The Olmsted Parks and Parkways of Buffalo, New York

The Front (Front Park)

The Front, now known as Front Park, located on a prominent bluff overlooking the head of the Niagara River and Lake Erie, was a key part of the nation’s first park and parkway system designed by Frederick Law Olmsted for the Buffalo Board of Park Commissioners in 1868. Originally totaling 32 acres, it was the most formal of three linked parks. “The Park” (now Delaware Park), “The Parade” (later redesigned by Olmsted as Humboldt Park, now Martin Luther King, Jr. Park), and a series of broad connecting parkways, were the other elements of the system.

The featured aspect of the Front was its wonderful view out over the head of the Niagara River, Lake Erie, and the Canadian shoreline. In contrast to rural beauty as highlighted at the Park or the military drill ground as provided by the Parade, Olmsted saw the Front as a spot with “a character of magnificence admirably adapted to be associated with stately ceremonies, the entertainment of public guests, and other occasions of civic display.”

Olmsted Sketch for The Front - 1868 - Front Park

Olmsted Sketch for The Front – 1868

In his 1871 design for the Front Olmsted provided a large play area adjacent to what is now Busti Avenue, with an amphitheater at its southern end. Adjacent to this “play ground”, he placed a formal graveled space, referred to as “the terrace”, and proposed construction of a large music stand designed by his partner Calvert Vaux. A steep bank sloped down to the Erie Canal and railroad lines. These he screened with thick plantations and the natural difference in elevation. Extensive pathways and carriage drives were provided to accommodate visitors on foot as well as in vehicles. The result was a singularly pleasant and beautiful vista. An early parks official pointed out, “In the summer and autumn months it is fanned by a cool westerly breeze, almost constantly blowing from the lake….”

Plan of The Front - 1871 - Front Park

Plan of The Front

As with the other parks Olmsted designed, the Front was not simply discovered scenery, but was artfully constructed to enhance nature. A large number of trees displaced during construction of the parkway in Porter Avenue were moved to the Front with a specially constructed wagon. Thus, the park from its earliest construction was able to give the appearance of considerably more mature growth. In addition to extensive planting, considerable filling and grading were required.

The grounds of the adjoining military installation, Fort Porter, were integrated into the Front’s landscape. Porter Avenue and Richmond Avenue provided the Front’s connection to the other elements of the park system. Later, in 1895, what was originally Sixth Street (now Busti Avenue) was renamed Front Avenue and designated a park approach. It joined the Front to another Olmsted-designed portion of the park system, The Terrace, located between Court and Church Streets and now a tangle of highway ramps.

The Front was, in its first decades, by the far the most heavily used Buffalo park. It drew many more visitors than either the Park or the Parade. Both of those locations were at that time located on the far periphery of the growing city, and were then poorly served by public transportation. The large two-story balconied “Lake View House” was constructed on the terrace in 1882 to provide both refreshments and shelter to the multitudes who thronged the Front’s promenades. Its architect was Eugene L. Holmes, who also designed the expansion of Vaux’s Boat House at Delaware park. Between 1884 and 1885 a public carriage drive was opened through the grounds of Fort Porter, “almost on the brink of the river, and at an elevation of sixty feet above the water….” The drive afforded both additional access and a truly superb view of the river. Considerable construction was undertaken by the Federal government at Fort Porter from 1884 to 1889, consolidating and beautifying the facility and freeing the most scenic areas for park use. “The demolition of the ruined remnants of the old fort, the construction of substantial barracks on a symmetrical plan, the formation of two separate greens for drill, and the grading of all the grounds adjacent to the Front and the [t]errace in general conformity with the plans of the Front, add much to the enjoyment of the public visiting this park,” noted the first Park Superintendent in his 1889 annual report.

Lake View House at the Front - Front Park

Lake View House at the Front

From its earliest days, the Front was home to frequent organized baseball games and cricket matches, and to sledding and tobogganing in the winter, all of which drew large crowds to the park. Both the popularity of the Front and the desire to eliminate nuisances associated with the commercial use of the adjacent waterfront and canal side property caused the Park Commission to seek to acquire the lands between the Front and the lake. After a four year legal battle, the Front was expanded by a 20 acre waterfront addition in 1890.

Olmsted was engaged to draw up plans for the new addition in 1891. He proposed to make substantial use of the waterfront area, with a boat house, a public landing for small boats, a sheltered swimming area, separate gymnastic playgrounds for young boys and girls, and a scenic drive and walks. A new bridge over the Erie Canal and the railroad was built at the foot of Porter Avenue to join the new section of the park to the original portion. (Its ornate stone abutments now grace the Porter Avenue bridge over the Thruway. Before park development of the new area could begin, however, a great deal of land reclamation and filling had to be undertaken, which began as soon as the land was under Park Commission control.

In August 1897, the Front was the site of the 31st Encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic. That was the fraternal organization of veterans of the Union Army of the Civil War. Parks gardeners outdid themselves recreating badges of the Army corps represented in elaborate floral displays. 1,350 tents were set up to house 11,000 of the 45,000 veterans participating in the massive gathering. U.S. President William McKinley was among the dignitaries attending.

In 1898, the deteriorating Lake View House was demolished and replaced by an ornate octagonal bandstand of granite and wood, with a matching structure being constructed simultaneously at what is now Martin Luther King Park. Fred Harvey Loverin, of the firm Loverin & Whelan (Frederick A. Whelan) was the architect. (Loverin designed the Delaware Park bandstand, as well.) Frequent concerts were provided, often by the military regimental bands of the city, and were well attended. A huge monumental column honoring DeWitt Clinton was proposed for the Front in 1898, but the project was quietly dropped. In 1899, the Front was one of the sites given serious consideration as a site for the Pan-American Exposition. With the removal of the Lake View House, public amenities were provided by a stone shelter house, the shell of which is now the stone picnic shelter at the southern edge of the park. When constructed, in 1898, it was a fully enclosed shelter house, with a red tile roof. After additional buildings were added to the park, it was reconstructed in the 1930s as the present open sided structure. In 2012, as part of on-going renewal efforts in Front Park, the shelter is being renovated. As part of that project, its tile roof will be returned. (It will still be an open-sided structure.)

Picnic Shelter - Front Park

Front Park Picnic Shelter (Photo copyright 1999 by S. M. Broderick)

Development of the added lands at the Front to Olmsted’s design was never completed. The southern portion of the addition was acquired by the city from the Parks Commission in 1908 as the site for what is now the Col. Ward Pumping Station and water filtration plant. The remaining portions were devoted to active recreational uses, with four permanent baseball diamonds having been laid out in 1903. Additional baseball diamonds and four tennis courts were added in 1915. A swimming pool was constructed at the foot of Jersey street. By 1931, the Front’s recreational facilities included three baseball and three softball diamonds, four tennis courts, a pair of football fields, a cricket field, an ice skating rink, and a toboggan slide.

Ornamental cannon, relics of the Civil War, were moved from Lafayette Square to the Front in 1913, and placed on the terrace. They remained until declared surplus and sold as scrap about 1940. In the center of the terrace the state of New York erected a monument to Commodore Oliver H. Perry in 1915, the centennial of his Great Lakes victory over the British navy. Another monument was placed by American and Canadian Kiwanis clubs of the area on July 1, 1939, commemorating one hundred years of peaceful relations between Canada and the United States.

Perry Monument - Front Park

Perry Monument At Front Park

The Park Commission for many years had hoped to acquire title to Fort Porter and complete its integration into the Front. In 1921, however, any hopes that the fort would be acquired for recreational purposes were dashed when it was determined to abandon the post and to utilize most of its grounds for a bridge linking Buffalo with Fort Erie, Ontario. Bridge construction, which was to last nearly two years, began on August 17, 1925. The fort closed the following year, and its structures were demolished. The unique residence of Fort Porter’s commanding officers, known from its appearance as the “Castle”, was spared. It was moved a short distance onto the portion of the former military post acquired by the city, and was used both as city Parks Department administrative offices as well as a locus of Girl Scout activities. The fort’s stables and other outbuildings which lay below the terrace knoll were retained for Parks Department use.

The new Peace Bridge was opened to traffic on June 1, 1925. Initially, its impact on the park was relatively slight, with many of the trees on the fort site retained. In subsequent years, however, modern traffic congestion grew. New highways and Peace Bridge expansion would claim a significant portion of park land. A strip of park land along the eastern edge of the play ground was acquired for bridge access, Moore Drive being opened parallel to Busti Avenue. In 1951, additional park lands were acquired for bridge use, including the remainder of the former Fort Porter grounds. A second roadway, Baird Drive, was opened next to Moore Drive across the play ground to facilitate bridge traffic flow. The bridge approaches were widened, the toll plaza greatly enlarged, and a new administration building, customs facilities, and a warehouse were completed by 1954. The new site of the “Castle” was part of the area acquired, and it was demolished in the course of this project.

Beginning in 1943, the New York State Thruway was extended through Buffalo over former railroad rights of way and the bed of the old Erie canal. By 1953, the roadway was completed only as far as Porter Avenue. Its temporary access ramps cut diagonally across the terrace and through the southwest corner of the park. The old Fort Porter stables, then serving as the stables of the Buffalo Police Mounted Division, were demolished to make was for the ramps. In 1956, continuation of the Thruway northward tore away even more of the Front. Thruway construction, coupled with ramp and access modifications in 1960 and 1971, removed the access roadways from the terrace, but effectively destroyed what remained of the park’s water overlook.

Front drive with Bandstand - Front Park

Front drive with bandstand

The bandstand, declared outdated, had been demolished in 1950. The city constructed a visitor’s center and a caretaker’s quarters (now removed) opposite the bandstand’s former site on the terrace about 1957. A refrigerated open air ice rink and changing house at the base of the slope below the terrace were also added during the 1950s.

Today, the essential elements remain, but the Front is situated in close proximity to an ever-encroaching road network. Proposed changes in the location of access highways and plans for a new bridge could bring either rejuvenation or further destruction. While it is possible that considerable park land could be reclaimed as a result of these projects, it is just as possible that even more park land may be swallowed up. The present master plan for the park calls for return of a large amount, but not all, of the lost greenspace, and will entail some compromises between the Olmsted design and more recent uses. In March, 2013, the Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority announced plans to remove Baird and Moore Drives, restoring that land to the park, in conjunction with the building of a new access ramp to the Peace Bridge from Porter Avenue. The new ramp would skirt the front edge of the park, adjacent to the existing ramp from I-190 to the bridge. On the other hand, the authority promised action to remove the drives at least three other times in the past two decades … time will tell if this time the parkland is really restored.

With good fortune and considerable vigilance, the Front may yet again be Buffalo’s beautiful window on Lake Erie. At present, continues to be a window obscured.

View of The Front - 1903 - Front Park

The Front – 1903