The Olmsted Parks and Parkways of Buffalo, New York

The Park Approaches: Parkways, Avenues, and Circles

The unique feature of the original Olmsted park system plan for Buffalo was the extension of the park experience well beyond the confines of the acreage set aside for park grounds through a system of connecting parkways. The so-called Park Approaches of the original system consisted of four “parkways”, which were 200 feet in width and totaled 3 miles in length, and three “avenues”, 100 feet wide and totaling 4 miles in length. Combined, the park approaches added about 125 acres of parklands to the city. The parkways (Chapin, Bidwell, Lincoln and Humboldt) were designed with two drives, wide greensward spaces, pathways, and several rows of trees. The trees were specifically chosen so as to provide uniformity of species and age, and were planted equidistantly along each row. It had extended for over 1-3/4 miles, linking the Park (Delaware Park) and the Parade (Martin Luther King, Jr. Park) via a magnificent swath of greenspace. The avenues (Porter, Richmond – originally called simply “The Avenue” – and Fillmore) had a single drive each, lined by uniformly planted trees on each side. Commercial traffic was banned from all of the parkways and park approaches.

Soldiers Place and Connecting Parkways - Park Approaches

Soldiers Place and Connecting Parkways

Along the park approaches, several important junctions were specially laid out and landscaped under Park Board control. Olmsted supplied their designs. Symphony Circle (originally, simply called “The Circle”), is 500′ in diameter at the junction of Porter and Richmond Avenues. Agassiz Place, now greatly modified, is 490′ in diameter at the junction of former Humboldt Parkway, and the Park’s carriage concourse, and Parkside Avenue. Soldier’s Place, now Soldiers Circle, at the junction of Lincoln, Chapin and Bidwell Parkways. It was the largest of the circles, fully 700′ across. It was named to honor, in particular, the veterans of the recent Civil War. Colonial Circle (originally Bidwell Place) is at Bidwell Parkway and Richmond Avenue. Gates Circle (formerly Chapin Place) is at the southern terminus of Chapin Parkway, where it joins Delaware Avenue (first called Delaware Street.) Delaware Avenue, it should be noted, was not an Olmsted design and has never been part of the city’s park and parkway system. Despite the prominent residences lining this thoroughfare, it has always carried commercial traffic. Chapin and Bidwell Places are squares, although with circular central medians. Chapin Place was 500’x 420′, and Bidwell Place was 510′ x 465′. The smallest of the Olmsted circles were 300′ in diameter. Ferry Street Circle, is at the junction of Ferry Street and Richmond Avenue. Finally, “The Bank” was at the junction of Sixth street (Busti Avenue), Massachusetts Street, and Niagara Street. Later, a connecting park drive, Sheridan Terrace, was added to join The Bank to The Front via a strip of land across the periphery of the Fort Porter grounds.

Soldiers Circle - Park Approaches

Soldiers Circle

All of these circles had center planting spaces, which added greenspace to the vista down the roadway, breaking the appearance of unending roadway. They also provided extra setbacks for the houses built along their periphery, with sweeping walkways nestled amidst trees.

The park approaches both served as a means for a visitor to travel from one point in the parks to another without ever leaving the park setting, as well as an extension of the park system to a large portion of the city, in that a resident who might have had to travel a considerable distance to visit one of the three major park grounds could rather easily walk to one of the parkways to partake of a portion of the experience or reach them by a streetcar ride.

Riders In Lincoln Parkway – 1894 - Park Approaches

Riders In Lincoln Parkway – 1894

The Buffalo park approaches were significant in that they were constructed and controlled by the Board of Park Commissioners, not the regular city authorities. The Board prohibited commercial traffic, and was also able to exert some control over where normal city streets could access the major parkways. Commercial businesses were also restricted along the approaches, with the Board able to regulate signs and similar non-residential aspects of these special parts of the Buffalo park system.

Lincoln Parkway, about 1908.

Lincoln Parkway, about 1908.

Just as the City Beautiful movement brought monuments and large structures to Delaware Park, so too it affected the park approaches. Chapin Place as an Olmsted design was lost when it was redesigned in the Beaux Arts fashion in 1902. It was replaced with a large fountain and pool with granite walls and seating in 1902. Chapin Place and Chapin Parkway had both been named for Col. Edward Payson Chapin (August 16, 1831 – May 27, 1863, a Buffalo attorney and Civil War officer killed at the Battle of Port Hudson, Louisiana; he was posthumously promoted Brigadier General. Chapin Place was re-named Gates Circle in honor of the benefactress who funded the fountain project. Bidwell Place and Bidwell Parkway had been named for Brigadier General Daniel Davidson Bidwell (August 12, 1819 – October 19, 1864). Bidwell was killed at the Battle of Cedar Creek, Virginia, the senior local officer to be killed in the Civil War. Bidwell Place later was renamed as Colonial Circle. An equestrian statue of General Bidwell by sculptor Sahl Swarz was installed in Colonial Circle in 1924. Soldiers Place also underwent a name change, to the current designation Soldiers Circle. That circle’s roadway and central planting area were reduced while the outer planting areas were considerably enlarged several years after it was opened. It was determined that traffic was having difficulty transiting the space under Olmsted’s original plans. Soldiers Circle also received a display of four large naval parrot rifles mounted on carriages and flanked by stacked cannon balls. (Colonial Circle and Front Park also had similar guns and projectiles.)

Humboldt Parkway - about 1894

Humboldt Parkway – about 1894

As well, when the functions of the park board were assumed by the city directly, many of the protections afforded the parkways were reduced or were more easily circumvented. Greater access to automobile traffic was granted as the use of automobiles increased. Declared a threat to motorists, the cannons and ammunition stacks were removed from Colonial Circle and from Soldiers Circle in 1936 and 1937, respectively. Eventually, the center islands of Ferry Street and Agassiz Circles were removed and that of Symphony Circle reduced in size to help facilitate traffic flow. Far worse, in 1960 the entire Humboldt Parkway was destroyed. Humboldt Parkway’s trees were cut down and the parkway paved over to provide routing for a pair of expressways. The Kensington Expressway (downtown to the Buffalo Airport in Cheektowaga) and the eastern portion of the Scajaquada Expressway (crosstown connection from the Niagara Thruway to the Kensington Expressway obliterated the parkway and divided and ultimately destroyed many neighborhoods. The latter highway also destroyed the carriage concourse in Delaware Park, and split that park into two sections.

The resurgence in interest in Buffalo’s Olmsted parks in the 1980s and 1990s also had a positive impact on the Olmsted park approaches. Street lighting was changed, beginning with the original parkways, to special ornamental fixtures. The center islands of both Symphony Circle and Ferry Circle were restored (2002). The work included replacement of the center islands and replication of the central light standards. Future restoration of Agassiz Circle, however, is dependent upon downgrading NY Route 198 from expressway status.

While serious challenges to additional restorations remain, these projects are a significant rejuvenation of long neglected portions of the Buffalo Olmsted park and parkway system.

Brig. Gen. Bidwell Monument, Colonial Circle

Brig. Gen. Bidwell Monument, Colonial Circle