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Masten Place

In recognition of the success achieved by the Board of Park Commissioners in establishing and administering the Olmsted park system in Buffalo, care and control of all public squares and greens in the city was transferred to the Board in 1886. In April 1887, Frederick Law Olmsted submitted designs for several of the grounds placed under the Board’s control. Included in the 1887 Olmsted designs was one for Masten Place, to be constructed on the site of what was then Potter’s Field, the city’s pauper burial ground.

Masten Place is located on the west side of Masten Street, between Best and North Streets, and on the east side of Fosdick street. It was named for the primary adjacent street, which in turn was named for Joseph G. Masten (1809-1871), a judge of the New York State Supreme Court and (in 1843) Buffalo’s first Democratic mayor. It was originally bounded on its west by a small Catholic cemetery. That cemetery was subsequently acquired and incorporated into the site, extending the the park to Michigan Street. Construction of the park began in the spring of 1887, and was substantially completed that same year. The site required considerable regrading to make it suitable for park purposes, and large amounts of loam had to be hauled to the site to make planting possible. It continued to feature a steep grade, sloping toward Best and Michigan streets, which made turf difficult to sustain. Olmsted’s design for the park called for winding diagonal walks 10 feet in width crossing the site from its corners, setting off an open turf playground at the center. A small shelter house offered toilet facilities and tool storage. Six foot walks were provided on the outer periphery of the park. Characteristic of similar Olmsted parks, thick plantings screened the site from the bustle of street traffic. The Buffalo Express praised the design, stating “The embellishments to be made, however, will be tasteful and sightly, gratifying the eye with green foliage and grass plats reasonably well protected from the ravages of foot passengers.”

In 1895 this park became the focus of considerable local controversy when it was proposed as the site of a new East Buffalo High School. Despite strong opposition by the Park Board, the high school was built in the park, at the center of the plot. Although the new building destroyed its continued suitability as a public pleasure ground, the remainder of the site remained in the charge of the Park Board.

The Masten High School was destroyed by fire in March, 1912. The school was in session at the time of the fire. Frank Fosdick, the school’s principal acted heroically in ensuring the safety of the students and staff during the blaze. No lives were lost, and only he suffered serious injuries. It school was quickly rebuilt, with the firm of Esenwein and Johnson as architects, and received students in the Fall of 1914. Mr. Fosdick continued to serve as school principal, having recovered from his injures. He retired in 1926. He died soon after, in 1927, and the school as renamed Fosdick-Masten High School in his honor.

In 1979, Girl’s Vocational Program, which had occupied the school since 1953, was discontinued. The building was briefly used by the school district as a warehouse, and it was slated for demolition. However, after strong protests from Fosdick-Masten alumni, the structure was declared an Erie County landmark, and then further recognized by placement on the National Register of Historic Places. The building currently houses the City Honors School, a magnet school with about 1100 students enrolled in grades 5-12.

In 1977, Fosdick Street was constructed bisecting the park so that a municipal housing complex could be placed atop what was by then known as Fosdick Field, the school’s athletic area occupying the western third of the park. The then-vacant housing units were demolished in 2013. Plans are in the works construct a new athletic field there to serve the needs of the school. A major expansion of the school building was undertaken between 2007 and 2010 on the north side of the original structure.

While the burials on the site were removed in the course of the 1887 park construction, that work was made difficult by nature of the site’s use for the burial of indigents and unknowns. It was subsequently discovered that the removal of remains to Forest Lawn cemetery was incomplete. During construction of the high school buildings, as well as during the more recent expansion project, additional remains were located. They, also, were removed to Forest Lawn cemetery. In 2012, in recognition of the liklihood that other burials still remain undetected at the site, a stone monument was placed by the school building to recognize the site’s earlier cemetery use and commemorate any persons who might still be at rest there.

Needless to say, the school complex now completely dominates the site of what is now a lost Olmsted park.