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Presidents from area to get respect in center

A wooden desk where Grover Cleveland sat as a young Buffalo lawyer, long before he rose to the presidency, gathers dust in an unheated Wyoming County warehouse.

The companion chair, with its original horsehair cover, is on loan to Buffalo State College from the Hodgson Russ law firm.

The shingle Cleveland hung out at the Weed Building, where he practiced law in the 1870s, wound up in a darkened residential garage.

All eventually will find their way to the Western New York Center for the Presidency and Vice Presidency, which has been in the works since 2003 and is nearing the design phase.

The center, in fact, is expected to gather a wealth of artifacts scattered throughout the region -- keepsakes, letters, legal papers and other documents -- to tell the story of Buffalo's strong influence on U.S. foreign and domestic policies in the 19th and 20th centuries, said Sarah Slavin.

Slavin, a retired Buffalo State College political science professor and driving force behind the project, helped to establish the Association for the Buffalo Presidential Center in 2003. After developing a mission statement and a preliminary architectural program, the group asked the National Endowment for the Humanities for money to flesh out the details.

A firm plan -- including the museum's location -- should be completed "by the end of the calendar year," said Maryann Saccomondo Freedman, a Buffalo lawyer and association leader.

"We're ready to take our case to the public," Freedman said.

Though the group would prefer to build a free-standing center, the
difficult funding climate makes that improbable. Instead, it will explore structures that could meet the architectural needs outlined by John M. Laping of Kideney Associates.

The story goes beyond the mere fact that the city gave the nation two presidents -- Cleveland and Millard Fillmore, said Slavin, who, on arriving at Buffalo State in 1981, was surprised to find little local interest in their legacy.

Both men were members of an extraordinary "leadership cadre" of Western New Yorkers who left their distinctive imprints on history, said Slavin, who taught a course on the presidency and organized a 1998 exhibition of local presidential memorabilia.

That cadre includes Peter B. Porter, secretary of war in 1828-29; Nathan K. Hall, postmaster general from 1850 to 1852; Susan B. Anthony of Rochester, who led the women's suffrage movement; Wilson S. Bissell, postmaster general from 1893 to 1895; Elbridge G. Spaulding, a congressman known as "the father of the greenback" for establishing the nation's currency system; and Norman E. Mack, a Democratic National Committee chairman and member from 1908 to 1940.

They and others held leadership roles at different times and under different political affiliations, but "all of them worked together" in Western New York's interest, Slavin said.

"They wouldn't let themselves be divided; they always came back to the home base," she said.

But the proposed center will focus on Fillmore and Cleveland, whose presidencies historians have largely ignored and, therefore, undervalued -- said Slavin, who aims to set the record straight in a soon-to-be-published book on Cleveland and another in the works on Fillmore.

President William McKinley's assassination during Buffalo's 1901 Pan-American Exposition and the resulting ascendancy of Vice President Theodore Roosevelt to the presidency also will receive prominent treatment.

A research center for scholars and lectures on the presidency will be as vital to the mission as artifact displays. The programming will emphasize education.

"School kids aren't learning history," Slavin said.

The area "has a wealth of material but a dearth of understanding and scholarship," Freedman added.

Association members say the center will dovetail perfectly with plans to develop heritage tourism in Western New York.

"Buffalo took the national lead in developing public policy, and this center will return it to its rightful place among America's great cities," predicted former Erie County Legislator Joan K. Bozer, another association leader. "It will inspire a lot of pride."

e-mail: tbuckham@buffnews.com

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