Frederick Law Olmsted

If the hallmark among historic innovators is that they have one, central idea that animates their work, then Frederick Law Olmsted’s idea was simple but revolutionary.

Olmsted believed that nature not only lifts the human spirit, but strengthens it. And regardless of social or economic status, Olmsted asserted, every human being has a right to share in that experience. In Buffalo, along with his design partner, Calvert Vaux, Olmsted employed that ideal to craft a system of parks and parkways that permitted residents to move throughout built-up urban enclaves and still feel the wonder of natural life.

Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) is the father of American landscape architecture. Among his best known works are Central Park in New York City; the “Emerald Necklace” series of parks in Boston; Chicago’s Jackson Park and Washington Park; the grounds of the United States Capital, several college campuses, and parks and parkway systems in Detroit, Milwaukee, Montreal, Louisville, and Niagara Falls.

But it was in Buffalo that Olmsted chose to design and construct, from 1868 to 1876, America’s first coordinated system of park space and connecting parkways, pioneering the idea of a metropolitan recreational system, and attracting attention from around the world.

In August of 1868, ten years after winning a competition to design New York’s Central Park, Olmsted stopped in Buffalo on his way back to New York from Chicago. He’d been invited by Buffalo civic leader, William Dorsheimer, who as an attorney and later congressman, traveled widely and admired Olmsted’s Central Park. Dorsheimer had written to Olmsted as early as 1866, asking him to consider Buffalo as another urban canvas for an Olmsted space.

But after examining Buffalo’s layout and, as scholar Frank Kowsky’s notes, describing Buffalo as “the best planned city in America,” Olmsted convinced Dorsheimer that instead of a single recreation area, Buffalo would be better served by a series of greenspaces, connected by a natural canopy of wide, tree-lined parkways.  And Buffalo’s magnificent Olmsted system of parks and parkways was born.