It could be argued that no one who wasn’t from here, and never lived here, had more effect on Buffalo and western New York than Frederick Law Olmsted, born April 26, 1822. How so? Primarily by designing, with his partner Calvert Vaux, the first citywide park-and-parkway system ever created anywhere, right here in Buffalo. Olmsted skillfully overlaid and integrated that system onto and with the existing radial street grid laid out by Joseph Ellicott, making the park-and-parkway system the second strand of Buffalo’s “planning DNA,” as urban planner Chris Hawley might say.
As if that wasn’t enough, Olmsted led an effort to save Niagara Falls as America’s first state park, which he and Vaux then designed. Along the way Olmsted and Vaux designed the grounds for what became the Buffalo Psychiatric Center, in collaboration with architect HH Richardson. And Olmsted promoted the idea of a large park on the Outer Harbor, a vision Buffalonians are still working to realize.
Only in the last decade has the Olmsted legacy in western New York become more widely known outside the Venn diagram of parks advocates and history buffs, with the publication of Dr. Frank Kowsky’s indispensable book, The Best Planned City in the World: Olmsted, Vaux and the Buffalo Park System. The book is the result of a lifetime of research by this SUNY Distinguished Professor Emeritus, yet is eminently readable and generously illustrated by Photographer Andy Olenick. Until you get your copy, which you should, you can sample the first chapter here.
Locally and nationally, Olmsted was largely forgotten for generations, his work under-appreciated and poorly stewarded.
Locally and nationally, Olmsted was largely forgotten for generations, his work under-appreciated and poorly stewarded. The 20th century, especially the post-war years, were not kind to Olmsted’s parks. In Buffalo as elsewhere they experienced intrusions, ill-considered modifications and “modernizations,” and highway projects (one of which we’re now planning to fix). But in Buffalo as elsewhere, conservancies have sprung up to protect, maintain, and restore his landscapes and his legacy. Buffalonians like former County Legislator Joan Bozer also played a major role in creating the National Association of Olmsted Parks (NAOP).
NAOP has not only served in an advocacy and clearinghouse role for Olmsted’s legacy, but in the last year has organized events, lectures, and symposia for the Olmsted bicentennial, Olmsted 200. I recently attended the Olmsted bicentennial symposium in Boston (more on that later ).
Locally, the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy also has events scheduled to celebrate Olmsted’s bicentennial and local legacy over the course of the year, especially over the next few days. These “Olmsted Week” events kick off Saturday with a free matinee screening of two Olmsted documentaries, Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing America and Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing Western New Yorkat the lovingly restored North Park Theater (thank you, Thomas Eoannou!).
And this being western New York, of course beer will be involved and of course Niagara Falls will be lit with special colors. Click here to view full calendar of events.
Olmsted Week is here — go with the FLO!
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism