Buffalo's Olmsted Parks: I


(This column was first published in the August 25, 2003 issue of The Buffalo News.)


It was dawn on a Sunday morning in mid-August when I rode down Amherst Street, crossed Parkside and began my tour of Buffalo's premier park system, its Olmsted Parks.


This was to be a wonderful experience. I had known far too little about these parks when I met Olmsted Parks Conservancy executive director Deborah Ann Trimble a few weeks earlier. She provided me much background about them, impressing me not only with the unexpected extent of the lands involved but also with the complex operations necessary to support them.


Our conversation led me to explore some of the history of the parks by visiting two excellent websites: the Conservancy's site, and one devoted to Frederick Law Olmsted. My only earlier background about Olmsted was gained from reading a recent best seller, Eric Larson's The Devil in the White City, which told about the architect's work on the 1893 Chicago World's Fair grounds.


As I rode slowly past the zoo, I thought about this man who brought his wonderful foresight to the design of these beautiful parks over 130 years ago. Frederick Law Olmsted was one of those 19th century entrepreneurs whose lack of formal education did not bar him from an extraordinary career. Over his rich lifetime he was a farmer, merchant seaman, newspaper correspondent, author, gold miner, and even briefly executive secretary of the organization that was to become the American Red Cross.


It was through his connections as a New York newspaper reporter that he was appointed superintendent of the city's then ill-defined Central Park in 1857. He wisely accepted an offer by the English-trained architect Calvert Vaux to join him to enter a competition for the design of the park. Their proposal, Greensward, won and to the surprise and consternation of his partner, Olmsted was named Central Park's chief architect with Vaux as his assistant. Fortunately for both, Vaux swallowed his pride for they were to continue as lifetime partners.


Together they later designed New York's Prospect Park in 1865, Chicago's Riverside Park in 1868, the Niagara Reservation at Niagara Falls in 1887, through the 1890s a series of Boston's parks called the Emerald Necklace that included the Boston Common, and the Chicago World's Fair grounds. Terribly overcommitted and never willing to accept second-best, Olmsted's health finally gave way and he descended into senility, dying in 1903.


Now I was seeing first hand what his vision accomplished. On my left as I rode down Nottingham Terrace I could observe the vast tree-encircled lawns of Delaware Park, at this early time with only a single walker pacing along the boundary road and a few gulls resting midfield. Equally impressive to me, on my right were some of Buffalo's most beautiful homes. As I was to notice throughout the day, the effects of the Olmsted Park system would extend well beyond its boundaries. These attractive parklands and parkways quite simply define quality neighborhoods, which translate into expensive real estate and almost certainly the city's strongest tax base. In fact, when I strayed off course several times, for I am one of the world's worst map followers, I found that these qualities extended for many blocks beyond the Olmsted lands.


I continued west along Nottingham past Delaware and along the northern border of the western section of Delaware Park. It extends all the way to Elmwood Avenue where the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society Building is located. This is the only remaining building from the 1901 Pan-American Exposition. In fact, President McKinley had lunch here the day before he was shot.


My tour will continue next week.-- Gerry Rising