents

Buffalo is a presidential sort of town – if you know where to look.

All over Western New York, there are places – big and small, hidden and obvious – where the lives and careers of our nation’s presidents can be glimpsed.

These leaders have touched us close to home. With a little bit of time and some guidance, one can connect with these historic moments in our past.

Here, for Presidents Day, is a plan for discovering these sites – from the serious and important, to the light and humorous.

Most of these sites have to do with Millard Fillmore and Grover Cleveland – two presidents whose lives were closely tied to Buffalo.

Now, some places where the spirits of Millard Fillmore and Grover Cleveland come alive:

• Buffalo City Hall: Bronze statues to the left and right of the front steps commemorate Millard Fillmore and Grover Cleveland. They were crafted in 1930 by New York sculptor Bryant Baker (who also carved the Delaware Park statue of the young Abraham Lincoln).

Fillmore, handsome and statesmanlike, is holding a scroll. The bulky Cleveland wears a greatcoat. The statue was the first statue to exist of him. On the back of Cleveland’s statue are engraved his poignant last words: “I have tried so hard to do right.”

For Fillmore’s statue, on the left, we have to thank a $25,000 New York State Legislature appropriation. Cleveland, on the right, was paid for by James G. Forsyth’s private foundation – perhaps because the famously frugal Cleveland would have certainly vetoed the idea of taxpayers having to foot the bill.

• The Buffalo Club, 388 Delaware Ave. (886-6400): Millard Fillmore was its first president, and is memorialized by the Millard Fillmore Room. Cleveland was a member of the club from 1881 until his death in 1908.

• Forest Lawn, 1411 Delaware Ave. (885-1600): Fillmore lies buried here in Section F. Buried with him are his wife Abigail, who died soon after they left the White House, and their daughter Mary, who tragically died at 22 soon after her mother. Fillmore’s second wife, Caroline McIntosh, is buried here, too. Every Jan. 7, a ceremony honors Fillmore with speeches, a wreath from the White House, a color guard, a bugler playing “Taps,” a memorial address and other traditions.

• St. Joseph Cathedral, 50 Franklin St. (854-5855): Millard Fillmore, a Unitarian, contributed generously to the cathedral, including on one occasion when construction had stalled and Bishop Timon appealed to him. Fillmore’s generosity is worth mentioning, considering that he is often said to have been anti-Catholic.

• Buffalo Statler City: Sits on the site of the John Hollister house, the mansion that was Millard Fillmore’s last residence, and reputedly the grandest of Buffalo’s Gothic homes.

• Millard Fillmore Historic Site, 24 Shearer Ave., East Aurora (652-8875): The museum is open June through October, with group tours in other months available only by special arrangement. Admission is $10. The central attraction of this National Historic Site is the cottage Millard Fillmore built in 1825 for his bride, Abigail. It is the only house in American history built by a president’s own hands and it is a touching reminder of the famously elegant Fillmore’s very humble roots. The house originally stood on Main Street near the Aurora Theater building. It contains some furniture and portraits that belonged to the Fillmores, including books from the White House library, which the Fillmores established. There is also a lock of Fillmore’s hair.

• Old County Hall, 92 Franklin St.: This beautiful building, completed in 1876, was where Cleveland would have reported to work when he was elected Buffalo mayor in 1881 by the greatest landslide in city history.

• The Buffalo History Museum, 1 Museum Court (873-9644): Millard Fillmore was a founder and the first president of the Historical Society. His personal carriage is on display in the basement, on a re-created city street from that era. Nearby, a bust of the handsome Fillmore, clad in a classical toga, looks down kindly on visitors.

A frieze outside on the building’s east side shows Cleveland, seated, listening to Buffalo citizens who are entreating him to run for office. Lovingly preserved, although currently not on public display, is a slice of the groom’s cake, half eaten and packaged in a Tiffany gift box, dating to Cleveland’s 1881 White House wedding to Buffalonian Frances Folsom.

(Note: On Feb. 21, admission is free all day and from 6 to 9 p.m., actors will portray prominent figures. Look for Fillmore by his carriage.)

• 51 Johnson Park: Cleveland lived in this 1856 Greek Revival house while he was “clerking,” or learning the law trade. Privately owned, it has four columns and sits right near the corner of Elmwood Avenue.

• A plaque on Main Street near Exchange Street marks the site where Cleveland had his law office.

• Ulrich’s Tavern, 674 Ellicott St.: Though this historic pub is shuttered, at least for the moment, think of Grover Cleveland when you pass by. The fun-loving future president, who adored Buffalo’s German food, would dine here. At the corner of Main and Mohawk is where Jacob Schenkelberger had his saloon, another favorite hangout of Cleveland’s.

• Buffalo and Erie County Central Library, Lafayette Square: As you are researching Fillmore and Cleveland, consider that the library sits on the site of the old jail yard, where Cleveland, as sheriff, had to hang two criminals. Cleveland dreaded this duty – it is reported that it made him physically ill – but he could not see how he could pass it on to someone else.

• 168 Edward St.: This private home is where Frances Folsom Cleveland was born and grew up.

• Founding Fathers Pub, 75 Edward St. (855-8944): In this pub brimming with presidential memorabilia, a portrait of Grover Cleveland presides over the doorway. Pictures of Cleveland and Fillmore can be found together in the northwest corner and also by the door of the ladies’ room (appropriate for Fillmore, whom the ladies loved).

• The George Urban Residence, 280 Pine Ridge Road, Cheektowaga. Cleveland got along well with Buffalo’s Germans, and one of his good friends was George Urban, a businessman whose family came here from Alsace, on the French-German border. Urban was a Republican but a lifelong supporter of Cleveland. On the grounds of this house, at a picnic in 1883, brewer Gerhard Lang (who donated land for St. Gerard’s Church) raised his stein of beer and declared, “To Grover Cleveland, our next president!” As the historical marker proclaims, it launched his winning campaign.

The George Urban Residence is privately owned and is used occasionally for events.

Sources include the Millard Fillmore Historic Site, the Buffalo History Museum, the Buffalo Architecture and History website, Western New York Heritage and www.buffalopresidentialcenter.org. News Staff Reporter Michelle Kearns contributed to this report. email: mkunz@buffnews.com

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