Olmsted’s Buffalo Park System and Its Stewards

ByThomas Herrera-Mishler

Sunset in Delaware Park.Sunset in Delaware Park.Library of Congress Frederick Law Olmsted (1822–1903), America’s first and greatest landscape architect, designed a system of parks and parkways in Buffalo that was the first of its kind in the nation and represents one of his largest bodies of work. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the system consists of six major parks, their connecting parkways and circles, and several smaller spaces.

A view of Buffalo at the time Olmsted and Vaux began to work there.A view of Buffalo at the time Olmsted and Vaux began to work there.Library of CongressOlmsted's sketch map of Buffalo showing the first three parks in the park system inrelation to the general plan of the city, 1868.Olmsted's sketch map of Buffalo showing the first three parks in the park system, 1868.National Parks ServiceOlmsted's map of The Park (Delaware Park), 1868.Olmsted's map of The Park (Delaware Park), 1868.National Parks ServiceConstruction on Buffalo's park system, 1870's.Construction on Buffalo's park system, 1870's.National Parks ServiceDeveloping the Buffalo Park System

When Frederick Law Olmsted arrived in Buffalo in July of 1868 he was asked to visit several potential park locations in order to select a site for a “central” park for the burgeoning city of Buffalo. After his visit, Olmsted prepared a proposal in which he made a startling recommendation. Rather than one park, Olmsted advised that they consider developing a major landscape park in the outer suburbs where suitable land was available and relatively inexpensive, and two smaller recreation grounds closer to the population base, connecting them all together by means of broad avenues that his firm called “park ways.” The committee accepted Olmsted’s proposal, developing what eventually became the nation’s first comprehensively planned municipal park system.

The Park (Delaware Park)

Plans for The Park (later known as Delaware Park) were submitted by Olmsted and his design partner Calvert Vaux in 1870, and it was substantially completed by 1876.[1] The site was located on gently sloping farmland bisected by the meandering Scajaquada Creek. This site provided an existing rural landscape requiring little manipulation to achieve the pastoral aesthetic that Olmsted prized. By damming the creek to create a lake (named the Gala Water) in the southern portion of the tract and utilizing the existing rolling meadows punctuated by copses of mature trees, Olmsted formed The Park in the image of the pastoral parklands he had admired during visits to England. Growing out of the English Romantic landscape traditions, these carefully planned landscapes allowed the park visitor to feel immersed in the landscape, escaping from the stresses of modern urban life. The heart of The Park’s northern section was the 150-acre “Meadow,” which is twice the size of the famous Long Meadow in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park designed by Olmsted and Vaux in 1866.[2]

Olmsted's map of The Front, 1868.Olmsted's map of The Front, 1868.National Parks Service The Front (Front Park)

Delaware Park was initially located far from the existing population centers, and there was no public transportation that extended that far. Olmsted addressed this drawback by also creating smaller parks nearer to city residents. He selected a waterfront bluff overlooking the confluence of Lake Erie and the Niagara River, adjacent to an abandoned fort left over from the hostilities during the War of 1812. Front Park, designed in 1871, was one of Olmsted’s first successful waterfront park development proposals.

The Parade (Martin Luther King Jr. Park)

The final park initially proposed by the Olmsted Vaux firm was The Parade (completed in 1876) – later Humboldt Park, currently known as Martin Luther King Jr. Park – on the East Side of Buffalo. Originally intended for military drilling and parades, the park also offered a comprehensive set of play facilities for children and a refectory for food, drink and dancing. It was substantially redesigned in 1896 by Frederick Law Olmsted’s sons, the firm then known as Olmsted, Olmsted and Eliot. This new layout included an enormous five-acre wading pool, a large water garden, and an adjacent fountain laid out formally. The wading pool was recently restored and reopened in 2013.

Parkways

Lincoln Parkway, 1890.Lincoln Parkway, 1890.The Mendola CollectionSymphony Circle, Buffalo, NY.Symphony Circle, Buffalo, NY.Buffalo Olmsted P. Conservancy Although Olmsted planned extensive park systems for Boston, Rochester and Louisville in the 23 years between the end of his partnership with Vaux in 1872 and his retirement in 1895, he never saw construction of a more impressive or coherent set of parkways than those adjoining Delaware Park[3] and later expanded to South Buffalo. The width of those parkways and their ranks of shading trees achieved the effect Olmsted had anticipated in his report of 1868 when he wrote:

Thus, at no great distance from any point of the town, a pleasure ground will have been provided for, suitable for a short stroll, for a playground for children and an airing ground for invalids, and a route of access to the large common park of the whole city of such a character that most of the steps on the way to it would be taken in the midst of a scene of sylvan beauty, and with the sounds and sites of the ordinary town business, if not wholly shut out, removed to some distance and placed in obscurity. The way itself would thus be more park-like than town-like.[4]

Later Developments

South Park LAkeSouth Park LakeBuffalo Olmsted P. Conservancy South Park

In 1888 Olmsted prepared extensive plans for a new major park in South Buffalo. It was originally proposed to be a water-themed park on the shores of Lake Erie, but this site was rejected because lakefront locations were too valuable for their industrial and transportation uses, and because some felt the winds off the lake would make the site inhospitable for park uses.[5] Instead, a site approximately one mile inland was selected for this South Park, and a beautiful lagoon with heavily planted islands was created. It remains one of the most intact Olmsted landscapes in Buffalo. South Park was later (1892) chosen as the location for an elaborate botanical garden housed in a glass conservatory, designed by Lord and Burnham, surrounded by extensive arboretum collections.[6] The addition of a nine-hole golf course in 1915 preserved much of the original character of the site.

Cazenovia ParkCazenovia ParkBuffalo Olmsted P. Conservancy Cazenovia Park

South Park was connected to nearby Cazenovia Park, built on the banks of the Cazenovia Creek via a handsome parkway. The McKinley Parkway, with its three major landscaped traffic circles, forms an attractive transportation spine down the center of South Buffalo. Plans for Cazenovia Park were finished in 1893 and included the four major components that characterize Olmsted parks: a wooded perimeter, rolling meadows, a water feature (here, a lake), and discreet circulation systems for pedestrians and vehicles. However, by this time park planners had begun to include more athletic and active recreational components. Ball fields and tennis were part of the original layout, and they remain highly utilized to this day.

Additions to Delaware Park

The original boat house in Delaware Park designed by Calvert Vaux, 1894.The original boat house in Delaware Park designed by Calvert Vaux, 1894.Library of Congress The 1901 Pan-American Exposition was held at Delaware Park, and it had significant and lasting impact there. Classically designed Beaux Art buildings were added for the event, permanently altering the park’s original design concept.[7] The original Vaux-designed boathouse, destroyed by fire in 1900, was replaced by a more imposing one designed by noted (and prolific) Buffalo architect E. B. Green in time for the Exposition. A grand Greek Revival Albright Art Gallery went up nearby on a hill overlooking the lake. The New York State Pavilion was also constructed on the shores of the lake, the only permanent structure built for the Exposition and now home to the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society.

Riverside Park

The last park by the Olmsted firm in Buffalo was Riverside Park, designed in 1898, on the banks of the Niagara River. Separated from the river by the Erie Canal, the park was later extended to the banks of the river when the canal was filled in. It had the classic Olmsted park elements of meadow, water, woods, and circulation systems. The park plan also included a formal concourse that oriented and connected to the waterfront. The water feature, called the Minnow Pools, was a series of connected pools and waterways that flowed across the entire northern end of the park. The water feature was lost in the 1930s due to deferred maintenance and water flow problems, but it has been renamed RiverRock Garden and will undergo a complete restoration, guided by extensive documentation of the original landscape design.

Significance of Olmsted’s Buffalo Work

Olmsted was proud of the Buffalo System. In the spring of 1876 he made a map exhibiting the features of the general plan of Buffalo, with the relative locations of the parks, the interconnecting parkways, and associated landscapes of historic Forest Lawn Cemetery, the New York State Asylum for the Insane (now known as the Richardson Olmsted Complex), and the Parkside Neighborhood. The illustrated plan was sent by Olmsted to Philadelphia for the Centennial Exposition and then on to Paris in 1878 for an international exposition.[8] He expressed the belief that Buffalo was “the best planned city, as to its streets, public places and grounds in the United States, if not the world."[9] The parks and parkways form the green infrastructure for the city of Buffalo. All of the city’s major cultural institutions are located in or along Olmsted landscapes. The Conservancy’s dedicated maintenance of these historic landscapes contributes greatly to the visual character and quality of life in almost every neighborhood.

Decline, Losses, Threats

The Humboldt Parkway, 1935.The Humboldt Parkway, 1935.Buffalo Olmsted P. ConservancyConstruction of a sunken highway on the site of the Humboldt Parkway, 1960.Construction of a sunken highway on the site of the Humboldt Parkway, 1960.Buffalo Olmsted P. Conservancy The original Parks Commission was dissolved in 1915 and the city’s relationship with the Olmsted Firm came to an end. In addition to the long period of Olmsted firm involvement in the Buffalo parks, the strong tradition of good and informed maintenance, best exemplified by William McMillan’s time as superintendent, was also lost.

The mid-twentieth century period was not kind to the original Olmsted-designed parks and parkways. Sadly, the Humboldt Parkway that linked The Park (Delaware Park) and The Parade (Martin Luther King Jr. Park) was destroyed to build a sunken highway. The devastating loss of the Humboldt Parkway broke the connectedness of the system and split the East Side of Buffalo. The loss of one of the nation’s most attractive residential parkways is still mourned by many Buffalo residents and visitors. This loss is seen as causing significant decline in the adjacent neighborhoods, a decline that has not occurred on any of the city’s other remaining Olmsted Parkways.

The Scajaquada Expressway was built through the middle of Delaware Park, completed in 1960,[10] cutting the Meadow side off from the Lake Side of the park and introducing traffic, noise, and pollution on a massive scale into this once pastoral landscape.

The waterfront park access at both Riverside and Front Park lasted until 1960, when the New York State I-190 Thruway was built along the route of the Erie Canal, adjacent to the Niagara River. The fort lands of Front Park were later sold by the city to a private concern dedicated to building a bridge to Canada, and the fort’s parkland was eventually completely consumed by activities related to the border crossing. Unsympathetic modern structures were built on the parklands, diminishing their historic character.

Japanese Garden and Mirror Lake in Delaware Park.Japanese Garden and Mirror Lake in Delaware Park.Buffalo Olmsted P. ConservancyBuffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy

A group of Olmsted fans formed the Buffalo Friends of Olmsted Parks in 1978. This group eventually grew into the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy. The parks and parkways were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. In 2004, in a landmark agreement unique in the nation, the Conservancy assumed the full operations and maintenance of the historic Olmsted park system.

The Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy (BOPC) is a 501(c)3 nonprofit, independent community organization that promotes, preserves, restores, enhances and ensures maintenance of Olmsted Parks and Parkways in the greater Buffalo area to guarantee Olmsted park experiences for current and future generations. It is the first nonprofit organization in the nation to manage and operate an entire historic urban park system. The parks are now carefully tended daily by the Conservancy’s skilled landscape technicians, staff, interns, volunteers and job training program participants.

The Conservancy has prepared a 20-year plan for the restoration and management of the parks, identifying three hundred projects throughout the citywide system valued at $234 million. Design work has begun for over $38 million of grant- and government-funded restoration projects throughout the system. A new era for Buffalo’s Olmsted-designed park system, the nation’s first of its kind, is well under way.

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Visit the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy website (www.bfloparks.org).

To watch The Best Planned City in the World: Olmsted, Vaux and the Buffalo Park System, visit lalh.org/films/best-planned-city-film/.


[1] Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy, Urban Design Project, 2008.

[2] Delaware Park’s Meadow is one of six great pastoral park landscapes that Olmsted designed, including the upper meadow of Central Park, the “Southopen Ground” of Chicago’s Washington Park, the meadow in Genesee Valley Park in Rochester and the “Country Park” section of Franklin Park in Boston. See Charles Beveridge, The Best Planned City: The Olmsted Legacy in Buffalo (Burchfield Art Center, 1992, p. 19.)

[3] Beveridge, 1992.

[4] Beveridge, 1992, p. 20.

[5] With the steel mills gone and the waterfront lands abandoned, Olmsted’s plans have recently been revived and proposed by a group of concerned citizens for construction on Buffalo’s outer harbor.

[6] John C. Olmsted advocated against this sole-purpose landscape, trying to preserve the site for broader recreational uses as originally proposed, but he was vetoed.

[7] John C. Olmsted was opposed to these as well.

[8] Patricia Marie O’Donnell, Survey of Buffalo’s Olmsted Parks: Summer 1979, for National Register of Historic Places Nomination (Buffalo, NY: 1979), p. 11.

[9]In a letter F. L. Olmsted wrote to George E. Waring Jr., April 13, 1876.

[10] Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy, Urban Design Project, 2008.

Portrait of Thomas Herrera-Mishler Thomas Herrera-Mishler is the President and CEO of the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy, a not-for-profit, membership-based organization, responsible for the maintenance and operations of Buffalo’s Olmsted Park and Parkway System. 

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