John Milburn

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Canisius High School parking lot
where Milburn House was located
before the school razed it

 



The text below is an excerpt from the chapter entitled "Pan American Exposition: World's Fair as Historical Metaphor" as found in "High Hopes: The Rise and Decline of Buffalo, New York," by Mark Goldman . Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983.
(Mark Goldman - LINKS)

September 4 - The President Arrives

Several minutes later the train pulled into a special platform built at one of the entrances to the exposition grounds. Wearing a black frock coat and a high, black silk hat, President McKinley, his right arm tightly around his wife's waist, disembarked. Following a short and ceremonious greeting by John Milburn, the head of the exposition's board of directors, President and Mrs. McKinley, watched by a crowd of more than sixty thousand, stepped into a low-wheeled victoria drawn by four exquisite trotters, and made a quick tour of the exposition grounds. The McKinleys were then driven to John Milburn's home on Delaware Avenue, about one mile south of the exposition. They were scheduled to return to the exposition the next day.

The
Milburns were accustomed to entertaining important visitors. Earlier that summer the Roosevelts had stayed with them, as had the French ambassador and his family. But clearly the president was different, and in anticipation of the visit Milburn had completely renovated his large wooden home. The Milburns were concerned about their guests -- not the president, an affable, easy going man who liked nothing more than smoking a cigar (he smoked over twenty per day) in the company of robust men -- but rather Mrs. McKinley. For in spite of the president's best efforts to hide it from the public (and even his best friends), the Milburns knew, as did the rest of the country, about the first lady's epilepsy. While no mention was ever made in the press about Mrs. McKinley's illness, there were constant references to her fortitude, her ability to withstand the rigors of being the nation's first lady, and endless paeans to the president, whose solicitude of his sickly wife embodied, it was said, the most admirable of husbandly virtues.

Because of Ida McKinley's illness the Milburns were not permitted to entertain as lavishly as they would have liked (when ambassador Cambon had stayed with them in July, the Milburns hosted an all night costume ball that people were still talking about in September).

There was a story circulating about Mrs. McKinley that at one 1uncheon given in honor of the president and his wife, the centerpiece was a large, stuffed American eagle. When the guests sat down, the thing began to bob its head and move up and down in jerky, lifelike movements. The effect on Mrs. McKinley was shocking. She had a fit on the spot. Thus, because of her unpredictable behavior and her discomfort around people (to avoid shaking hands, she always held a bouquet in her lap when in public), the Milburns planned no public receptions for their honored guests. There wasn't much time anyway, because the president wanted to see as much of the exposition as possible.


After the president had been shot

The Milburn house, so recently renovated, was now converted into a virtual military camp. On the outside it was surrounded by armed guards. Inside special telegraph machines had been installed as the house became the center of an international communications network. Across the street press tents were set up for the more than 250 newsmen covering the story, the most that had ever covered a public event. All of them rejoiced when Dr. Mann issued the first of many medical bulletins. The doctors were "gratified," Mann reported, by the president's condition. "The results," he said, cannot yet be foretold [but] hopes for recovery are justified."

As the president and the people of Buffalo settled in for what appeared to be a long period of recuperation (John Milburn engaged rooms for his family at a downtown hotel), the rest of the world reacted to the news.


After the president's death

Milburn announced that the exposition had lost over $6 million and that the Company would have to default on over $3.5 million in bonds. Milburn told the board of directors that he was going to Washington, where he would meet with New York's congressional delegation in an effort to convince Congress to pass a Pan American relief bill. He hoped, also to meet with President Roosevelt, who was reportedly sympathetic.

Yet Milburn's spirit was unbroken. He denied that the money lost on the exposition was "a foolish expenditure," as some had charged. The Pan American was, he said, a "masterpiece," and the city its "chosen showcase." Milburn asked the board to think of the millions of dollars that had poured into the city and to believe that the exposition had made Buffalo known all over the world, a city destined to rank with New York and Chicago.

Yet somehow Milburn wasn't convincing. His words didn't ring true. Nothing had turned out as Milburn had hoped it would. The exposition for which he had worked so devotedly had ended in a nightmare of violence and destruction. Once again Milburn looked ahead and, not liking what he saw, left. He was going to New York [in 1904], where he had accepted a partnership in a law firm.
[Milburn later served as president of the N.Y.S. Bar Association.]

Erie County, New York State
November 23-1919

McKINLEY DEATH CHAMBER WILL SOON DISAPPEAR.

Milburn Mansion Becomes Apartment House in Next Few Days.
Hundreds Visited it Yearly.
Material of Room Where President Died Being Preserved.

Buffalo will lose a cherished landmark within a few days when the Milburn house will be a sad fond memory of citizens who eighteen years ago the world joined in turning eyes and thoughts toward the spot where President William McKINLEY lay dying.

The John G. MILBURN home at No. 1168 Delaware Avenue became a national shrine when the stricken President was borne there from the Pan-American exposition grounds. Eminent surgeons hurried to the house and streets for blocks in each direction were roped off to keep the anxious public away.

His Dying Words.

Today the Milburn mansion is being converted into an apartment house by its present owner, Mrs. P.M. SHANNON. Work has already been begun. The windows raised during the martyr's last hours on earth that he might admire the trees and shrubbery and sunlight have been converted into doors in the addition that is being built. President McKINLEY said in a faint whisper to his nurse, "Please raise the windows so that I may see the trees and plants, they are so beautiful. "Thank you; God's will be done," he whispered as the end came. American stood aghast as the news was flashed around the world. The Milburn home was hallowed by a sacred memory in the hearts of America. Hundreds of visitors every year have visited the house in memory of the martyred President.

Many Took Survivors.

Leaves from the trees on the lawn have been carried away as souvenirs. Chips have been knocked from the steps leading into the house, twigs broken from the lilac bushes in the front garden and blades of grass plucked and tenderly folded in envelopes.

For eighteen years the rooms occupied by the President remained undisturbed. Now an addition that calls for converting the windows into doors has been started. The rear room, in which the dying President's bed stood, is being changed completely. Within a few days the entire place will have been converted, unless some historical preservation society takes steps to maintain the building intact as Buffalo's own.

The work is being done by the George W. Butler company, whose offices are in Ellicott square. Mr. BUTLER yesterday said that the wood and other material removed from the rooms is being carefully preserved and separated from the new material being used, but that the contract calls for improvements and repairs that will leave the original death chamber but a memory.

Garage Succeeds Barn.

The lilac bushes on the lawn, which sheltered newspaper men as they sat day after day anxiously waiting bulletins from the sickroom, have been cut down to make room for the addition. The stately elms still stand, but the barn in the rear of the house where horses were kept harnessed to do service for the dying President, will give way to a garage. At the time of the tragedy automobiles were almost unknown and the President's body was removed from the house in a horse-drawn vehicle. Unless some historical society steps in within a few days the Milburn home as it was eighteen years ago and a landmark visited by thousands every year, will be no more. - Submitted by Linda Schmidt


Memories of the demolition of the Milburn House

I remember sitting in class at Canisius High School, in that relatively new wing that runs parallel to Delaware, and watching the clamshell tear into the Milburn house, exposing an inner back stairway to sudden sunlight. The strangeness of that sight sticks with me.

Class was canceled, and we all just watched the demolition continue that day. While we all knew that it was the site of McKinley's death, I can recall no sense of historical loss expressed by anyone. It's funny how differently I would view it now.

My bet is that it came down in 1956 or 1957; it's gone in an aerial photo in the 1958 Canisius yearbook, under an expansionistically flavored caption, "The NEW CANISIUS-ON-DELAWARE", but there are no cars in the unpaved parking lot its demolition provided for, and, come to think of it, I can't ever recall seeing more than a few cars parked there ever, even now. I'd be interested in knowing what the thinking was back then. I wonder if Canisius has any archival material that might shed some light on that. - Peter Hassett, Oct. 26, 2002

Page by Chuck LaChiusa
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