Frederick Law Olmsted frequently made use of existing public spaces in his designs. In his original Buffalo parks and parkways system plans, he took advantage of the grounds of Forest Lawn Cemetery, and he also incorporated the public grounds known as the Prospect Hill parks into his design. This public space is located on either side of Niagara street, north of Porter (originally York) avenue. It was originally one contiguous plot, deeded to the city by Buffalo’s last Common Council appointed mayor, Hiram Pratt, in 1836 as a public square. Hiram Pratt, by the way, was the uncle of Pascal Paoli Pratt, the first President of the Buffalo Board of Park Commissioners.
Listed on city maps as a “public square”, Niagara street ran to its southern boundary, and then resumed at its northern boundary. The young city continued to grow, and sometime between 1855 and 1866 Niagara street was extended across the square, and the space came to be referred to as “the Prospect Hill parks”. By the time Olmsted began his work in Buffalo, the Prospect Hill parks were surrounded by residential properties overlooking the green space, as well as a reservoir enclosed by a stone wall on the present site of the Connecticut Street Armory. The residences also had the unfortunate aspect of blocking views from the high ground of the parks out to Lake Erie. The city transferred the parks to the new Board of Park Commissioners who were charged with implementing Olmsted’s plans for the new Buffalo parks and parkways in 1870. The grounds by then were populated with a very large number of mature trees, intermixed with lawn. The grounds were surrounded by a fence, but no paths nor other improvements were present for the benefit of visitors. A fence surrounded the space.
Olmsted, while touring potential park sites in the city, was disappointed that the city had not had the foresight to have acquired the block of land to the west of the square before development had occurred. As it was, the buildings not only blocked the view from the high ground of the square, but the cost of acquiring and demolishing the residences precluded the acquisition of the land and joining it to the undeveloped land which was selected to be formed as The Front. At the Park Commissioners request, Olmsted provided a plan for improvements of the grounds now under their care. He laid out walks allowing visitors to diagonally traverse the grounds without damaging them. As the park was thickly populated with mature trees, excess specimens were extracted and transplanted as part of the plantations of The Front. The fences were removed so that, unlike the main park grounds, visitors were free to enter at any time.
In 1952, the western half of the grounds was designated as Columbus Park, and the present statue of Christopher Columbus installed on that portion. The eastern half continued to be called Prospect Park. Present Prospect Park contains two structures. The shelter house was designed by Esenwein and Johnson and constructed between 1907 and 1908. It was expanded sometime after 1958, and then fully renovated in 1990. The Niagara Branch of the Buffalo and Erie County Library branch was constructed in 1957, not as a complement to the grounds, but as an economical building site.
The association with Olmsted, for a time nearly forgotten, has been again recognized and the Olmsted Parks Conservancy is working to maintain the spaces and restore their landscape.