Frederick Law Olmsted
Frederick Law Olmsted’s Buffalo Parks
In a day and a half in August 1868, Frederick Law Olmsted, the greatest landscape architect and parks designer of the nineteenth century, conceptualized the Buffalo parks system that bears his name. Invited to determine a park site for the city, he toured three proposed locations on a Monday, analyzed soil samples and finished his survey by midday Tuesday, and presented his ideas to a meeting of two hundred civic leaders that evening.
The largest parcel was a 350 acre site four miles north of the city (Delaware Park). The second, two miles from Niagara Square, was on a dramatic bluff overlooking the Niagara River (Front Park). The third was located on high ground with a view of the city and Lake Erie (Humboldt Park, now Martin Luther King Jr. Park).
Rather than choosing just one of the sites for the major Buffalo park, Olmsted proposed that the city acquire all three parcels for what would become the nation’s first interconnected system of parkways and tree-lined avenues linking the parks with one another and downtown.
“In Buffalo, Olmsted showed how the burgeoning American industrial city could be made livable,” biographer Witold Rybczynski wrote, adding: "His highly original plan was a complex and refined network of parks, parkways, avenues and public spaces that represented a degree of sophistication in city planning previously unknown in the United States. He distributed parks throughout the city to make recreation space more accessible."¹
The centerpiece of Olmsted’s plan was Delaware Park, with meadows, a lake and forest that would provide residents a respite from the hustle and bustle of the city. His partner, architect Calvert Vaux, designed the park buildings and other structures, including a boathouse, a gazebo overlooking the lake, an office and quarters for the park superintendent, and a stone viaduct over Delaware Avenue.
Their design did not envision the intrusion of public buildings. The construction of the New York State building (now the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society) for the Pan-American Exposition at the turn of the twentieth century and the Albright (now Albright-Knox) Art Gallery ran counter to Olmsted’s concept of a park space for recreation and communing with nature without distractions.
A zoo was later established near the superintendent’s building, replacing the flock of sheep that had once grazed in the meadow. In the 1960s, an expressway was cut through the park, negatively affecting the ambiance Olmsted sought to create. Despite the changes from the original plan, Delaware Park, with features such as the rose garden, pathways for strollers and joggers, Shakespeare in the Park performances in summer and ice skating on the lake in winter, remains the oasis Olmsted envisioned.
South Park and the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens
The 155-acre South Park, designed in 1894 as an arboretum, with more than 2,300 types of trees, shrubs and plant life and room for a large conservatory building, is now home to the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens. More than 200 species of trees remain in the park.
A national historic site, education center and tourist destination, the Buffalo & Erie County Botanical Gardens opened to the public in 1900. Designed by Frederick A. Lord and William Addison Burnham, premier designers of Victorian glass houses, the Gardens serve as the gateway into the Frederick Law Olmsted-designed South Park. The conservatory was part of Olmsted’s original plan for South Park and was designed to offer a collection of exotic plants from around the world. Olmsted intended South Park to function as an arboretum for arboreal plants tolerant of Buffalo’s climate.
The conservatory’s unique tri-domed glass, wood and steel design was based upon the famous Crystal Palace and Royal Botanical Gardens glasshouses at Kew, England. When built (1897-1899), it was the third largest public greenhouse in the United States and ninth largest in the world. The unique tri-domed facility is one of only three remaining Lord & Burnham conservatories in the United States and the only conservatory in the eastern United States incorporated into a park designed by Olmsted.
Today, the Botanical Gardens are undergoing a $20 million restoration and expansion which started in 2001 and is scheduled to be completed by 2012.
This comprehensive expansion and renovation project will meld the Gardens’ rich history and architecture with bold innovative concepts and designs such as the Buffalo Meridian project.
Buffalo is located on the 79th longitude/meridian. The Buffalo Meridian concept will take visitors on a walking tour through the Gardens and around the globe visiting various locales and plant collections found along the Buffalo Meridian. These exhibits will alternate between gallery gardens, and habitat immersion exhibits and address varying climatic conditions: tropical; subtropical; Mediterranean; temperate and desert. They will also include a myriad of plants, animals and human communities that share this longitudinal connection.
The 37-acre Front Park was located on a bluff overlooking the Niagara River and Lake Erie. Attracted by the panorama of lake and river, the park drew 5,000 visitors on weekends and more than 1,000 on weekdays when it was first opened in the 1870s. Olmsted wrote that one could observe “a river effect such as can be seen, I believe, nowhere else—a certain quivering of the surface and a rare tone of color, the result of the crowding upward of the lake waters as they enter the deep portal of the Niagara.”²
The park, once considered as a site for the 1901 Pan-American Exposition, was not only designed as a grand setting for public ceremonies but for everyday activities as well. Its features included a carriage concourse, a promenade, the Front House pavilion, bandstand and amphitheater. A ball field, and waterfront playgrounds and boating facilities were added later.
While it is now dwarfed by the I-190 Thruway spur to the west and bisected by the access roads to the Peace Bridge, there are plans to make the park a welcoming international gateway between the U.S and Canada. An unsightly brick park building that obscured the view of the water was demolished two years ago, thus restoring the scenic overlook, and a number of restoration and rehabilitation projects are slated for Front Park in the coming months and years. More than $2 million has been allocated for park improvements, including a substantial pathway restoration project and full reconstruction of the terrace overlook plaza.
Martin Luther King Jr. Park
Originally known as “The Parade,” this park was designed as a military drill field and parade ground. Built on high ground east of the city, with a view of Buffalo and the lake beyond, it was a popular weekend destination for the German immigrant families who lived nearby. The park had a grove of play equipment for children and featured a two story refectory (dining hall) designed by Vaux.
In 1896, Olmsted’s son, John, redesigned the park and its name was changed to Humboldt Park. The playground was replaced with a picnic grove and a series of water features, including a wading pool that drew thousands of visitors. In the 1920s, a casino was added and a greenhouse replaced the refectory. The Science Museum was built in 1929.
The park was connected to Delaware Park via the 200-foot wide Humboldt Parkway, similar to Bidwell Parkway on the west side, until 1960 when the parkway was torn up and rows of stately trees were cut down to make way for the Kensington Expressway.
Reflecting the city’s changing demographics, the park was renamed in 1977 to Martin Luther King Jr. Park. Like Front Park, efforts are being made to restore some of the park’s original features. New spray pads brought water recreation back to the center of the basin in Phase 1 of the wading pool rehabilitation.
Other Parks and Projects
Olmsted’s firm continued to design public grounds for the rapidly expanding city until 1915. Amazingly, the majority of Olmsted’s designs in Buffalo, which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, are substantially intact.
All were connected by seven broad “parkways” which excluded commercial traffic and sought to provide a park experience for the entire city. There were also seven picturesque traffic circles.
Cazenovia Park, connected to South Park by the Red Jacket and McKinley Parkways, was built in 1893. The 186-acre park has one of the more mature stands of trees in the city. Cazenovia Creek, which flows through, adds to the park’s beauty.
Designed in 1898, the 22-acre Riverside Park was the last park the Olmsted firm designed in Buffalo. Originally, park visitors could walk across a footbridge over the Erie Canal. In 1912, 12 acres were added to the south end of the park. Today, while Riverside is a vibrant neighborhood park, only remnants of Olmsted’s plan for the park remain.
In addition to his work in Buffalo, Olmsted’s “Special Report of New York State Survey on the Preservation of the Scenery of Niagara Falls” (1880) played an important role in convincing New York legislators to purchase and hold Niagara Falls as a public reserve.
NOTES AND SOURCES:
See pictures of the parks at the Web site of the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy. Stanton M. Broderick, “Olmsted in Buffalo,” also has pictures of the early parks.
¹Witold Rybczynski, A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Scribner, 1999), p. 289. Olmsted’s Buffalo visit is described in pp. 285-89.
²Frederick Law Olmsted, “A Healthy Change in the Tone of the Human Heart,” Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine 32 (1886), p. 963, quoted in Francis R. Kowsky, “Municipal Parks and City Planning: Frederick Law Olmsted’s Buffalo Park and Parkway System,” from Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, March 1987. Kowsky’s article provides extensive detail about the creation of the Olmsted parks system. Also see Charles Beveridge, “Buffalo’s Park and Parkway System,” in Reyner Banham et al, Buffalo Architecture: A Guide (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1981), pp. 15-23.