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 Distric
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
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
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
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
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
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 Circl
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.
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
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
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:
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
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,
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:
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
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
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
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.
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
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 &
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).