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Mansion museum; As they restore their lavish Lincoln Parkway home, Karen and Clement Arrison focus on creating a lasting legacy

Visitors could spend hours examining the elaborately carved woodwork, ceiling paintings and lavish light fixtures at the late 1920s-era home of Karen and Clement Arrison.

And that's only in the foyer.

This house on Lincoln Parkway is all about "more." As Karen Arrison pointed out, even the boiler in the basement sits on a terrazzo floor.

It's also about an extensive historic restoration that has ranged from the doors to the driveway. The mansion, built for wealthy Buffalonian Thomas J. McKinney, was included in Thursday night's Candlelight Tour lineup, part of the four-day National Preservation Conference that began here Wednesday and is put on by the Washington, D.C.-based National Trust for Historic Preservation.

"It's a museum," said Arrison, of the 10,000-square-foot home she and her husband have been restoring since moving in 11 years ago.

The tiles and metalwork, the floors and the windows have been restored. Work is still being done in the carriage house, which had to be stabilized.

Restoration experts from New York City, Chicago, Indiana and Poland have been part of the process. One 11-by-22-foot antique rug came from a castle in Austria, via a California dealer.

Hundreds of ticket-holders were expected to visit this and other homes in the Lincoln Parkway neighborhood during the Candlelight Tour.

Among the highlights pointed out by Karen Arrison on a recent visit:

*Leaded and stained-glass windows. Themes include "Canterbury Tales" in the library, the biblical story of Ruth in the landing, and earth and sky motifs in the breakfast room.

*Magnificent fireplaces, including the marble one in the foyer -- one of Arrison's favorites.

"This is truly a Renaissance Revival fireplace. The carving on this is really, to me, the most intriguing of all of them. It has the most mass, but it also has the most delicate carvings. It's a study in contrasts," said Arrison, a local design consultant.

*Hand-carved woodwork. The banister from the main floor to the first landing is carved from one piece of black walnut. The hand-carved lion, named Leroy, guards the newel post. Woodwork in the dining room features fruits and vegetables.

Then there is the paneled library.

"Mr. McKinney did not like any of the oak that was here in the United States, so this is English oak that he had brought over on a ship. We're happy he did, because it is extremely beautiful," Arrison said.

Even with its large square footage, the Arrisons and their guests find the house warm and comfortable. Part of that is the welcoming layout.

"You have this great central hall [foyer], and off the central hall are all the main rooms [living room, dining room and library] that you can actually have visual access to while standing here," Arrison said.

In addition, the heights of the ceilings, at 11 to 12 feet, are hardly intimidating, she added.

"We've had 120 people in this house at one time. It's a great house for entertaining. There's a 360-degree flow to the house, and when we have a big party, we have the violinists or string quartet up on the landing." (The Arrisons are affiliated with the Stradivari Society.)

"People come in and we have two tables of eight or 10 set up right in the central hall, so they walk in and they are at the party," she said.

For a historic restoration, "you try to retain absolutely as much of the historic fabric of the building as you can. So you identify what is its true historic fabric," Arrison said.

"In this case it's everything -- everything but the kitchen light fixtures. So the mortar is the historic fabric. The metalwork is the historic fabric. The brick is the historic fabric. The carvings inside and out, the fireplaces, the floors, everything is the historic fabric of this building," she said.

"And because we were lucky enough to have it either in a condition that was already livable -- or a condition that was restorable -- we were able to do what was done," she said.

It's not going unrecognized: Preservation Buffalo Niagara this year honored the Arrisons with its Restoration Award.

A bit of history: McKinney, whose family made a fortune in oil, built the house over a three-year period in the late 1920s.
"It cost $1 million to build in 1926 -- when that was an unheard-of amount of money," Arrison said.

McKinney and his wife only lived in their Buffalo home for four years; they were killed in an automobile accident in Florida.

At one point, the house was owned by the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo and was used as a chancery. The Arrisons' search for the still-unrecovered large window panels in their carriage house -- depicting the goddess Diana -- was reported in The Buffalo News in 2006.

The level of craftsmanship found here is extraordinary -- and well worth preserving, Arrison said.

Their ultimate goal?

"Clem and I would like our legacy to Western New York to be a nationally recognized historic landmark that is open to not only Western New York but to the world for tours," she said.

"We do love Western New York, and we particularly love the people of Western New York, and we would like to leave something lasting and important. If this helps to bring people from all over the country and all over the world here, all the better," she added.

Still, restoring the house has been an agonizing process -- and an expensive one.

"This is the single largest privately funded restoration project in the city," Arrison said. "The project has been overwhelming -- overwhelmingly over budget and overwhelming in finding crafts people who can actually re-create that which was in here. That has been the biggest challenge.

"That, and putting the dog toys away for the tour," she laughed.

email: smartin@buffnews.com

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