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Nature Watch: Olmsted’s parkways still have great character

Sunday is the birthday of Frederick Law Olmsted, easily the most famous American landscape architect. He is probably best known for his design of Central Park in New York City, but he also planned parks in dozens of other cities in the United States, as well as Montreal and St. Catharines in Canada. His designs include those for international expositions and state and national parks. Among them were plans for the landscaping around the U.S. Capitol building and the park at Niagara Falls.

But Buffalo enjoys a special association with Olmsted. Between 1868 and 1874, he and his partner, Calvert Vaux, designed their first comprehensive park and parkway system for this city. He was so well satisfied with what they accomplished that he created an exhibit about Buffalo urban planning for the Centennial Exposition of 1876 in Philadelphia and the 1878 Paris Exposition Universelle. He described Buffalo as “the best-planned city, as to its streets, public places and grounds, in the United States if not the world.”

I know this background because I recently received an advance copy of the Johns Hopkins University Press book, “Frederick Law Olmsted: Plans and Views of Public Parks.” Thirty-one pages of this attractive 450-page coffee table book are given over to illustrations of Buffalo park plans and scenes. (Francis Kowsky provided information and documentary sources concerning the Buffalo parks.)

My review of those pages led me to spend a half day visiting the parks and parkways Olmsted developed to see how they have stood the ravages of time.

I began with Delaware Park, where I was pleased to find over 100 people walking or jogging around the encircling road. Clearly this park is serving the public for which it was designed. But it has changed significantly from its original design. In 1875, the Buffalo Zoo claimed a corner of the parkland. In 1901, the Buffalo Historical Museum opened in the western corner of the park, followed by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in 1905. And in 1930 the 18-hole golf course was added. Of course, the most violent imposition on this park was cutting the Scajaquada Expressway through it. Despite this imposition, noise from the highway seems only to affect the western park sections.

Interestingly, the adjacent Forest Lawn predated Delaware Park. One of the first cemeteries to provide an attractive rural setting for gravesites, it was first opened in 1849 and Olmsted took into account the proximity of its parklands.

Olmsted designed four parkways associated with Delaware Park. Humboldt Parkway was eaten up by the Scajaquada, but the other three remain broad thoroughfares that are quite unexpected in the heart of Buffalo. Lincoln Parkway runs south from Agassiz Circle behind the art gallery to Soldier’s Circle, from which Bidwell Parkway runs to Colonial Circle at Richmond Avenue and Chapin Parkway to Gates Circle at Delaware Avenue.

In Olmsted’s original designs, these parkways extended still further, down Richmond Avenue, for example, to Symphony Circle, but those streets do not have the same character as the four parkways.

For those parkways do indeed have character – broad, tree-lined avenues separated by parklands between lanes. At each side, they are further enhanced by attractive old mansions set back behind local streets. The only distractions that compromise these avenues are the parked cars that line them. I could envision how the area would have appeared in the late 19th century with all of the vehicular traffic horse-drawn.

I continued down to Front Park, so named because it served as frontage at the entrance from Lake Erie to the Niagara River. Sadly, that role has been compromised by the Peace Bridge and Niagara Thruway interchange. Poor Oliver Hazard Perry stands alone in the middle of a cement circle.

I then went south to visit South and Cazenovia Parks. These were later additions created between 1893 and 1900. Finally I headed back north to end my tour at Martin Luther King Jr. Park behind the Buffalo Museum of Science. Originally titled The Parade, it was later Humboldt Park before it attained its final designation.

These wonderful urban parklands are supported by the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy. For more information about this important organization see