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Knox house revival seen as offering activity hub Partying, fundraising hoped for E. Aurora site

A building that was once the summer home of one of the best-known families in Buffalo's history could soon have a new and very public life.

An agreement is in the works that would allow a nonprofit group to operate the 14,400-square-foot main house on the sprawling East Aurora property once owned by the Knox family and rent it out for weddings, family gatherings, parties and fundraisers.

"We are working to finalize a cooperative agreement with the Friends [of Knox Farm State Park], which would authorize them to act as our agent in marketing and leasing the house for special events," said Daniel L. Keefe, spokesman for the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

Even with an agreement, it will not be an easy task. The house -- which is not winterized and was used by the Knoxes as only a summer home -- needs a lot of work. But supporters of the idea are undaunted.

"The setting is beautiful. The grounds are breathtaking, and so we think the beauty of the grounds outweigh the limitations of the house," said Peggy Cooke, treasurer of the Friends group. "We want the house used."

The property was once the country estate of the Knox family, whose members are responsible for bringing a National Hockey League franchise to Buffalo and whose contributions to the Albright Art Gallery led to the facility being renamed the Albright-Knox. The state bought the Knox property in 2000 for $5.1 million.

The house, known in East Aurora as simply as "the mansion," could hold about 290 people, but Cooke said it could not accommodate seating for that many. Indoor bathroom facilities are adequate to serve a limited number of guests, but portable toilets would likely have to be rented for large functions.

She said the initial aim is to rent just the first floor, with a long-term goal of raising money through a capital campaign that would be put into the home's upkeep.

Last month, the 633-acre park secured a spot on the "Seven to Save" Endangered Properties List of the New York State Preservation League, joining some of the state's most threatened historic places.

That announcement, held in the main house at the park, was heralded as good news by park enthusiasts and preservationists who saw it as part of a big-picture effort to spotlight the poor condition of some of the park's buildings and grounds.

State parks officials in Albany are trying to come up with an agreement that would allow the Friends volunteer group to market and rent the house. If an agreement is soon finalized, the main house could be used as early as this summer.

Park enthusiasts and those in the hospitality industry in East Aurora noted the shortage of entertaining space in the community and say the park setting would be a perfect fit.

"We get inquiries all the time to rent the main house for weddings and family events. So we started looking into the possibility," Cooke said.

"We kept sending off requests to the state because the state parks manager had no time to be showing the house, and a concessionaire couldn't be found to run the main house. As we talked about it, we thought the only other possibility of getting that house used is if our group submitted a proposal."

"I think there has been a lot of interest in it for a long time," said Martha Augat, innkeeper at the Roycroft Inn. "It's an absolutely beautiful setting. Certainly, I have had people interested in having wedding receptions there. We're excited that the Friends of Knox may have the opportunity to facilitate the rentals. Then we can refer our clients to them."

Party tents could be pitched on the mansion's front lawn. If the operating agreement with the state is approved soon, Cooke said, the group would need to hire someone to serve as a rental manager part time.

"There would have to be a large capital investment to bring it up to code for public assembly for a commercial venture," Cooke said. "Different investors have looked at it, but found the capital investment was more than they were willing to invest."