In early 1893 Frederick Law Olmsted provided the Buffalo Board of Park Commissioners with a design for the South Park, the second of two new parks to be constructed in the southern part of Buffalo. The parks were to be more convenient to the residents of that area of the city than the existing parks, as the area was experiencing considerable growth and was distant from the northern park system already constructed.
The park was planned to compliment the new Cazenovia Park to its northeast and be connected with it by South Side (now McKinley) and Red Jacket Parkways. The site lay outside what were then the city’s boundaries. It consisted of a valley of 156 acres, a large grove of trees, and an area of high and level ground at its border. Part of the site was swampy and railroads ran along its western and northern sides. The railroads had multiple tracks, which, the Olmsted firm noted, were “raised upon high embankments so that the trains are in full view from almost every part of the park, and the noise and smoke of the locomotives will always detract from the pleasure and healthfulness of a visit to the park.” There was a insufficient water at the site to sustain the intended water features, and the location of the marshy area posed a problem in that it lay where it would be necessary to plant trees to screen the railroads from the park.
The original proposal of the Olmsted firm, made in 1892, envisioned a rural character for the majority of the site in the form reminiscent of an English deer park. Its central feature was a broad valley traversed by a circuit drive which would allow visitors in vehicles to enjoy “charming, pastoral views” across it. Entrances were to be afforded from South Park Avenue on the east, and from Ridge Road on the south, with provision made for a third entrance from the north should city development necessitate it. The swampy area was to excavated and transformed into a pair of small pools totaling about four and one half acres in area, which would compliment the adjoining landscape and not overwhelm it. With great reluctance, and only at the specific request of the Park Board, Olmsted’s firm prepared an alternate design which increased the size of the water body to 21 acres, sufficient to permit boating. Either option would require the construction of a pipeline from Cazenovia Creek to provide sufficient water to sustain the pool. The fine stand of existing trees were to be used as the basis for a picnic grove which could also serve as the site of concerts. Swings and similar apparatus for the amusement of children were to be sited here, along with a small building to house toilet facilities. An open, level area adjacent to the picnic grove was to be made into an athletic ground, with a running track and a central graveled area for exercise apparatus. Next to this was to be a ball field. Both of these areas would be located outside the landscaped portion of the park. From the ball field (on the northern end of the park) along South Park Avenue to the parkway entrance would be an ornamental garden, with a lily pool. In consideration of the contemporary popularity of formal floral displays, provision was made for such an amenity, complete with seating, in an area where it would not detract from the landscape of the park. Finally, a site was to be set aside for a greenhouse and nursery, with supporting facilities.
The Park Board prevailed on the issue of the size of the South Park’s water feature, despite Olmsted’s objections that it detracted from the pastoral nature of the landscape, would unnecessarily add to the park’s cost, and provided too little differentiation from Cazenovia Park. The Board also greatly expanded upon the proposals for the floral beds and greenhouse, and required the Olmsted firm to remove from the proposed plan any feature which would be inconsistent with the establishment of a botanic garden at the park The resulting 1894 revisions placed a large conservatory structure at the parkway entrance and a specimen garden of trees and shrubs appropriate to the Buffalo climate, while removing the ball field and running track.
The Park Board engaged a respected botanist, John F. Cowell, to be the Director of the Botanic Garden. He was appointed in 1894, and served the city as Director of the Botanic Garden until his death in 1915. In 1896, a residence was constructed for the Director in the southwest corner of the park, adjacent to Ridge Road, near to workshops and growing ranges. A conservatory design was selected in 1898. The work of the Lord and Burnham Co. of New York, with the main frontage facing South Park avenue and extending 350 feet in length, the glass conservatory featured one central dome 60 feet in height and two smaller flanking palm domes connected by glass growing ranges. The structure was completed in 1900. Plans called for a pair of outdoor aquatic pools in front of the conservatory, but these were never constructed. The original glazing of the conservatory suffered badly from the pollution from the nearby steel industry and railroad yards, and the structure was rebuilt from the foundation up in 1930. Lack of funds slowed hindered the plans for much of the specimen planting of trees and shrubs, and a good portion of what was envisioned for the park was never fully accomplished.
Changing public tastes, and a new method of administration for the parks system, caused some years of hard use for South Park and a diversion from its planned landscape art and botanical showpiece. A 9-hole golf course was constructed in 1915. Shortly after, the administration of the Buffalo park system was consolidated with that of public buildings and the Board of Park Commissioners disbanded. A ball field and a pair tennis courts were also added, without consultation with the Olmsted firm. A brick caddy house with refreshment stand to support the golf links was built at the northeast tip of the park in the 1930s.
An entrance to the park from Hopkins street was opened about 1940. The convenience of the multiple park entrances caused South Park to become heavily trafficked as the use of automobiles grew, providing a favored shortcut to bypass the nearby Lackawanna business district and busy South Park Avenue. An additional entrance, at Electric Avenue in Lackawanna, had been constructed in the 1930s as a convenience to the residents of the neighboring city, and was not closed until the late 1980s, with the final remnants not removed until 2003. Closure of the northern park entrance from South Park Avenue provided additional golf course parking.
The County of Erie purchased the Botanical Gardens from the City of Buffalo for $1.00 in 1981 to avert its probable closure due to an inability of the city to continue its funding. Redesignated as the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens, the facility was considerably renovated between 1983 and 1985 and restored to its early appearance.
A proposed master plan for South Park was developed by the late landscape architect and Olmsted scholar Bruce Kelly in 1986 at the request of the Buffalo Friends of Olmsted Parks, funded by several community grants. It was the first master plan developed for any of Buffalo’s Olmsted parks, and was intended to guide the restoration and development of this park. Mr. Kelly proposed the completion and restoration of much of the 1894 Olmsted plan, of which a considerable portion had never been completed. He recommended the construction of the Olmsted path system, as well as the strengthening of the ties of the Botanic Gardens to the park proper. This latter end could be achieved through the restoration of the formal front gardens, the construction of the shrub garden adjacent to the conservatory building, and the reconstruction of a portion of the perennial gardens behind the conservatory. The golf course built in South Park, although it precludes the use of the majority of the park by other park users, actually has served to preserve the majority of the Olmsted landscape. Kelly suggested that one of two rather controversial options be implemented regarding the golf course. One suggestion proposed that several holes of the course be moved in a manner which would allow safe access to key portions of the meadow and lake to casual visitors. The more expensive alternative called for the relocation of a significant portion of the course out of the existing park, not only freeing the meadow and lake areas while simultaneously upgrading the quality of play on the course, but also allowing for a greater restoration of the Olmsted arboretum design. To accommodate a new golf course, Kelly recommended the acquisition of adjacent unused industrial land to the immediate north of the park. Although portions of that master plan have been subsequently implemented, it was never formally adopted as the guiding document for South Park’s restoration.
In 1990 and 1991, through the efforts of the Buffalo Friends of Olmsted Parks with the assistance of the County of Erie and the Western New York Nurserymen’s Association, the shrub garden (planned by Olmsted, but never actually built) on the south side of the Conservatory was created following the original Olmsted plans and Bruce Kelly’s planting designs. Use of the park for jogging and walking increased significantly in the 1990’s. As the pedestrian pathways Olmsted designed had never been constructed, these users had been forced to compete with automobiles for use of the park drive. This resulted in the elimination of two-way traffic and the reservation of one lane of the drive for non-vehicular traffic beginning 1996, allowing both uses to safely coexist.