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How the Olmsted Park System Shaped Buffalo

By March 12, 2021March 21st, 2021No Comments


As Buffalo’s Olmsted Parks system prepares to celebrate the 200th birthday of its namesake, it’s worth noting that the system might never have happened had it not been for the ambition, ingenuity and envy of the city’s early business leaders.

The list included executives at what are now some of the region’s most well-known companies, including M&T Bank (then Manufacturers and Traders Bank) and Walsh Duffield Cos. Inc., who lobbied city leaders to set aside valuable land during a time when Buffalo’s location on Lake Erie made it one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, on par with New York City and Chicago.

The early leaders of Buffalo hoped to compete with those cities for new companies and workers, and those who had seen or heard of Manhattan’s Central Park wanted to bring the idea here.

“It was really a ‘keeping up with the Jones’ kind of thing, but it was also a status symbol,” said Stephanie Crockatt, executive director of the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy, which maintains the parks system. “It meant something, that you were progressive and that you were delivering quality-of-life amenities for your city, which would attract industry and the quality of life that comes with it.”

The seeds of a park system are planted

Today, the 850-acre Buffalo Olmsted Park System includes six major parks — Cazenovia, Delaware, Front, Martin Luther King Jr., Riverside and South — as well as seven parkways, eight circles and four smaller park spaces.

Back in the 1860s, there was no such thing as a public park in Buffalo. William Dorsheimer, a legislator and U.S. district attorney, had visited New York City and was familiar with Frederick Law Olmsted’s work creating Central Park. He shared that information with other influential businessmen of the time, including Sherman Jewett, who worked in iron, and Joseph Warren, who was the editor of the Courier, one of the city’s major newspapers.

Others involved in the process – all of them Buffalo Club members at the time — included future president Millard Fillmore; Pascal Pratt, an executive and future M&T Bank president; and James Mooney, a Walsh Duffield founder and great-grandfather of current CEO Ted Walsh.

At their request, Olmsted came to Buffalo in 1868 on a scheduled stop on his way to Chicago. That timing was vital: Buffalo was growing fast, and it wouldn’t be long before most large parcels of land were taken over for housing or industry. Buffalo was an important transportation hub and the end of the Erie Canal, representing the entry to the Great Lakes. Between 1860 and 1880, the city’s population doubled from 80,000 to 160,000.

Brian Dold, director of planning and advocacy at the Conservancy, said it took people with means, money and prestige, as well as the political power, to make it all happen.

“We were a really rich city and we wanted status. So it was really about building the status of Buffalo by doing simple things like paving streets and building the infrastructure, but at the same time, arts and culture were started to get organized in Buffalo,” he said.

This was before the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, before the Buffalo Museum of Science or any of today’s cultural institutions. These individuals saw the opportunity to have Olmsted – a star power at the time – help them create something.

Though the design of the parks system started with him and his business partner, Calvert Vaux, it continued in later years with Olmsted’s sons, leading to a 40-year relationship with his firm after his retirement.

Incorporating urban planning

After Buffalo leaders agreed to Olmsted’s parks system idea, 1870 to 1876 saw construction of the first three parks. Front Park, Delaware Park and the Parade Grounds (later renamed Martin Luther King Jr. Park) were built, as well as the parkways to connect them — Chapin, Bidwell, Lincoln and Humboldt, connected by Porter and Richmond avenues.

Frank Kowsky, a historian, retired fine arts professor from SUNY Buffalo State and author of “The Best Planned City in the World: Olmsted, Vaux and the Buffalo Park System,” said that while the city’s early leaders saw the benefit of making Buffalo a beautiful and healthy place to live, recruitment and retention might not have been a direct goal. Still, they recognized that people would pay property taxes to live near the parks, which would increase the wealth of the region.

The original parks system also helped to shape residential real estate in Buffalo, setting up how the city expanded, where neighborhoods developed and providing some structure to that growth.

The parks and parkways were meant to be recreational, but Olmsted’s plan also showed how urban planning would determine how people would live around these spaces, creating the idea of American suburbanization, Kowsky said.

“People were also beginning to think that American cities had grown hodgepodge and it was time to start thinking about how to make them more livable,” Kowsky said.

The idea also led to residential tax structures, where those people who wanted to live closest to the park paying property taxes to help the city recoup its original investment.

“The parks would be the new nucleus for new neighborhoods because people wanted to live around them, so it was a process to help develop a new neighborhood,” Kowsky said.

Waterfront park dream is dashed

First came the Parkside neighborhood adjacent to Delaware Park, one of the first residential suburbs in America where people could live in a parklike setting. That was followed by the parkways and parks in South Buffalo around South Park and Cazenovia Park.

“People saw how successful they were in the Northern part of the city, where they were also helping to develop the residential area,” he said. “That was the beginning of the residential area around McKinley Parkway. South Park was meant to be sort of the equivalent of Delaware Park.”

But even though Olmsted was revered for his work, he didn’t necessarily get everything he wanted: When he sought parcels for parks in the South Buffalo, city leaders rejected his request for a waterfront parcel on land that ultimately became part of Bethlehem Steel.

Olmsted recognized early on the value of waterfront recreational access, which was why he chose the locations for Front Park and Riverside Park, Kowsky said.

“He said Buffalo didn’t have any place where people can go and enjoy the lakefront,” Kowsky said. “His big idea was scenic preservation, which later became the National Parks, just preserving natural landscapes for people to enjoy.”

Though he didn’t get realize his waterfront park dream, Olmsted designed Cazenovia Park and South Park in the second phase of the system, connected by McKinley and Red Jacket parkways, and later Riverside Park to the north in the third phase.

Private leaders, not public, are to thank

These businessmen ultimately created a public-private initiative that benefited both sides. This partnership with the city and Common Council allowed the city to borrow the bonds necessary to undertake the parks project, with half of the repayments coming from the property taxes on the valuable land surrounding the parks, said architect Clinton Brown, a historian and avid Olmsted fan.

Over the 25 years it took to complete the whole parks system, the public-private partnership also created employment for hundreds of people who had lost their jobs during recessions. This was at a time when the country didn’t have any type of unemployment insurance or welfare assistance.

“They had shifts, so at one point you could work a day a week to earn some income,” Brown said. “So it served as this social relief foundation for people who were thrown out of work when there was no safety net.”

These Buffalo parks commissioners were the same people, he said, who founded the Albright-Knox, the Buffalo Club and even the YMCA, using their wealth and working together to create a desirable city to live.

“Most of us who grew up in Buffalo think the city made it happen,” Brown said. “The city was a partner and gave authorization, but it was private leaders – some of whom became parks commissioners and stayed on the commission from the beginning to the end over 20 years.”

Source: Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy and Business First research

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