George Urban Jr. carried real clout in Buffalo, leading his family’s flour milling business to become one of Buffalo’s most prominent companies by 1875.
He was friends with the likes of Thomas Edison, Mark Twain, and U.S. Presidents William McKinley, Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison. A financier and pioneer in hydroelectric development, he built the first roller mill in the country, helped organize the Brush Electric Co. that installed the first municipal lighting plant in Buffalo and helped promote the Pan-American Exposition.
So it’s only fitting that the three-story mansion he had built in 1869 as part of a sprawling family estate at 280 Pine Ridge Road in Cheektowaga – which includes what is now Villa Maria College – be the focus of efforts to have it named as a national historic landmark.
Already, the mansion has achieved local landmark designation.
That’s why its current owners, Olivia and Derrick Warburton, want to draw more attention to the home and opened it for the first time to public tours for just this weekend.
Saturday afternoon marked a historical celebration of its own, when 52 members of the Urban family, ranging in age from 2 to 98 years, came from all over the country for a reunion that included lunch at the mansion and a chance to reminisce about the estate that was in the family until the 1950s.
“We’re trying to get the home on the National Register. I felt it would be nice to open it up for people to see,” said Olivia Warburton, who gave tours of the home she and her family have lived in for 10 years, renting the first floor out for weddings and baby showers. “It’s eclectic in many ways. A little has been altered, but so much has not.”
Nestled in a tidy neighborhood and tucked behind a simple iron gate with brick pillars, the stately white mansion is no longer the hub of the large working farm it once was, with chickens, a horse racing track, grape vineyard and expansive gardens once featuring 150 varieties of roses, even green ones from Bermuda. The estate once raised 800 chicks yearly and modern poultry houses had electric lights.
Charles Urban Banta, now 98 and George Urban Jr.’s grandson, lived there from 1926 to 1945. He visited it Saturday, the first time since the 1950s when the estate was sold. Banta got a kick out of seeing familiar features of the home, including the large wooden staircase and where an elevator between the floors was once located. “We had nine of us in one house,” he recalled.
“He was a great friend of Thomas Edison and had the house wired before electricity came,” Banta recalled of his grandfather. “It brought back very fond memories and they did a wonderful job with the house.”
If you’re not looking carefully, it’s easy to drive past the mansion.
But a peek inside is well worth it, offering a glimpse back in time into Buffalo’s wealth and history. Pocket doors, intricately carved wood along the walls, the original staircase leading to the second floor carved from trees on the estate, original chandeliers, ornately decorated ceilings and impeccable hardwood floors and several fireplaces are some of the notable treasures.
When George Urban Jr. took an interest in electricity, he visited Edison. That visit led him to buy an electric generator for his flour mill, one of the first generators made by Edison. Urban also had the vision to have a large pipe installed beneath the family home because he felt something might be coming in the future, Warburton said.
“He had tremendous knowledge of where things were going to go,” said George P. Urban III, speaking of his great-grandfather. “He predicted there would be indoor plumbing.”
The home’s crescent-shaped driveway is also where George P. Urban III, when he was just 3, first met his father, who was returning home from World War II. “He scared the hell out of me,” he said.
Its old charm aside, the mansion has its modern-day luxuries – a large, enclosed indoor swimming pool attached to the rear of the home. In the 1980s, the home underwent some renovations under a previous owner.
Warburton said her family “is the only middle-class working family to own this.” “I feel like I’m the maid, the butler. The house will ‘work’ you,” she said.
The grandeur of the home resonated with Sharon Giangreco of Kenmore and her friend Colleen Darby of Eggertsville, who came Saturday to see it for themselves. “It’s beautiful. I’m shocked it’s here,” said Giangreco.
Darby, an artist, was struck by the woodwork. “The craftsmanship, this kind of technique they just don’t do anymore,” she said.
What amazes Warburton the most is the home’s history. “Just that somebody lived here who was prominent in Buffalo business. I knew he ran flour mills, but I’m learning more all the time and that he was someone who went forward with a lot of things,” she said, noting that Henry Z. Urban, the late Buffalo News president and publisher, had ties to the home and family.
It was fitting that the Urban family ended their Saturday with dinner at the Saturn Club on Delaware Avenue, one of a handful of elite Buffalo social organizations of which George Urban Jr. was a member.