Derek Gee/Buffalo News
In mid-September 1901, as President William McKinley lay dying from an assassin’s bullet in a house on Delaware Avenue, Theodore Roosevelt made his way to Buffalo for one of the grimmest inaugurations in American history.
The young vice president, just 42 and yet to make his presence fully felt in American history, took the oath of office in the nearby Wilcox Mansion in the suit and long coat he would later wear in McKinley’s funeral procession.
Now, a joint effort by the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site and the Buffalo Renaissance Foundation has made that image of the nation’s youngest president a permanent fixture at the Delaware Avenue site. A 7½-foot statue of Roosevelt by Maryland-based sculptor Antonio Tobias “Toby” Mendez, was installed Monday morning on the west lawn of the historic site.
The bronze sculpture depicts Roosevelt standing tall, with one hand in his pocket and the other gripping a top hat, staring into the distance with an expression of quiet confidence and contemplation.
Mendez, who installed the $120,000 statue with a small crew Monday, said he set out to avoid the caricature of Roosevelt as the Roughrider from the Spanish-American War and pugnacious, independent-minded politician with a toothy grin and raffish manner.
“I wanted to make sure it was good likeness of him, but not that caricature. It’s not the toothy smile or anything that’s exaggerated,” Mendez said. “It’s much more contemplative. It’s capturing the moment of him assuming the presidency.”
For the historic site, formerly known simply as the Wilcox Mansion, the three-year process that led to the statue’s commission and installation is part of a long-term plan to reinvent the site as a resource for information about Roosevelt’s entire presidency, not just the inauguration that brought him to Buffalo.
“This is all about marketing and branding,” said the site’s executive director and site superintendent, Standon H. Hudson Jr. The sculpture, he said, helps answer a key question: “How do we reinvent ourselves, when in fact the event that took place here, which is indeed very significant, took less than 10 minutes?”
To that end, the site has made great strides in the last decade, raising more than $4.6 million for a variety of projects, including installing interactive educational exhibits, reconstructing the mansion’s carriage house as a visitor center and launching a series of educational and public programs designed to increase the public’s awareness of the site and its expanding mission.
Buffalo Renaissance Foundation board member Jake Schneider said the sculpture will advance that goal for the site, which is part of the National Park Service.
“I think when people do come here, they’re going to feel differently about the place,” he said. “They’re going to know that it’s centered around the life of Theodore Roosevelt, and if they want to learn more about Theodore Roosevelt, they’re in the right place.”
As for the statue itself, the third in a series of five sculptures funded in part by the Buffalo Renaissance Foundation, Mendez said he tried to capture a softer and more elegant side of Roosevelt than we normally see.
“One thing that I really like about Teddy Roosevelt is that he had that personality of the Roughrider, the cattleman, but he also had kind of an elegant leader side to his personality. He lived in both worlds. He never dumbed himself down,” Mendez said. “The idea of the sculpture is that it has that confidence he carried in both worlds that he lived in.”