The Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site sits like a grand dame on Delaware Avenue. The Greek Revival structure and former home of Ansley Wilcox is one of the stately mansions that remind us of Buffalo’s strong line of blueblood families. For the past 17 years, it has served as a workplace for Molly Quackenbush, its executive director.
From her office on the second floor, Quackenbush has witnessed a series of major renovations at the site including: addition of the carriage house, installation of an elevator and the overhaul of its educational program. Part of the National Park Service, the “T.R. Site” draws visitors from throughout the country.
Quackenbush, 64, is a lifelong student of history who previously worked at the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society. Her retirement at the end of the month comes at a time of rebirth for the site and the city.
People Talk: Who was Ansley Wilcox?
Molly Quackenbush: He wasn’t born in Buffalo, but he came here after he met Cornelia Rumsey on a European trip. He was a prominent Buffalo lawyer who married Cornelia, and then married her sister Mary Grace when Cornelia passed away. Dexter Rumsey was their dad, a leading citizen in Buffalo.
PT: The Wilcox house was about to be demolished. What happened?
MQ: It is one of Buffalo’s early preservation success stories. It was saved in 1966. A developer had an option on the property, and it was community volunteers who said they were going to save this building. Thaddeus Dulski was our congressman who introduced the bill to preserve the site in 1965. Jacob Javits and Robert Kennedy were senators, and Kennedy argued before a Senate panel for us. He said places like this should not be lost because they are important to history, and after he spoke the mood became very positive and the bill passed.
PT: How close was it to the wrecking ball?
MQ: Very. The president of Liberty National Bank stepped in and purchased the property and held it until the legislation passed. That’s how close it was.
PT: Those must have been trying times.
MQ: They were. Even though the federal government purchased the property, and put a small amount of money aside for restoration, it was up to the community to raise funds for operational expenses to get the site up and started – with a staff of one and a half and lots of volunteers. In the mid ’80s, the decision was made to focus efforts on Theodore Roosevelt – not just on the historic home – and we rethought our interpretive plan. Plus we got seriously thinking about the carriage house addition. I would have never thought we could raise $4.5 million.
PT: What became of the site after the Wilcoxes moved out?
MQ: After Mary Grace Wilcox passed away in the mid-’30s the house became a restaurant, the Catherine Lawrence Restaurant owned and operated by Kathryn and Oliver Lawrence until about 1959. Once the restaurant closed and the site was empty for several years it started to deteriorate.
PT: The site has triumphed over much adversity. Could the same be said about TR?
MQ: Yes. As a child he had very bad asthma and eyesight, which he didn’t even realize until he got his first pair of glasses. So his father encouraged him to exercise, and he got a gym for him at home to push physical activity. He built his body and even though he never was totally out of the woods with his asthma, look at the life he had.
PT: Tell me a lesser known TR fact.
MQ: After Alice, his first wife, died, he never spoke of her again because he was heartbroken. Most people don’t know that he received the Nobel Peace Prize and the Medal of Honor. He helped resolve a conflict, the Russo-Japanese War, by his personal interaction. People think of him as a person focused on war because he was in the Spanish-American War as a Rough Rider. He didn’t shy away from using power if he needed to, but he also found ways to create peace.
PT: Which room in the TR site do you find compelling?
MQ: Sometimes later in the day or after we close I do go in the library – not to think about a major issue, but to remind me why we are here. That’s where Roosevelt took the oath of office. You kind of get shivers in that room.
PT: TR was very quotable. Do you have a favorite quote?
MQ: “Do what you can with what you have where you are.”
PT: Have you visited Mount Rushmore?
MQ: I have not. I’ve been to North Dakota to Theodore Roosevelt National Park though.
PT: How did you deal with the recent government shutdown? Your predecessor Barbara Berryman Brandt faced a similar circumstance.
MQ: In her last year. I called it the scourge of retirement. We are not federal employees. We work for the board of directors. We are a unit of the National Park Service but managed through a cooperative agreement with our board. It was a gray area, whether we could be open or not. So we shut our doors but continued to work behind the scenes. We got a lot of work done. Eighteen years ago when this happened we were closed to the public.
PT: Is the TR site a destination for out-of-town travelers?
MQ: Yes, for a couple of reasons. For one, we’re a unit of the National Park Service, so some people stop in Buffalo just because we are here. We’re also a presidential site. We are the only unit of the National Park Service in Western New York. The closest is Women’s Rights (National Historical Park) in Seneca Falls. Then there’s the Revolutionary War’s Fort Stanwix National Monument in Rome, Saratoga National Historical Park, the Martin Van Buren House in Kinderhook. Down the Hudson is the home of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
PT: How did you now it was time to retire?
MQ: You just know, for whatever reason. Maybe it’s the projects you completed, new interests or something going on in your life. It’s not that I’m jumping into a new career because I’m not. I really feel I’ve done what I can.
And I’m really looking forward to seeing someone else jump in and carry us to the next level.