Sometimes we take things for granted. In the case of Buffalo’s Olmsted park system, we tend either to think of it as somehow always having been here; or else presume that Frederick Law Olmsted must have awakened one morning and simply decided that the day was right to complete his Buffalo designs. Reflecting, we realize that neither of the preceding circumstances is correct. But then, why did Frederick Law Olmsted come to Buffalo and design the nation’s first system of parks? A small group of prominent Buffalo men invited him to Buffalo, and then saw to it that his designs were carried out. The man who brought this group together, and who first approached Olmsted regarding a park system for the city, was William Dorsheimer.
William Dorsheimer spent only the early portion of his adult life in Buffalo, politics and business later calling him elsewhere. He was born in Lyons, Wayne County, New York, on February 5th, 1832. His parents, Philip and Sarah Dorsheimer, had emigrated from Germany, and later moved their family to Buffalo, where the elder Dorsheimer was proprietor of the Mansion House, a noted Buffalo hostelry. William, while attending Harvard University, was forced by ill health to withdraw. He subsequently studied at law, and was admitted to the bar in 1854. He began his practice in Buffalo. His father was actively involved in politics, and both father and son became early supporters of the Republican party after its founding in 1855.
Dorsheimer was an active writer, in 1858 contributing reviews of J. Parton’s Life of Jefferson and Life of Aaron Burr to The Atlantic Monthly. Harvard University gave him an honorary degree of A.M. in 1859. When the Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences was founded in 1861, he was a charter member. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Dorsheimer was tendered a commission as Major and assigned as an aide-de-camp on the staff of Major General John C. Fremont in Missouri. After Fremont’s dismissal by President Lincoln, Dorsheimer was released from service and returned to Buffalo. In support of his former commander’s military and political policies, Dorsheimer wrote a series of articles for The Atlantic Monthly entitled, “Fremont’s Hundred Days in Missouri.”
In 1867 he was appointed United States District Attorney for the Northern District of New York by President Andrew Johnson, serving at that post in Buffalo until the expiration of his term in 1871. He took a keen interest in community service activities. In 1861 he became a charter member of the Buffalo Society of Natural Sciences. He was one of the founders of the Buffalo Historical Society, for which he published a paper entitled, “Buffalo During the War of 1812” (1862). He was also one of the founders of the Buffalo Fine Arts Academy.
He became increasingly active in national and state political affairs. Breaking with the Republican party, William Dorsheimer was elected Lieutenant Governor of New York in 1872, and reelected to the same office in 1876. Frustrated in an attempt to capture the gubernatorial nomination, he retired from politics for a short while, relocating from Buffalo to New York City. Unable to remain away from the hustings for long, he was successfully ran for Congress in 1882, representing the 7th District of New York.
Dorsheimer was very active in the successful gubernatorial and presidential campaigns of Grover Cleveland. His literary talents were harnessed to write Cleveland’s campaign biography (Life and Public Services of the Honorable Grover Cleveland, 1884). Dorsheimer also made a number of major addresses in support of Cleveland. His efforts were rewarded in 1885, when he was appointed United States District Attorney for the Southern District of New York. He purchased the New York Star in September of 1885. The increasing demands placed on him by the publication of his newspaper (unfortunately, not a financial success), caused him to resign his federal appointment in March, 1886.
It was during his term of office as United States District Attorney for the Northern District of New York that he initiated a number of discussions with Sherman S. Jewett, Pascal P. Pratt, Joseph Warren, Dennis Bowen, Richard Flach, and William Rogers, mostly at the Buffalo Club, concerning Buffalo’s need for a large public park like New York’s Central Park or Brooklyn’s new Prospect Park. Not content to merely discuss possibilities, Dorsheimer then took it upon himself to translate these discussions into action. On July 23rd, 1868, he wrote to the Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux in New York City. After describing the proposed site and its characteristics, Dorsheimer requested data on costs, estimates of the possible lengths of park roadways, and maps of Olmsted and Vaux’s New York and Brooklyn projects. He informed the partners that it was intended to present the information requested to a meeting of interested citizens to be held in the near future. He cautioned, “We have not gone far enough in this matter, to make it the subject of public discussion nor do we wish to do so until our plans are more fully matured.” Events proceeded rapidly. Dorsheimer wrote again to Olmsted on August 12th, inviting him to visit the city and tour the proposed site, and apparently he agreed to personally underwrite Olmsted’s travel expenses. Subsequently, Olmsted stopped in Buffalo on August 16th enroute to business in Chicago, and arranged to pay a second visit to the city on his return journey.
The public meeting Dorsheimer had proposed was held the evening of August 25th, 1868, at the home of S. S. Jewett on Delaware Avenue. Millard Fillmore, former President of the United States, was selected to chair the meeting. Mr. Dorsheimer outlined the park proposal to the assembled group of prominent citizens. The Buffalo Express noted that, “The remarks of Mr. Dorsheimer were of an interesting and instructive nature, and the necessity of a park of this nature was vividly portrayed by this gentleman.”
The Express probably did not exaggerate the impact of Dorsheimer’s address. A colleague later recalled that, “[W]hen he was trying cases before a jury he never would down a note or use a manuscript. In summing up his cases he could go over every bit of the evidence without the use of a note. His tall, commanding presence was also in his favor, and he could not help but impress a jury favorably.” The Buffalo Evening News was also to comment on his “…commanding presence, an impressive delivery and a wonderful power of word-painting….”
Frederick Olmsted then spoke, urging the pursuit of the project and outlining his vision of the Park, but expanding the proposal to include in an integrated system the original site plus two sites first viewed as alternative, joining them with series of broad parkways. After listening to Olmsted, the meeting appointed a committee to receive a more detailed plan from Mr. Olmsted, and to present it to the Common Council and the public. That report, the genesis of the Buffalo Park system, was completed on October 1st, and accepted by the Common Council on November 27th, 1868. After approval of the necessary legislation by the State Legislature, the first Board of Buffalo Parks Commissioners was appointed for a five year term (without compensation) in April, 1869. Among the citizens selected by the Mayor of Buffalo to serve on the board was William Dorsheimer.
Olmsted was not the only prominent designer associated with Dorsheimer. Another was H. H. Richardson, who became perhaps the most influential American architect of the latter portion of the nineteenth century. He engaged by Dorsheimer to design his house at 434-438 Delaware Avenue in October, 1868, prior to his rise to prominence. The two men’s business relationship developed into a warm friendship. Richardson subsequently obtained several additional Buffalo commissions, the most notable of which was his 1870 design for the Buffalo State Hospital (now the Buffalo Psychiatric Center), for which Olmsted designed the grounds. He was chosen in 1877 to complete the state Capitol in Albany (again in association with Olmsted) as a result of Lieutenant Governor Dorsheimer’s influence.
Dorsheimer’s interest in the parks, and his association with Frederick Law Olmsted, were borne in mind by New York Governor Grover Cleveland in 1883 when he appointed Mr. Dorsheimer as one of the commissioners of the state reservation at Niagara. Dorsheimer was subsequently elected chairman of that body, and remained a member until his death.
In the winter of 1887, William Dorsheimer and his wife, the former Isabella Patchen, began a trip to Florida, but he had caught a severe cold along the way. His constitution probably weakened by the strain of his journalistic venture, they halted their trip at Savannah, Georgia. There his illness rapidly turned into pneumonia, and he died on March 26, 1888. He was 57 years old. He was survived by his wife. Their only child, a daughter, had died in Buffalo of scarlet fever at the age of 16. After his funeral was held in New York City, he was laid to rest in his family plot in Forest Lawn Cemetery, close to the park he helped to build.
His former neighbors mourned his death deeply. Said one, “There are few men to whom the city is more indebted for its improvements than William Dorsheimer.” The U.S. District Attorney, at a loss for words, told a reporter, “I don’t know what I can say to express my highest estimation of the man. He was really one of the great men of the country – one of the best men in the state. Say anything good for him that you please and give it as my interview.” As another former colleague pointed out, “In effect he was the originator of the Buffalo park system.” Surely, without William Dorsheimer, there would have been no Olmsted park system in Buffalo. It is his enduring legacy.