Masten Place

Masten Place

In recognition of the success achieved by the Board of Park Commissioners in establishing and administering the Olmsted park system in Buffalo, care and control of all public squares and greens in the city was transferred to the Board in 1886. In April 1887, Frederick Law Olmsted submitted designs for several of the grounds placed under the Board’s control. Included in the 1887 Olmsted designs was one for Masten Place, to be constructed on the site of what was then Potter’s Field, the city’s pauper burial ground.

Masten Place is located on the west side of Masten Street, between Best and North Streets, and on the east side of Fosdick street. It was named for the primary adjacent street, which in turn was named for Joseph G. Masten (1809-1871), a judge of the New York State Supreme Court and (in 1843) Buffalo’s first Democratic mayor. It was originally bounded on its west by a small Catholic cemetery. That cemetery was subsequently acquired and incorporated into the site, extending the the park to Michigan Street. Construction of the park began in the spring of 1887, and was substantially completed that same year. The site required considerable regrading to make it suitable for park purposes, and large amounts of loam had to be hauled to the site to make planting possible. It continued to feature a steep grade, sloping toward Best and Michigan streets, which made turf difficult to sustain. Olmsted’s design for the park called for winding diagonal walks 10 feet in width crossing the site from its corners, setting off an open turf playground at the center. A small shelter house offered toilet facilities and tool storage. Six foot walks were provided on the outer periphery of the park. Characteristic of similar Olmsted parks, thick plantings screened the site from the bustle of street traffic. The Buffalo Express praised the design, stating “The embellishments to be made, however, will be tasteful and sightly, gratifying the eye with green foliage and grass plats reasonably well protected from the ravages of foot passengers.”

In 1895 this park became the focus of considerable local controversy when it was proposed as the site of a new East Buffalo High School. Despite strong opposition by the Park Board, the high school was built in the park, at the center of the plot. Although the new building destroyed its continued suitability as a public pleasure ground, the remainder of the site remained in the charge of the Park Board.

The Masten High School was destroyed by fire some years later. It was quickly rebuilt, and eventually became known as Fosdick-Masten High School, honoring the school’s Principal, who had acted heroically in ensuring the safety of his students during the blaze. The structure is still in service, currently as the City Honors High School. Expanded in 2007-2008, the school building continues to dominate the site of this lost Olmsted park.

While the burials on the site were removed in the course of park construction, that work was made difficult by the nature of the site’s use for the burial of indigents and unknowns. Poor record keeping caused the removal of remains to Forest Lawn cemetery to be incomplete. During construction of the two high school buildings, and at the expansion of the City Honors high school in 2008, additional remains were located and also removed to Forest Lawn. In 2012, in recognition that other burials likely remain undetected, a stone monument was placed at the high school to recognize the site’s earlier mortuary use.