Frederick Law Olmsted - Table of Contents  ....................  Elmwood Historic District (EAST) - Table of Contents

Frederick Law Olmsted  – Parks and Parkways
Elmwood Historic District (EAST)
National Register of Historic Places Nomination
Section 8, Pages 25-31
Prepared by Clinton Brown Company Architecture/Rebuild (online May 2015)

Research by  Hannah Beckman

At the invitation of Buffalo businessmen seeking to enhance the quality of their city, Frederick Law Olmsted overlaid his masterpiece Buffalo parks and parkways system over the area between 1868 and the 1870s. During this time, Olmsted and his partner Calvert Vaux transformed this raw land into a carefully crafted and manicured naturalistic landscape that would come to define the character of the Elmwood district as it is known today.

These efforts were realized in not just a single park, but in an interconnected network of parks and parkways, a park system. The plan for the Buffalo park system, known as the Delaware-Front Park system, was drawn by 1870 and substantially completed by 1876. The results of these efforts manifested not only in the physical presence of the parks, but also the creation of a framework for future development. In laying out this new park system, Olmsted established an armature that would inspire, shape, and determine the development that would occur in the district henceforth, encouraging the settlement patterns that are still present in the Elmwood Historic District today.

This extensive system of small parks linked with landscaped roads and a larger city park would create interconnectivity between many parts of the city, centered on the Elmwood Historic District. Olmsted’s plan also created a framework, like that originally created by Joseph Ellicott, for a region of the city that had grown without a plan through the nineteenth century, improving access and encouraging development.

Olmsted’s scheme envisioned three parks in the city’s 11th Ward, The Park (now Delaware Park) being the largest, with The Front (now Front Park) along the Niagara River, with The Parade (later Humboldt Park, now Martin Luther King, Jr. Park) to the east. These major parks were designed to serve as primary nodes, connected by an intricate system of parkways and circles. Together, these parkways and circles form what historian Francis Kowsky has termed “sylvan tributaries” running throughout the city.90

This citywide park system was designed to be accessible to all, and thus the plan not only embraced neighborhoods that had already developed but also joined them to areas that Olmsted and Vaux predicted would become populated over time.

The crowning centerpiece of this elaborate park system is The Park (Delaware Park), which was established on 350 acres of land just north of Forest Lawn Cemetery. To create a naturalistic landscape, The Park incorporated an area that Olmsted and Vaux termed “greensward,” meaning rolling meadowland dotted with trees, and also a 46-acre lake. The greensward was ringed by a density of trees, typical of Olmstedian designs, which was intended to insulate the park against the city beyond.

A series of bridal paths, carriage drives and footpaths wound through the park. Like he had done at Central Park, pedestrian travel was separated from the carriages to create a safe, relaxing environment for all.91

Olmsted was attracted to the existing natural features in the area where he established The Park. While he appreciated the natural lay of the land, he was also enticed by the park- like Forest Lawn Cemetery. Olmsted used the expanse of trees and meadow at Forest Lawn as a visual southern extension of The Park, blurring the lines between the two naturalistic elements.92

Beyond just the creation of natural landscapes for recreation, Olmsted’s plan shaped the development of this region of Buffalo. Perhaps most significant is that his design finally reconciled the criss-crossed Black Rock and Ellicott street grids, a generation after Black Rock was subsumed into the city of Buffalo. Located outside the existing population centers of Cold Spring, Black Rock and downtown, The Park was deliberately located by Olmsted where the land was vacant and inexpensive, yet he wanted The Park to be accessible to all and joined it to these existing centers with new parkways embracing areas which he knew would become populated over time.

Olmsted defined parkways (a term he coined) as “broad thoroughfares planted with trees and designed  with special reference to recreation as well as for common traffic.”93 For these parkways Olmsted both created new roads and also built on existing streets, creating an approach to the primary city park through a hierarchy of streets, from stately 100-foot wide avenues to broader 200-foot wide parkways to an even more grandiose 400- foot wide parkway leading to The Park.

At the intersection of York, North and Rogers Street, near the sites of what had been the former Black Rock Burial Grounds and the Buffalo “Pest House,” Olmsted created The Circle (now Symphony Circle). Olmsted reconfigured Rogers Street (now Richmond Avenue), north of The Circle, as The Avenue, underscoring his vision for the roadway as one of the most prominent approaches to The Park from the south. His plan for The Avenue widened the existing carriageway and planted it with a double- row of elm trees on either side. Where the original Rogers Street had terminated at Ferry Street, Olmsted created Ferry Circle, beyond which he extended the path of the street northward through unimproved land.

Where The Avenue intersected with Bidwell Parkway, Olmsted designed Bidwell Place (now Colonial Circle), a spacious rectangular shaped area. Bidwell Parkway linked the western elements of the plan, while Chapin Parkway similarly linked to components on the eastern side. Both were established as 200-foot wide parkways with a broad, tree-lined central median for horseback riders and pedestrians, with a roadway on either side. Where these two parkways met, Olmsted created Soldier’s Place, a generous 700-foot diameter circle.

Emerging from the north side of the circle was Lincoln Parkway, perhaps the most gracious of the streets designed by Olmsted, envisioned as a gateway to The Park. Lincoln Parkway was designed with a broad central road, divided from smaller access roads by a grassy, treed strip of land.94 Separate pathways were provided for pedestrians, carriages, and later, automobiles, creating a distinctive design that is both aesthetically pleasing and effective for regulating traffic patterns on this residential street.

Connecting Soldier’s Place to the Gala Waters (now Hoyt Lake) and, eventually, the Albright Art Museum, Lincoln Parkway attracted some of the wealthiest citizens of the city, who erected large mansions in the early 1900s.95 Today, Lincoln Parkway still retains much of the original character, plantings and naturalistic elements of Olmsted’s original plan.

European Influence

The park system that Olmsted and Vaux designed in Buffalo effectively brought the influence of sophisticated European urban planning to what, at the time, was a rural hinterland. Influenced by the work done by Georges- Eugene Haussmann in his bold redesign of the streets of Paris between 1853 and 1870, in designing a similar network of formalized boulevards, broad vistas, and terminal monuments in Buffalo’s northern regions, Olmsted defined this former farm and nursery outskirts area as an attractive, civilized, cultured area to be enjoyed by all.

Olmsted worked to integrate earlier elements of Joseph Ellicott’s plan for the city, linking many of the new streets and parkways to Ellicott’s preexisting ones and extending and expanding Ellicott’s vision of two generations before. Olmsted appreciated the early plan of Ellicott, itself influenced by grand European models. Olmsted built off of Ellicott’s 1804 plan to create one large, comprehensive plan that united both the settled areas of the city with the new areas as well, setting the stage for the growth and character of the future Elmwood district.

Olmsted and Vaux were so thrilled with the accomplishments in Buffalo that they exhibited their Buffalo parks and parkways plan at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, where Olmsted noted that Buffalo was “the best planned city, as to its streets, public places and grounds in the United States, if not the world.”96 Thus, the stage was set for the development of the character of the Elmwood Historic District.

While obviously focused on the design and structure of the parks and parkways themselves, Olmsted also envisioned the larger impact these features could have on the surrounding areas. Olmsted’s placement of the parks in the undeveloped 11th Ward was not merely because of the availability of vacant land, but was also done with an eye for encouraging the growth and development in Buffalo’s northern areas at a time when the populations was growing dramatically. Olmsted was a firm believer that parks and parkways improved the quality of life in cities, both for living and working, stating:

A park fairly well managed near a large town, will surely become a new centre of that town...It is a common error to regard a park as something produced complete in itself, as a picture to be painted on a canvas. It should rather be planned as one to be done in fresco, with constant consideration of exterior objects, some of them quite at a distance and even existing as yet only in the imagination of the painter.97

While some residential growth was occurring in the future Elmwood district already by the 1860s, the placement of the parks was a deliberate attempt to stimulate and encourage residential development in the area. Olmsted envisioned creating neighborhoods much like his parks, with a new sense of spaciousness and openness lacking in the densely developed urban center to the south.

Olmsted saw the development of freestanding houses with yards and space as parts of a new model for nineteenth-century residential living, compared to the crowded tenement-type housing found in older regions of cities. The park and parkways system in Buffalo was inherently designed to be integrated into this new model of residential living, fostering the growth of a suburban area. Olmsted was keenly aware of the influence of the park system on residential growth, intentionally setting the stage for the future Elmwood Historic District to become one of Buffalo’s most fashionable and desirable new residential neighborhoods.

Like Ellicott more than 60 years before, Olmsted inspired the city of Buffalo to create a park system plan not only for use by the current residents, but with consideration for future generations as well. Olmsted’s vision for the park influenced city leaders and the Buffalo Park Commissioners, who noted in their Second Annual Report from 1872,

The Act of the Legislature requires us, in selecting and locating the lands, to have ‘in view the present condition and future growth and wants of the city.’ The plans which were adopted were meant to meet this double purpose – not to be beyond our present ability, and yet to be sufficient for the future.98

The report continues:

To another generation, the Park will be the object of municipal price, and will be associated with the holiday pleasures of the people, and it is hardly worthwhile to speculate as to the expenditure which will then be cheerfully made for its improvement and ornamentation.99

That residents were already attracted to the new parks while they were still under construction was an indication of how hungry Buffalonians were for a public recreation ground.100 Buffalo park commissioners and Olmsted were correct in their assumption that former undeveloped farm lands near the parks and parkways would increase in value.

A review of maps of the city from 1866, prior to the development of the parks, and from 1872, reflects how popular the Elmwood district became in just a few short years. The Map of a Part of the City of Buffalo, created by surveyor Peter Emslie in 1866, depicts the 11th Ward area as sparsely settled east of Black Rock. While this atlas does not show parcel boundaries or note individual owners in most cases, it does give a good impression of the general density of areas of the city and those streets that were developed at the time.

Delaware Street had several buildings indicated, and Ferry Street was also fairly well developed. Summer Street and Bryant Street had a few buildings recorded, but were still fairly open. Other streets showed were noted as having no buildings constructed on them, and generally the area of the future Elmwood district was undeveloped. The 1866 atlas image does depict the development of new roads in this part of Buffalo. Here, Elmwood Avenue is now visible. Elmwood Avenue consisted of several various street segments, gradually connected together, but the portion of the street located in the Elmwood district had its origins in 1854, when it was laid out between Ferry Street and the Gulf Road (Delavan Avenue) and named Oakland Avenue.

On the 1866 map, south of Ferry Street, Elmwood Avenue is noted extending to Butler Street (now Lexington Avenue) and from Utica Street to Bryant Street, but is a vague dotted line between Butler Street and Utica Street, and near Summer Street. This indicates that the road had not yet been run through these blocks, as Elmwood Avenue cut through several of the nurseries in this area. The road may have existed as an informal path though the nursery grounds but was not connected until later.

Ashland Avenue, an informal road laid out in the 1850s, and Oakland Place (not to be confused with the original name of a portion of Elmwood Avenue, this route corresponds to the current street), both of which ran from Summer Street to Ferry Street, also has a similar dotted indication, signifying that these new north-south thoroughfares were not well established in the 1860s prior to the creation of the park system. These roads may also have been private roads, not open to the public.101

In the Elmwood Historic District (East), Oakland Place provides an excellent example of the new street development that continued to occur after the installation of the park system in the district. Formerly laid out in 1887 and paved in 1888, Oakland Place provided a new north-south street that was quickly developed, with several upscale residences appearing within the same year.102

As soon as 1872, the vacant land in the area of the parks was already noted in the park reports as being in demand, and many new roads were introduced in the area. The Atlas of the City of Buffalo, published in 1872, reflects this phenomenon. On plates for the 11th Ward there is clear visual evidence that the tracts of land once owned by Buffalo’s pioneers are in the process of being sub-divided and parceled into smaller plots. While the Elmwood district is portrayed as still only having a few residences constructed in the 1870s, primarily in the southern portion of the district, much of the land has been divided into smaller parcels, suitable for the construction of houses, rather than the farm tracts which had proceeded. The large tracts given over for use as nurseries have disappeared by this point, indicative that this land was now more valuable for development.103 Olmsted’s streets and parkways were established by this point, noted as being generally open while work continued on planting and finishing.

In 1872, The Avenue (Richmond Avenue) was established, running from The Circle (Symphony Circle) north to Bidwell Place (Colonial Circle). North of Bidwell Place, Rogers Street continues to Forest Avenue. Elmwood Avenue ran from Butler Street (Lexington Avenue) north to Delavan Avenue. The rapid physical transformation of Elmwood shown between 1866 and 1872 reflects the growth of real estate speculation in the area.

 of the new desirability of the area, Buffalo Park Commissioners feared that the development of new streets in the area would be haphazard and irregular, ruining the orderly Olmstedian vision for the region. From a financial perspective, they were also concerned with maintaining and increasing the value of land around the parkways, as they informed the Common Council in their report.

The vacant lands in the vicinity of the Parks are eagerly sought after. New buildings are constantly being erected, and our population is gradually but steadily creeping towards its borders. With this fact in view it may not be amiss to call the attention of your honorable body to the importance of causing a survey to be made of the whole northern and eastern portion of the city, with the view of having the streets so laid out as to harmonize with a general system, with the Parks and their approaches as the objective points. It is not too soon now to block out the vacant lands within the city limits and mark the lines of streets which must at no distant day be required for the section of the city...The adoption of some general plan as here indicated would enhance the value of the land and bring it speedily into marker, soon to be occupied by suburban homes.104

The establishment of the Buffalo parks and parkways system in Buffalo marked an important turning point in the history of the city’s northern fringes. Their development marks the close of the early development history of the region, which persisted into the mid-nineteenth century, and the beginning of the maturation of the city of Buffalo on the national stage. The development of the parks marks the start of a period of rapid growth and settlement that took place in the Elmwood district area in the 1880s and 1890s, setting its configuration and character to high standards.

86 Forest Lawn: Its History, Dedications, Progress, Regulations, Names of Lot Holders, 119.
87 Eleventh Annual Report of the Buffalo Park Commissioners, January 1881 (Buffalo, N.Y.: Young, Lockwood &, 1881), 76.
88 Buffalo Commercial Advertiser, "A Public Park," July 16, 1856.
89 Francis R. Kowsky, "Municipal Parks and City Planning: Frederick Law Olmsted's Buffalo Park and Parkway System," Journal of
the Society of Architectural Historians 46, no. 1 (March 1987): 50, JSTOR.
90 Kowsky, “Municipal Parks and City Planning,” 56.
91 Kowsky, "Municipal Parks and City Planning,” 52-53. 92 Kowsky, "Municipal Parks and City Planning,” 53.
93 Quoted in Kowsky, "Municipal Parks and City Planning, 58.
94 Kowsky, "Municipal Parks and City Planning,” 58.
95 The Albright Art Museum became the Albright Knox Art Museum in YEAR.
96 Quoted in Kowsky, "Municipal Parks and City Planning,” 49. 97 Quoted in Kowsky, "Municipal Parks and City Planning,” 62.
98 Second Annual Report of the Buffalo Park Commissioners, January 1872 (Buffalo, N.Y.: Warren, Johnson &, 1872), 11. 99 Second Annual Report of the Buffalo Park Commissioners, 12.
100 First Annual Report of the Buffalo Park Commissioners, January, 1871. (Buffalo: Warren, Johnson &, 1871), 13.
101 “Map of a Part of the City of Buffalo,” from New Topographical Atlas of Erie County, N. Y. From Actual Surveys Especially for This Atlas. (Philadelphia: Stone & Stewart, 1866).
102 Martin Wachadlo and Charles LaChiusa, Oakland Place: Gracious Living in Buffalo (Buffalo: Buffalo Heritage Unlimited, 2006), 7.
103 “Parts of the Eleventh and Twelfth Wards,” and “Part of the Eleventh Ward,” plates from G.M. Hopkins & Co., comp., Atlas of the City of Buffalo, Erie County, New York (Philadelphia: Edward Busch, 1872).

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