The park originally known as The Parade, and now designated as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Park, has a unique history among Buffalo’s Olmsted parks. It actually represents two distinct landscape designs by the firm, prepared for the Buffalo Board of Parks Commissioners some 25 years apart. The original design was for a park called the Parade, prepared in 1871 as part of Frederick Law Olmsted’s plan for the Buffalo park system. Olmsted, in the first design prepared for an American city encompassing its entire park system, created three main parks and extended their influence throughout the community by a number of broad “parkways”. The park, now known as Martin Luther King Park, in contrast to both “the Front” (now called Front Park) which featured breathtaking views of the Niagara River and was intended as a setting for formal civic displays, sporting events and music performances; and to “the Park” (now known as Delaware Park) with its spacious display of landscape art and planned to be a welcome respite from the pressures and confinement of the city; was first called “the Parade” and it occupied some of the highest ground in the city and was expected by Olmsted to become the site of military drills and large gatherings of people.
A truly spectacular public hall, the Parade House, was designed by Olmsted’s partner, Calvert Vaux, for the Parade. This wonderful structure was planned specifically to accommodate the large numbers of persons expected at the large public events anticipated to be held at The Parade. The wood structure had a marvelous two-story series of porches and galleries stretching fully 300 feet across. Its first floor housed a restaurant 150′ by 50′ in size, and the second floor held a 250′ long ballroom. The verandahs offered a fine site for viewing both the scenery and the military events. It was brightly painted in multiple colors. Adjacent was a gravel carriage park and a large carriage shed, also designed by Vaux, positioned along the Best street border of the park to accommodate visitors.
The distance of the Parade from the city’s armories, as well as alterations in military training needs, caused the park to be infrequently used in the fashion for which it was originally conceived. Additionally, the Park, the largest of these new public grounds and the first of them to open, had totally captured the community’s fancy and resulted in considerable pressure for its use as the site of public concerts (to both the detriment of the Parade and the chagrin of Olmsted). Then, in a spectacular fire, the wonderful Parade House was destroyed only a year after its opening. When rebuilt, it was on a somewhat smaller scale and from plans drawn by a local architect, C. K. Porter, though in keeping with the spirit of Vaux’s original design. The new Parade House was consistently thronged, but mostly by the local ethnic German population rather than the city-wide attendees of the drills and maneuver or concerts. This created a constant tension with citizens who were offended by the occasionally raucous behavior of the patrons. The large drill ground proved to be difficult to maintain against the scars of paths worn across it by those who found it to be a very convenient neighborhood shortcut and by teamsters who found a most handy means of access between the southern and northern portions of Fillmore Avenue (which at that time did not connect, each portion terminating at the park).
In 1896, the Park Commissioners decided to task the Olmsted firm to prepare a completely new design for the park, in accordance with what they felt to be contemporary community needs. Olmsted was incensed that his original plan was to be abandoned, and suggested that the park be divided into building lots rather than altered. Heeding more prudent counsel, the Olmsted firm (which was now headed by Olmsted’s son, John) prepared a new park plan which retained some of the more successful features, including the Parade House, but thwarted the use of the grounds as a shortcut by replacing the drill ground with a set of formal water features: a large circular fountain, a rectangular basin for aquatic plants, and a huge wading pool of more than 500 feet in diameter. The wading pool was also able to be used for ice skating during the winter months.
Adjacent to the Parade House, a picnic ground was laid out in the northeastern section of the park. The Vaux carriage shed near the Parade House was demolished, except for its barn portion, which was sold and moved to a nearby private lot. Provisions were made for a conservatory and flower gardens, a bandstand and a playground outfitted with gymnastic apparatus. The Park Board changed the name of the park to Humboldt Park (after the name of the parkway stretching between it and Delaware Park) in reflection of its altered character. An elaborate granite bandstand, identical to one erected simultaneously at the Front, was constructed in 1898. Giving way to public pressure, traffic using Fillmore avenue was allowed to traverse the park. A few years later, the transformation of the park from its original plan to what is essentially the present park was completed when the Park Board determined to resolve the recurring tensions caused by the Parade House and its use for the sale of light alcoholic refreshments by the demolition of the once grand structure and its replacement with a small and simple park shelter. This change required further revisions to the grounds, and the Olmsted firm drew up these modifications to the southeastern portion of the park in 1904, making the focus of the grounds less city-wide and more oriented to its surrounding local neighborhood. The new park shelter, designed by local architect Robert A. Wallace with a unique “Swiss chalet” style and roofline, reflected this change. In 1910, the present conservatory was constructed, completing the construction of the grounds.
Subsequent modifications to the park were accomplished without the guidance of the Olmsted firm. They also proceeded without the oversight of the Park Board, their function having been transferred to a department of public buildings and parks when a new city charter was adopted in 1915. In 1925, the new home of the Buffalo Museum of Science, designed by by the firm of Esenwein & Johnson, architects for a number of prominent Buffalo structures (including the General Electric building at the junction of Sycamore, Huron and Washington streets and the Temple of Music at the Pan-American Exhibition) was placed at the head of Humboldt Parkway within the park. That same year the Chopin Singing Society donated a bust of Chopin which was placed in front of the Science Museum (and subsequently moved to Symphony Circle). The present brick casino was constructed between the lily pond and the wading pool in 1926. The building boom continued, to the detriment of the park’s Olmsted heritage. In 1938, serious consideration was given to constructing the city’s new music hall in the park at the back of the Science Museum, near the Herman Street entrance. That did not occur, and instead the present Kleinhan’s Music Hall was constructed on Porter Avenue at Symphony Circle.
Changing times and lack of use resulted in the demolition of the bandstand in 1950. In 1956, the first of Buffalo’s refrigerated outdoor artificial ice rinks was constructed on the site of the lily basin. The same year, it was proposed that a new School 24 and Junior High School be constructed in the park. That proposal was defeated, but the idea of taking park land for school construction would surface again.
In 1960, a massive negative change impacted the park when the city’s new arterial highway system cut a swath through old neighborhoods. The eight rows of stately trees in 200 foot wide Humboldt Parkway were cut down for the construction of the Kensington expressway in April of that year, and what had been a broad and more than three mile long extension of parkland stretching all the way to Delaware Park became instead a concrete highway separating neighborhoods on either side. All that remains today of the former crowning jewel of Buffalo’s parkways is a tiny parcel between Northampton Street and the unused staircase leading to the former front entrance of the Science Museum, the spot where Chopin’s bust had been placed. (Chopin, now spared the sad view north along the parkway’s former path, has had his bust was relocated to Symphony Circle (originally, “The Circle”), adjacent to Kleinhan’s Music Hall.) Additional changes at the park followed. The fountain was replaced by a basketball courts and a large group of spectator bleachers. The lily pool was partly filled and a wading pool was constructed at its eastern end. The wading pool was partially filled, and transformed into a smaller circular concrete “spray pool”, while its grand dimensions and grassy banks were retained.
On January 25, 1977 the park was renamed in memory of Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr, an honor which was delayed by one year from its first proposal by political factions within the city council. Subsequent to the renaming, an eight foot bronze bust of Dr. King was placed in the park, near the park shelter house. The bust stands on a sloping mound, eight feet high at its center, facing a stone plaza shielded from the traffic of Fillmore Avenue by a screen of evergreen trees. This siting required a number of changes to the landscaping in its immediate vicinity prior to its dedication in October, 1983. Its sculptor, John Wilson, intended the work as an interpretation “which would sum up the larger-than-life ideas” of Dr. King and capture his “inner meaning” rather than be simply a life-like representation.
The following year, a major alteration to the Olmsted design of the park was proposed by the Buffalo Board of Education when it announced plans to construct the city’s new Science Magnet School within the park, adjacent to the Science Museum. A coalition of neighborhood residents, parents, environmentalists and preservationists, led by the Buffalo Friends of Olmsted Parks (now, The Buffalo Parks Conservancy), was formed in opposition to the plan. Rejecting alternatives to the site, the Board of Education persisted in placing the school in the park. After a lengthy and bitter controversy, including an unsuccessful lawsuit brought by the coalition, in 1986 the Board won the right to build the school. Opening in 1990, and designed by the firm of Steiglitz and Steiglitz, the Science Magnet School has received recognition for its design. At the same time, it must be seen as a massive and negative impact on the historic and artistic landscape design of Martin Luther King park.
A movement to restore the large wading pool made progress in the early 1990’s, as community leaders and park neighbors succeeded in designating funds for its restoration. The realities of modern economies and of changing laws regarding safety, liability and water purity, however, blocked the successful return of Martin Luther King Park’s central feature to its former glory. A portion of the money was used in 1992 to establish a new rectangular children’s wading pool on the site of the former water plant basin and neglected ice rink, and to clean and partially refurbish the casino. However, decisions on how best to restore or reinterpret the main pool were elusive. A plan to turn it into a fishing pond was begun, then halted. A reflecting pool was proposed, but was unfeasible due to modern regulatory and safety concerns. The solution which was finally reached was to retain the full footprint of the wading pool, with the installation of a multi-jet spray pad to continue its purpose as a most welcome summer relief from the heat for neighborhood children. Alas, that installation proved to be an on-going maintenance challenge. Presently underway (2012) is a second reconstruction of the central basin, which will expand the splash pool to cover nearly half of the basin area. The basin as a whole is being completely replaced. In summertime, it will serve as a splash pool. It will be flooded in the fall and spring to serve as a 5 acre reflective pool. In winter, temperature conditions permitting, the flooded basin will be available for use as an ice-skating facility. Again, construction problems are impeding success. The pool failed to open, as promised, for the 2012 summer season, and it likewise is unready for winter use in early 2013.
Although considerably altered by the removal of the Parade House and the construction of the several major structures, most recently by the building of the Science Magnet School, Martin Luther King, Jr. Park today largely continues the 1896 design. It is a unique park in the city’s Olmsted system. It not only represents two separate Olmsted designs, but also a combined city-wide and local orientation. It bears the scars brought by the pressure of intrusive construction and the neglect resulting from depleted city finances, yet it clearly evidences of the love and respect its neighbors show its grounds. It is home to what is probably the saddest view in the Buffalo park system: that tiny remaining plot of once-grand Humboldt Parkway as one gazes down the concrete path of the Kensington Expressway. At the same time, it is also home to what is arguably the most beautiful and originally “Olmstedian” view in the system: the path inside the margin of the park along Best Street west from East Parade Street, overhung with fine old trees, the noise and distraction buffering streetside plantings largely intact, sweeping away from view as it approaches Fillmore Avenue’s juncture with the park. Walk along that path and you will experience what Olmsted intended, for there you can forget that you are in the city, if only for a moment.