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Cazenovia Park

Cazenovia Park has treasured by generations of South Buffalo residents. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the neighborhood of South Buffalo was growing rapidly. The area’s residents found the city’s prized parks remote and insufficient to serve their recreational needs. They sought a new park to be located in the southern portion of the city. In 1887 Frederick Law Olmsted, the famous landscape architect, was commissioned by the city’s Board of Parks Commissioners to prepare a design for a new park. His earlier design of a coordinated system of parks (which we now know as Delaware, Front, and Martin Luther King Parks) and an elaborate system of connecting parkways had given Buffalo America’s first park system. Olmsted’s initial proposal for a South Buffalo park was for a very large water park on the shore of Lake Erie just south of what is now Tifft Street and extending east from the lake shore to the railroad lines.

Olmsted’s plan was eventually rejected as being too costly, too likely to be damaged by lake storms, and too remote from the residential area of South Buffalo. The following year, 1888, the Park Commissioners began a search for another site in or near the city or the adjacent town of West Seneca which would be suitable for park use. One of the sites considered was a tract of land on the southwest side of Abbott Road which had formerly been the farm of the Hart family and which had been unsuccessfully been promoted as the site of a residential development. The site, one of three identified as suitable, was noted for its fine stand of shade trees. No single site of sufficient size to serve the area’s needs could be located, and it was decided to build two parks instead of one large one as originally intended.

In 1890, the 76 acre Hart farm site south of Cazenovia Street and straddling Cazenovia Creek was purchased for park use, as was a second site just south of what was then the city boundary which would become South Park. The name of “Cazenovia Park” was officially designated the following year. The name was chosen due to its relation to Cazenovia Creek, adjacent Cazenovia Street, and the never completed “Cazenovia Park” residential development.

In April of 1892, Mr. Olmsted submitted designs for Cazenovia Park and for South Park, which being developed concurrent to Cazenovia Park. After the incorporation of modifications requested by the Board, these plans were adopted over a rival design submitted by the Parks Board’s own engineer. Considerable controversy attached to the competing designs, sufficient that the Park Superintendent threatened his resignation if what he considered the completely unworkable design of the Park Engineer was chosen. Cool heads prevailed, and Olmsted’s plan won out. Construction of the park began soon afterward, during August of 1892.

The principal features in Olmsted’s design for Cazenovia Park were:
– A 20 acre lake, formed by damming Cazenovia Creek at Cazenovia Street.
– A large play area, “over which there will be broad meadow-like views of the water and bordering masses of trees.” This feature would become popularly known as “the Bowl”.
– A winding drive, connected to South Park by Red Jacket and McKinley Parkways, crossing the stream and passing through the park to end at a large concourse overlooking the play ground.
– A grove of trees for concerts, with the ground sloped down toward a bandstand in the manner of an amphitheater, was to be adjacent to the Concourse. A formal arrangement of fountain and flower beds was to shield the concert grove from the noise of traffic on the Concourse. The siting was carefully planned to ensure that most of the people could be seated facing to the north so as to have the sun behind them.
– A large shelter house was to afford refuge from a sudden shower, provided for toilet facilities, storage for boats, and a place for the sale of refreshments. A terrace adjoining the building would be a place for refreshments to be served.

In 1896 the park lake was dug out, and the first dam erected. That same year a wooden bandstand was added to the park and band concerts were inaugurated, with the parks commission engaging the bands of the 65th and 74th Infantry Regiments to play as part of a series of concerts in the city parks. An iron bridge designed by Henry L. Campbell, later to be known as the “Green Bridge”, was constructed over the creek in 1897.

Skating opened in the park that winter. The ice surface was prepared for skating by teams of horses. Coincidentally, if the ice was able to support the horses, it was deemed safe. The South Side parkway system connecting Cazenovia Park with Heacock Park and South Park was opened the following year, in 1898. Also in 1898, Cazenovia Park was enlarged by 31 additional acres, allowing for the completion of the original design.

In 1902 a shelter house was constructed at the end of the Concourse. It was smaller than Olmsted had envisioned, constructed to meet the immediate needs of park visitors rather than fulfill Olmsted’s original plan. In 1911, sufficient money was secured to build a larger structure. The Buffalo firm of Esenwein and Johnson was engaged to design it. Prominent for their designs for the Temple of Music at the Pan American Exhibition, the Niagara Mohawk Building, the Calumet Building, the Elephant House at the Buffalo Zoo, Lafayette High School and Masten High School, the firm produced a three level brick and stucco building with a hipped slate roof, large porch, and exposed rafter ends.

Completed in 1912, the Casino was sensitive to its surroundings, and compatible to Olmsted’s preference for simple, informal structures. The main level was a large open space open to the second story, with a quarry tile floor. This level provided lavatory space, an ice cream parlor and kitchen, and a candy counter. Furnishings included small tables with wrought iron chairs and window benches built along three sides. Seating on the porch provided a views of the lake and the gardens and a sheltered place to listen to the bands. The large basement area provided storage for about 100 boats and canoes, both privately owned and rental. The upper story was used for storage and office space. The surrounding grounds were graded and landscaped. The older shelter house was retained for administrative offices.

The lake, immediately popular for boating and canoeing, suffered from a build up of silt and upstream disposal of sewage and was prone to damage from ice gorges and flooding in winter. In 1908, a concrete retaining wall had been erected at Cazenovia Street to protect adjacent park land from flooding, and in 1909 efforts made to clean out the lake bed and to protest upstream sewage disposal. Finally, in 1913 the lake was dredged and altered, and a new concrete dam was installed. The islands of the original design were merged to form a peninsula, creating a lagoon on the west side of the lake. A rustic stone bridge was built over the neck of the lagoon, with a set of iron gates beneath it to allow retention of water within the lagoon for skating in the winter while the remainder of the lake could be drained to guard against flooding.

In 1915 four baseball diamonds and three tennis courts were laid out. Organized baseball soon flourished. On July 20, 1919 the Buffalo Municipal Baseball Association dedicated a monument in the park to members of the organization who had served in the recent World War. Another monument, to commemorate the memory of Thomas Mercer, a noted early softball umpire, was erected in 1941 across the Concourse from the library. Church groups and social organizations, as well as families and individuals, made heavy and frequent use of the park to escape the frustrations of the city.

Skating and winter sports were popular activities in the park from its earliest days. A temporary wooden toboggan slide, 65 feet long and 25 feet high was erected for sledding. The parks commission rented election booths as warming huts for skaters in 1910. A more suitable portable building was obtained in 1913, and used until a large one story brick skating house with lavatory and refreshment facilities, not contemplated in Olmsted’s design and unfortunately not in harmony with it, was constructed next to the lagoon on the west side of the lake in 1926. Floodlights on its roof served to illuminate the lake for skating at night. Ice carnivals and exhibitions proved to be popular attractions.

Electric lights were installed in the park and the drives were paved with asphalt in 1923. On October 23, 1924 construction began in the northeast corner of the park for a branch of the Buffalo Public Library, dedicated on November 5, 1925. It was the first of a number of intrusions on the design of the park which would occur over the years. About 1925, a new brick bandstand at the end of the formal esplanade from Seneca Street replaced the deteriorated original wooden bandstand. In 1929 a flood washed out the dam, and the following year a new dam was installed between concrete bulkheads, and the lake again dredged to allow the renewal of boating.

By 1935 the facilities in the park for organized athletics included two baseball diamonds, three softball diamonds, two football fields, eight tennis courts and a nine hole golf course. The park’s 3,058 yard, par 36 golf course was constructed on an 80 acre addition to the park acquired in 1925 in the Town of West Seneca, while the course of the creek was altered as the creek bed between the park and the golf course filled in. The course was opened for play in 1929, and a caddie house constructed in 1931. A pedestrian suspension bridge crosses the creek within the course, constructed as a Works Progress Administration project in the 1930s and reconstructed in 1989. In 1930 a lilac garden was planted adjacent to Potter Road near the present soccer field.

Less benign than preceding alterations was the construction of a large swimming pool, diving pool and wading pool in front of the Casino in 1935. Two large wings were added to the original casino structure to serve as bathhouses and its end porches were enclosed to house filtration equipment. A concession continued to operate in the center portion of the building, and for a time boats continued to be stored at and rented from the casino. It was not long, however, that what had been the center of much of the park’s activities took on a new secondary role, becoming but a support role to the pool complex. On April 15, 1948, having been often the target of vandals, the casino was badly damaged by a suspicious fire. On 25 October, 1949, its role as a lake house was ended with the acceptance of a $15,222 bid to fill the eastern portion of Cazenovia Park lake.

In 1948, the South Buffalo Businessmen’s Association sponsored the first South Buffalo Day at Cazenovia Park. The program included athletic events, swimming contests, a beauty pageant, dancing, fireworks, and a concert. In 1981 the tradition was revived as the current “Sunday in the Park” annual event. Attendance over the years has reached as many as 125,000 people.

1953 saw the end of the bandstand, the last in any of Buffalo’s parks. The base of the structure was converted to use as a maintenance garage, in which function it continues today. The adjoining esplanade at Seneca Street was markedly altered when the majority of its north side was leased for use as a parking lot and paved over in 1961. It remains in the same condition today, although the lease was terminated in December, 1988. The parking lot is now under the authority of the City of Buffalo Board of Parking. In 1956, a refrigerated ice rink was constructed in the park at the corner of Abbott Road and Cazenovia Street, and skating on the lagoon soon diminished.

As part of flood control projects undertaken by the city of Buffalo, in 1960 levees were constructed along the creek, and then in 1965 the 3 foot high concrete dam was removed and the creek bed excavated and channelized from the northern portion of Cazenovia Park downstream to Stephenson Street. In 1964 and 1965 additional levees were constructed farther back from the stream, and the earlier levee along the creekside was breached, but retained. The lagoon was drained and the stone bridge removed, although not completely filled in until the 1970s. Cazenovia Park’s lake, which had brought joy to generations of South Buffalo residents, was gone.

In 1969, a design for a new community center to be constructed within the park on Cazenovia Street were approved, and the Thomas Tosh Collins Community Center building was dedicated in April, 1971. Later in the decade the building was expanded by the construction of a large wing to provide cover for the adjacent ice skating rink. In 1981 an indoor swimming pool, or natatorium, was constructed in the park on Abbott road south of the community center/ice rink complex. Use of the outdoor pools, with the exception of the wading pool, was discontinued.

The memorial dedicated to the remembrance of Buffalo firefighters who had been killed in the South Division Street propane gas explosion was relocated from Taylor Park (at the corner of South Park Avenue and Southside Parkway) to the western entrance to Cazenovia Park in 1989, and illumination for it added the following summer. That entrance had been realigned and modified as part of area traffic improvements a few years earlier. It was at that time that the partial octagon of formal space at the head of Red Jacket Parkway, marking the transition from parkway to Park, was removed in favor a sweep of roadway more reminiscent of a highway access ramp than a park entrance. The alteration also reinforced the longstanding practice of using the park drive as a convenient substitute for local streets.

After an accident at another city swimming pool, the unused outdoor pools in Cazenovia Park were removed and filled in the mid-eighties. The Casino reverted to use as a maintenance center, which occupied only the basement level. It suffered considerably from vandalism. Culminating several years of efforts by two successive South District council members, bids were approved in 1989 for exterior and interior renovations to the Casino, including removal of the bathhouse wings added in the 1930s. Renovations were completed the following year and the Casino was rededicated. The Buffalo Friends of Cazenovia Casino was formed in 1988 to focus community desires concerning the building. It has organized a number of events centered on the Casino since its reopening, but the city to date has been unsuccessful in finding a regular operator for the building which would restore it to its former place as a center of community activity. Vandalism continues to tax the city’s maintenance efforts for the building, as well.

A long overdue master plan to guide the development and restoration of the park was contracted by the city in 1996 and completed the following year. While that document was not formally approved by the city, a number of its recommendations were implemented. Additional tree plantings have been accomplished, and an extensive pathway system extended into areas where Olmsted’s planned paths had never been completed. A hardstand for heavy equipment was constructed within the golf course addition to remove stored equipment from the park proper. Parking along one side of the park drive was banned, and a small area set aside for off-road parking just west of the Green Bridge.

Other provisions were also implemented. The street lighting in the park was replaced with the “Central Park lumineres” standardized for all of the Buffalo Olmsted parks and parkways. The fence and sidewalk along Potters Road was replaced, and the sidewalk on the east side of that street moved inside the park fence. New signage, standardized throughout the system, was also installed and several of the monuments in the park conserved.

Key proposals of the master plan not yet implemented called for a pedestrian bridge across Cazenovia Creek opposite Woodside Avenue (which would open the south end of the park to regular use); maintenance of lawn areas to mimic the spaces once occupied by the lake, coupled with dense plantings to recreate the former islands; visual mitigation of the impact of the natatorium and community center buildings, additional alterations to parking and traffic flow, and an eventual restoration of the east bay of the lake. While this master plan would not result in a complete restoration of the Olmsted design, it would bring back a number of important features, as well as remove or reduce several of the later intrusions which have marred it.

Cazenovia Park’s challenges continue. The Tosh Collins Community Center at the northwest corner of the park was significantly enlarged during 2002, without measures to relate it to the landscape, thereby increasing its intrusion into the park. The deteriorated wading pool has been removed, and a new spray pool was constructed, an element not envisioned in the master plan. The library, as a result of consolidation within the Buffalo and Erie County Library system, become an independent Reading Room. Throughout the park, traffic and parking issues persist, with much of the grass bordering the park road turned into rutted swaths of dirt and mud. A good portion of the park’s oldest tree stock is reaching the end of its life cycle. An adjacent undeveloped tract, not owned by the City, has become housing. No action has been taken to re-purpose the city parking lot at the Seneca street entrance, and no permanent utilization has been derived for the Casino. Moreover, vandalism presents a significant challenge to this park’s renewal.

All things considered, the outlook for this Olmsted gem on the south side of the city is  bright, the main threat it faces being potential intrusion of non-Olmsted uses