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How Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site became a tourist draw

In a region rich with cultural and historical attractions, the Buffalo home where Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in as president in 1901 long struggled to establish its personality and appeal.

Despite a creative and sweeping $2.7 million upgrade in 2009, many local residents remembered the so-called "Wilcox Mansion" in its previous form - as a dull house museum emphasizing furnishings, family connections and the lifestyle of upper-crust Buffalonians.

[Gallery: Then and Now: The Wilcox Mansion]

Student tours declined sharply because demanding academic standards left little room for field trips. Tourists went elsewhere.

But a dramatically stepped-up public relations effort, new programming to broaden the museum's scope and greater awareness of the facility's creative, multi-media format have transformed the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site, 641 Delaware Ave., into a premiere local attraction.

The number of people taking guided tours at the Roosevelt site jumped from 9,128 in 2013 to 13,164 last year - an increase of 44 percent in two years. In addition, the site experienced comparable increases in people who visited for other reasons - such as social events or educational programs - but did not take the formal tour.

"What we have tried to do is give our visitors an experience that is both relevant and fun," said Stanton H. Hudson Jr., the site's executive director since 2014. "We're linking the past to the present in order to serve as a catalyst for  a better future for our citizens and our community."

[A closer look: The Roosevelt Inaugural site]

The online travel guide TripAdvisor ranks the Roosevelt site as the fifth of 142 things to do in Buffalo. Of 244 visitors who described their experiences on the travel listing, 172 -- or 70 percent -- rated it "excellent." Another 55 visitors -- or 23 percent -- described their experience as "good."

In addition, favorable reviews have appeared in USA Today and newspapers in Toronto, Cleveland,Pittsburgh and Los Angeles.

Much of the site's popularity stems from interest in and admiration for Roosevelt.

A bust of Theodore Roosevelt sits in a leaded glass window that is original to the 1896 addition to the Wilcox Mansion. Roosevelt was just 42 when he took the oath of office in the suit and long coat he would later wear in President William McKinley’s funeral procession. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

A bust of Theodore Roosevelt sits in a leaded glass window that is original to the 1896 addition to the Wilcox Mansion. Roosevelt was just 42 when he took the oath of office in the suit and long coat he would later wear in President William McKinley’s funeral procession. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

"This is about a famous and beloved president," said Susan Siegel, who volunteers regularly to produce crafts for the site's Victorian Christmas program. "Roosevelt actually stood here and took the oath of office. Right here. That gives me goose bumps."

Guided tours tell the story of the fatal shooting of President William McKinley at the Pan-American Exposition in September 1901 and the swearing in of Roosevelt eight days later.

Those developments include lots of twists and turns, and the presentation is enriched by a brief film on the exposition, a multi-media presentation about the issues facing Roosevelt, an audio representation of the swearing in and copies of Roosevelt's hand-written address to the nation.

A copy of the handwritten first draft of a speech given by Theodore Roosevelt after his inauguration on display at the Wilcox Mansion. Legend has it that Roosevelt crumpled up the original first draft and tossed it into the garbage bin where it was swiftly retrieved by Mary Grace Wilcox.

A copy of the handwritten first draft of a speech given by Theodore Roosevelt after his inauguration on display at the Wilcox Mansion. Legend has it that Roosevelt crumpled up the original first draft and tossed it into the garbage bin where it was swiftly retrieved by Mary Grace Wilcox. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

But probably the most popular feature is a "President for a Day" desk that provides visitors with personalized e-mail newspaper front pages, complete with their photographs.

"It's awesome," said Hugo Pike, a New Hampshire resident who recently toured the facility. "It's very well kept up and it flows very nicely."

Ron Szczerbiak, who was on the same tour, said he visits the inauguration site about once a year.

"Reading can become boring sometimes," said Szczerbiak, director of religious education at St. Philip of the Apostle Church in Cheektowaga. "Seeing it brings it to life. Smaller museums like this don't get the recognition they deserve."

Hudson has established the site's first evening hours, along with a presidential trivia night and a speakers series that deals with social and political issues --  including poverty, environmental conservation and income  inequality -- that faced Roosevelt in 1901 and remain hot topics today.

The site receives less than 40 percent of its $750,000 budget from the National Park Service, and 35 percent of the visitors are from outside the eight-counties of Western New York.

Roger Brandt, who visited the site recently with his family, said he will talk it up when he gets back home to Nebraska.

"It was great," he said. "It's got a lot of information and great things to see."

Peter Simon is a retired Buffalo News Staff Reporter who now works as a docent at the site.

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