The centerpiece of Buffalo’s Olmsted parks and parkways system is the vast grounds originally known simply as “The Park”. Now called Delaware Park, at 350 acres in size it is one of the relatively few true parks Frederick Law Olmsted created, and the only one in the Buffalo system. To Olmsted, only a very large, naturalistic site which would completely shield the visitor from the bustle and cares of the city could be considered a “park”. (Smaller sites he categorized as “pleasure grounds”.) This park was also the first for which Olmsted was given the opportunity to personally select the site to be used. In keeping with all of Olmsted’s great parks, Delaware Park has three prime elements: a prominent water feature (the “Gala Water”, presently named “Hoyt Lake”) which was originally 42 acres in area and formed by damming Scajaquada Creek, a large meadow of about 120 acres, and significant wooded areas.
The site made great use of three surrounding properties, the grounds of Forest Lawn Cemetery, the Parkside residential community which Olmsted had also laid out, and the grounds of the Buffalo Insane Asylum, also an Olmsted-Vaux commission. Located in what at the time was the outskirts of Buffalo, the park was crossed by only a single city street. In a manner similar to his treatment of the traverse roads in New York’s Central Park, he kept Delaware Avenue at a lower grade than much of the surrounding park, provided a viaduct to carry the park’s carriage road above it, and shielded the park from it by thick plantings. Broad parkways connected this park with The Parade and The Front, the two smaller pleasure grounds of his original Buffalo design.
Olmsted’s partner Calvert Vaux prepared the designs for the park’s original buildings and structures. He drew plans for a boathouse (constructed in 1875, expanded under the direction of Eugene L. Holmes in 1885, and then demolished in 1900), a large and highly detailed gazebo overlooking the lake (the “Spire House”, constructed in 1875, but lost sometime between 1924 and 1951), a dwelling with an office for the park superintendent plus associated barns and outbuildings (“The Farmstead”; constructed in 1875, torn down to provide parking for the zoo in 1950), a pair of elaborate covered seats to shelter park users waiting for boat rides on the lake (constructed in 1875, lost between 1917 and 1951), the Gala Water bridge at the western end of the park lake (constructed in 1874, demolished and replaced by an iron bridge of similar appearance in 1890, then replaced again in 1901) and a large stone viaduct (also built in 1874, replaced with a new viaduct in 1935, which was in turn twice reconstructed), which carried the park carriage Concourse over Delaware street (now Delaware Avenue). In contrast to his designs for the elaborate Parade House at The Parade, and an even more embellished (but never built) music stand for the Front, Vaux’s structures for the Park were keyed to blending with the landscape. The Spire House was the sole exception, and the role of its pagoda-like form was to provide a bit of whimsy, also a hallmark of an Olmsted and Vaux design collaboration.
In 1886 the park was expanded on its southern side by the gift of twelve acres of land between Lincoln Parkway and Rumsey Road. The new lands were in memory of Dexter P. Rumsey, a prominent Buffalo businessman and an original member of the Park Board, presented by his widow and his daughter. The new area was heavily wooded, and included a small ravine. Olmsted drew up plans for the addition, which included a stone arch bridge carrying one pedestrian walk over another. This is the bridge better known today as the “ivy bridge” or the “dell span”.
Parts of the original design for Delaware Park were damaged by the use of a large portion of the grounds for the Pan American Exhibition of 1901. In anticipation of the exposition, the wood frame Vaux boat house was replaced by a larger 3-story masonry building, much more prominently sited in comparison to the original, designed by E. B. Green. Two large marble structures in the mode of the City Beautiful movement then sweeping the country were also prominently situated within the park – the Historical Society building which served as the New York State pavilion during the exhibition, and the Albright (now Albright-Knox) Art Gallery, which replaced grounds which were formerly the park nursery, adjoining Elmwood avenue and the main park drive. A marble-embellished bridge (complete with plaster lion figures, which were not intended as permanent fixtures) replaced the earlier iron bridge (which had replicated Vaux’s design in iron) spanning the Gala Water for the park drive. The park’s lake became a “Venetian lagoon”, complete with a gondola and an electric fountain. The Pan-American Exhibition itself occupied the northwest corner of the park, as well as considerable private acreage bordered by Elmwood avenue on the west, Delaware avenue on the east and the belt line railroad tracks to the north. Exhibition gates were set up at the Meadow and at the head of Lincoln Parkway.
A permanent zoological collection was established adjacent to The Farmstead in the 1890s, augmenting the the flock of sheep which grazed upon the park meadow with small herds of deer, elk and American bison and the construction of a set of bear pits. Soon after, a large barn structure was erected to support the herds. Then, in the 1930’s, the zoo was considerably enlarged at that location as part of a Works Progress Administration project.
A nine hole golf course was laid out on the meadow in the early 1900s. A permanent 18-hole course was constructed in 1930, effectively taking over the entire meadow except for its use as a vista by non-particants. Any casual use was at risk of both the ire of the players and the trajectory of their golfballs.
The most significant and massive intrusion onto Olmsted’s design occurred about 1960, when an expressway was extended across the park, separating it into two sections and bringing the roar of traffic into the heart of the park. As a part of the construction, significant portions of the park lake were filled. The lake, long suffering from upstream pollution, became little more than an open sewer, and retained little of its original shoreline. An early 1980s effort to clean the lake further reduced the shoreline and tunneled the polluted waters of the creek underground past the park.
Efforts to restore the Olmsted design have made progress, particularly in the past twenty years. However, they have also met with occasional resistance from competing interests. Considerable strides have been made under the care of the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy, and a heightened awareness of Olmsted’s intentions has been fostered. Still, several additional opportunities await for Delaware Park to be back again to the full glory of its past, most notably a restoration of the lake shorelines and (most importantly) the downgrading of the expressway which presently splits the park.