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Explore Buffalo: Presidential History

This week, Explore Buffalo highlights its Presidents in Buffalo tour.  Buffalo Presidential Center Trustee and Explore Buffalo Master Docent, Bren Price, takes us on a virtual walk through many historic sites in the city where American Presidents visited. Be sure to catch our Presidents in Buffalo tour in September and October and pay a visit to the new Buffalo Presidential Center at the Central Library, opening this fall!

If you pay close attention, a short stroll through the center of downtown Buffalo can reveal more about Buffalo’s unique Presidential History than your history classes in school or even college.  Let this article be your guide to learning about why NPR host, Brady Carlson said in his book, Dead Presidents, “Outside of Washington, D.C. Buffalo has the richest presidential history of any city in the United States.”

There are several locations within a few city blocks that harbor some interesting Presidential stories.  A good place to start is Lafayette Square.  Standing on Main St and looking southeast, the impressive Soldiers and Sailors Monument (lead image) is a tribute to Union Soldiers who gave their lives in the Civil War. Walk closer and you’ll see an image of Abraham Lincoln holding a document calling for recruits.  Lincoln visited Buffalo four times in life and death, first as a Congressman in 1848 and finally in his funeral procession in 1865.        

Another (not yet) President Grover Cleveland spoke here as Mayor of Buffalo when the cornerstone of the statue was laid and dedicated on July 4, 1882…the 50th anniversary of the City of Buffalo.

 

Flip turn and look straight ahead toward City Hall.  Take a picture of this iconic view and then stroll down Court St. to Niagara Square, the next stop. So many Presidents have connections to this square. The focal point here is the William McKinley Monument, a 96” high Vermont marble obelisk memorializing the life of President William McKinley, who was assassinated at the Pan-American Exposition in September 1901.

There are statues of Buffalo’s two resident Presidents, (Millard Fillmore and Grover Cleveland) flanking City Hall, while the Millard Fillmore Mansion stood where the Statler Hotel stands now. Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson addressed thousands of onlookers on the steps of City Hall in the 1960s, and at least three others delivered speeches on the Square previously.

Head back south (on Delaware or Niagara) and stop at the corner of Franklin and Eagle St.  On the northwest corner is 110 Franklin, which was Millard Filmore’s First Unitarian Church, where he worshipped with Abraham Lincoln and John Quincy Adams.

Across Eagle is the imposing Old County Hall, built between 1871-1876, and at that time shared with City Hall.  Grover Cleveland’s Mayoral Office was located here, and if you step into the foyer you’ll see where William McKinley’s body lay in state.  His assassin, Leon Czolgosz, was tried, convicted and sentenced to death in the second-floor courtroom.                                  

Directly in front you will see a statue of George Washington (who never visited Buffalo), a bi-centennial gift from the Masons in 1976.

There are more Presidential tales to tell at the final historic stop.  Walk up Church St. past the Guaranty Building (Hodgson- Russ) and St. Paul’s Episcopal Church (where Fillmore’s funeral services were held) and turn left onto Main St.  On the block between N. Division and Eagle, and between Main and Washington, sits the imposing M&T Plaza, completed in 1966.

A century before that, Abraham Lincoln stayed two nights across the street in the American House Hotel on his Inaugural Train journey to Washington in February 1861.  On the Plaza footprint in the 19th century, St. James Hall was the public gathering place for all manner of entertainment from poultry shows to opera to famous orators. This is where Abraham Lincoln’s body lay in state on April 27, 1865.  It was reported that 80-100,000 people viewed his open casket, including the civic-minded philanthropist and former President, Millard Fillmore, and a 28-year-old Assistant District Attorney, Grover Cleveland.

Even before St. James Hall was erected, a temporary log cabin was built in 1840 on the southeast corner of Main and Eagle by the “Whigs of Buffalo” to promote William Henry Harrison for President and John Tyler, Vice President.

Over the cabin was a banner, “Harrison and Tyler.” A barrel of hard cider was on tap most of the time. Keepsakes, tokens and ornaments in the form of log cabins and other devices were given to potential voters.

With so many more tales to hear, you’ll have to take the “Presidents in Buffalo Walking Tour” to get the “rest of the story.”  Or you can visit the new Buffalo Presidential Center on the second floor of the downtown Central Library when it opens this fall.


Photo credits: Chuck LaChiusa/BuffaloAH.com

You can discover more local architecture and history by joining an Explore Buffalo tour (tickets can be purchased here), signing up for the weekly email newsletter, which is filled with local history content every Monday, and by following Explore Buffalo on Facebook. In a typical year, more than 80% of Explore Buffalo’s revenue comes from tours, events, and other public programs, all of which were suspended until July 2020. You can help Explore Buffalo to continue its mission of promoting Buffalo architecture and history during this time by:


See more tours and learn about Buffalo’s fascinating history and architecture

Written by Explore Buffalo

Explore Buffalo

Explore Buffalo is a nonprofit organization with a mission of promoting Buffalo and Western New York history, architecture, and neighborhoods through quality education to learners of all ages. Explore Buffalo's volunteer docents lead a wide range of guided tours by foot, bike, bus, kayak, and boat to explore our city's history and architecture; in 2019, more than 25,000 people participated in an Explore Buffalo tour or program. Learn more at explorebuffalo.org

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