Deck the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site with boughs of holly. § For about 40 years, garden clubs from across Western New York have taken a room each of this gracious old mansion, located at 641 Delaware Ave., and competed to see who can design the loveliest Christmas retreat. Through Dec. 13, the place is a winter wonderland, which is why we chose now to visit. § Thursday, with decorations newly complete, we walked wide-eyed from room to room. Masters in this hall had done beautiful work. Delicately crafted snowflakes shimmered in the windows. Quaint Victorian Christmas trees – one was a topiary – sparkled with ornaments dating to the turn of the last century. Evergreen branches adorned the wide, gracious doorways. § O joy, to find the Ghost of Christmas Past alive and well and living in your town. But you wonder as you wander. § You may even get a little light-headed, and not just from the rich scent of pine. § There is just so much history in this house.
It was here that Theodore Roosevelt took the oath of office, after William McKinley was assassinated. Roosevelt’s friend Ansley Wilcox, who lived in this house and whose portrait looks down from over a massive fireplace, met the vice president’s train and brought him here.
What was in Roosevelt’s mind at that fateful juncture? Stanton Hudson, the site’s executive director, challenges you to imagine. He invites you to follow Roosevelt from room to room.
In the dining room Roosevelt had coffee to revive himself after a nightlong, sleepless train ride. “Roosevelt loved coffee,” Hudson said.
Later the future president sat at the desk in Wilcox’s morning room, dominated by dark woodwork, and wrote his inaugural address. The desk is still there.
Where did the swearing-in happen? In the library, by means of the candlestick. Sorry, but this house would be great for a living game of Clue. And you almost have to lighten up. There is just so much to absorb.
It helps to put on your history hat. You can do that in the adjoining visitors center, situated where the carriage house was.
The carriage house, and a parlor in the main house now the Issues Room, offer a crash course in the Pan-American Exposition, civics, politics and history. You could argue the topics run in too many different directions. But a lot of it is fascinating. You can watch an ancient film, actually shown at the exhibition, depicting a fictional moon landing. And a newsreel about the exhibition, making such pro-America declarations as: “We are the globe’s cornucopia!” and “We drove that old relic Spain from our doorstep.”
A casinolike device tests your Gilded Age business acumen. Warning: You have to get into that 1901 mindset. I made modern choices (Don’t pollute the river; Give the child labor a rest). When I was through, the machine, flashing crazily, told me I was fit only to be a laborer.
Thus chastised, I decided it was better simply to be. To walk the halls of the house (the Wilcoxes, Hudson said, disliked the word “mansion”) and drink it all in.
The house had just reopened after a few days of intense decorating. The halls were empty except for me, two young Asian tourists talking a foreign language, and occasional staff and volunteers prepping quietly for a party. The vintage telegraph machine chattered. The grandfather clock ticked. Otherwise, it was silent.
In such an atmosphere, you can imagine you hear voices from the past. And you know what they say:
Speak softly, and carry a big stick.