Olmsted Parks in Buffalo, New York


In the last 40 years, the name Frederick Law Olmsted has been gaining recognition after nearly 70 years of ambiguity since his death in 1903. Few remember who is responsible for such feats as designing Central Park in New York and preserving the beauty of Niagara Falls by advocating for the creation of the Niagara reservation.

Image of Central Park: Olmsted’s first and most famous work.

While Central Park is an astounding testament to Olmsted, many consider some of Olmsted’s best and most important work to be two hundred 80 miles away in Buffalo New,York.

It was in Buffalo that Olmsted designed the first ever American Park and Parkway system. As opposed to giving the people of Buffalo a single green area in their bustling city, Olmsted decided to make multiple green spaces linked by roads called parkways that bring the feeling of the park into the rest of the city with vibrant plant-life lining the street. This original system of Parks and Parkways was unprecedented in America and has led Buffalo to be the vibrant place it is today.

The Buffalo Park System

 Olmsted’s original vision for the Buffalo Park system was to augment Joseph Ellicott’s fabulous city design with much needed green-space that infiltrated the city. His design had three main spaces connected to each other with parkways. The main park areas were each designed with a different intended use. Because of this, the city could be served by the system in many ways. 

To the left is pictured Olmsted’s original plan for the Buffalo Park system. The two lower dark areas Olmsted called pleasure grounds. The one on the left he called The Front and the one on the right he called The Parade. The upper dark area pictured is what Olmsted considered large enough to be a proper park. He referred to it simply as The Park.

The Park (Delaware Park)

The Park (later renamed Delaware Park) was created to alleviate some of the stresses of city life by soothing its visitors with beautiful landscapes. Integral to Olmsted’s vision was seclusion from hustle and bustle. In Olmsted’s mind the park’s large size was necessary to create the illusion that one is in some peaceful country estate.

Like many of Olmsted’s great parks, this park contains three main features. They are as follows: the Gala water (later renamed Hoyt Lake), the meadow, and the woods. This park at first had few buildings, but over the years many have been constructed and torn within this historic park. The buildings currently devoted to the Buffalo Historical Society and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery are left over from the 1901 Pan-American Exhibition. The Marcy Casino was also originally built for the Exhibition, but has been completely redone multiple times since.

Marcy Casino in its current form.

It may seem that buildings could be a hindrance to Olmsted’s original goal of seclusion from the city, and in fact Olmsted strove to have as few man-made structures on this park as possible in order to enhance the effect of nature. However, none of these buildings is as obtrusive as the Scajaquada Expressway. This freeway cuts right through the heart of Delaware Park, bringing with it the frenetic energy of the city that Olmsted strove so hard to avoid. The freeway cuts the Park in half to disastrous effect.

The Front (Front Park)

Olmsted’s original intent for this pleasure ground was for it to be a place for city events, sports and music performances. This park quickly became more popular that the other two parks when they were first completed due to its close proximity to the city center at the time. Olmsted devoted a fair amount of space to a playground as well as to a terrace from which people may gaze at the river. This played upon the Front’s (later named Front Park) one really distinguishing feature. This was the spectacular view of the Niagara river and the Canadian shore.

Olmsted’s Plan for the Front

Unfortunately, in the 1950s, transportation projects including the building of roads and a bridge across the river to Canada stole some of the park lands, in addition to obscuring the Olmstedian view of the river. The park has greatly suffered since.

 The Parade (Martin Luther King Jr. Park)

The Parade (eventually MLK Jr. Park) was originally conceived by Olmsted as a drilling ground on which the military could practice while civilians watch from the Parade house, which contained a restaurant and a ballroom. Unfortunately the Parade was rarely used for its intended purpose due to the fact that it was too far away from the Armory to be practical for the army to use. To make matters worse, the Parade house burned down only a year after the park opened. It was rebuilt on a slightly more modest scale only to be torn down again in the early twentieth century.

Olmsted’s original design for the Parade

John C. Olmsted’s redesign of the Parade as Humboldt Park

Eventually the Buffalo Park Commission would decide it was time for change in this pleasure ground. After Olmsted’s retirement, the Park commission hired Olmsted’s firm (then headed by Olmsted’s nephew and adopted son John C. Olmsted) to redesign the Parade.

John Olmsted decided to fill the vast empty space of the Parade with three water features: a fountain, a rectangular aquatic plant-life basin, and a very large wading pool. To signify that this was a new park, the Park commission renamed this place Humboldt Park (eventually the name would be changed again to Martin Luther King Jr Park). Frederick Olmsted Sr. was not pleased at his park being changed.

As the twentieth century went on, more and more changes were made to this park with little consideration for the integrity of the park. Against the better judgement of many citizens, the City of Buffalo built three structures that remain on the grounds to this day. These buildings include a casino, the Buffalo Museum of Science, and the Buffalo Science Magnet School. In addition, the three water features have been changed and changed again. Today there are basketball courts and bleachers in place of the fountain, there is a wading pool in place of the aquatic plant-life basin, and there is a huge concrete splash pool in place of the wading pool.

The Buffalo Museum of Science in MLK Jr. Park

There has been a lot of change in these Olmsted parks over their many years serving the community. For over a hundred years these parks have given the people of Buffalo clean air, reprieve from the stress of city life, a fun place to play, and even places for admittedly important buildings like schools and museums. With everything that Olmsted has given this city, one must beg the question, “when will the city give back?”

The Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy

Here is an organization that has fought hard for Olmsted Parks for over ten years now. They are a non-profit organization that in 2004 was given full responsibility for the maintenance of all the Olmsted parks in the Buffalo park system. In addition to the original three parks already discussed this organization cares for three other major Olmsted parks as well as the Parkways and other minor Olmsted parks. As if that weren’t enough , they advocate for the Olmsted parks to be restored to more closely reflect Olmsted’s intentions. This is an organization concerned with the future of Olmsted parks in Buffalo.

Painting of Frederick Law Olmsted

Painting of Frederick Law Olmsted


Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy, Accessed March 4, 2014. http://www.bfloparks.org/.

FrederickLawOlmsted.com, “Buffalo, New York.” Accessed March 4, 2014. http://www.fredericklawolmsted.com/buffalo.html.

Library of American Landscape history, “Buffalo Park System, Buffalo New York.” Accessed March 4, 2014. http://lalh.org/buffalo-park-system-buffalo-new-york/.

Olmsted in Buffalo, Accessed March 4, 2014. http://www.olmstedinbuffalo.com/.

John Emerson Todd, Frederick Law Olmsted, (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982).

Laura Wood Roper, A Biography of Frederick Law Olmsted, (Baltimore, London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973).

Lee Hall, Olmsted’s America An “Unpractical Man and His Vision of Civilization, (Boston, New York, Toronto, London: Little, Brown and Company, 1995).