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The Rise, Decline and Renewal of Buffalo’s Parkway Neighborhood, A Model for America’s Cities - A Review by Carol Grove

Olmsted’s Elmwood

The city of Buffalo, in western New York, lies on the shore of Lake Erie at the origin of the Niagara River. Due in part to the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, Buffalo quickly grew into an industrial center and transportation hub. Population growth and cramped living conditions created the need for a respite from the city’s congestion. Forward-thinkers believed that “nature,” public green spaces within the city, could help the citizens breathe, literally and figuratively, and be a salve for modern life. In 1868, Buffalo’s prescient civic leaders turned to Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, designers of Central Park in Manhattan, to provide a solution for Buffalo. The team would plan a comprehensive system of parks and boulevards. This armature for the expanding city consisted of three parks, each with differing uses, linked by tree-lined parkways anchored by a series of residential circles and “squares. At the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia Olmsted claimed Buffalo was “the best planned city, as to its streets, public places, and grounds, in the United States, if not in the world.” He envisioned that from this framework fine neighborhoods would develop. In the late nineteenth century, Elmwood was becoming just such a place.

In ten chapters, richly illustrated with maps, drawings, and photographs (historic and recent), Olmsted’s Elmwood presents nearly two hundred years of history. It follows the arc of Buffalo’s development from the removal of its Native inhabitants to the initial surveys for the Holland Land Company and the town’s first city plan by Ralph Ellicott in 1804 to Olmsted and Vaux’s pivotal visit. It establishes how Elmwood’s character was defined early on by its primarily white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant residents (and a general “anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant” sentiment) and the explosion of residential building prompted, in part, by the Pan-American Exposition of 1901 in Buffalo. Description of its changing character in the first half of the twentieth century, unfortunate urban renewal projects, and decline follow. It concludes with grass-roots initiatives, present-day civic revitalization and historic preservation efforts, and the proposal of Elmwood as a model for other cities.

Throughout, numerous sidebars expand beyond the narrative. Presented are the neighborhood’s cultural, educational, religious, and public service institutions, including the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane (today the Richardson Olmsted Campus), a joint project of Olmsted and the iconic American architect H. H. Richardson circa 1872, and verbal “snapshots” of Elmwood’s commercial blocks from the 1920s through the 1990s. Subjects worthy of further study include Elmwood’s early nurseries and horticultural societies, contributions made by women in construction and real estate development, and Buffalo architect Louise Blanchard Bethune, the first woman admitted into the American Institute of Architects. Two appendices follow the text. The first deals with the architectural styles found along Elmwood’s blocks-Queen Anne, Shingle, Colonial and Tudor Revival, and Craftsman. The second illustrates successful examples of adaptive reuse and appropriate design for new construction within the historic context.

This book is many things. It is at once a history and a reference. It presents landscape-related subjects such as the rural cemetery. (One of the earliest and finest examples, Forest Lawn, 1849, lies at its northeast boundary.) We learn about the individuals who shaped the landscape, Olmsted and Vaux, of course, but also A. J. Downing and local civil engineers and horticulturalists Marsden Davey, George K Radner, and William McMillian. This is a record of how landscape changes through use, Elmwood’s transition from forest to farmland to horticultural nursery grounds to streetcar suburb, and how the landscape changed over time, when mansions built by the wealthy were demolished and their large lots were subdivided and rebuilt with more density by the generations that followed.

One could quibble with minor aspects such as a few misspellings and illustration placement that doesn’t always coincide with the chronology. Very short early chapters could be combined and the chapter seven text about houses and owners reads a little like a laundry list. Puzzling is the omission of any mention of pioneering Olmsted scholar, Charles Capen McLaughlin, an early editor of The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted. And to clarify: it is not really Olmsted’s Elmwood. The book’s title uses the famous landscape architect as a calling card; he envisioned such neighborhoods but he was responsible for the broad strokes, not Elmwood specifically. The most serious objection is the result of a mixed blessing, one that practitioners and scholars deal with when they have the benefit of a wealth of information. This book is based on decades of research that resulted in eight National Register of Historic Places nominations and surveys inventorying nearly 5,000 resources. One of the hardest things to do is to distill and synthesize-to edit, edit, edit-in a way that best tells the story to the reader.

Olmsted’s contribution to Buffalo was comprehensive in scope. The same can be said about this book. It is a wide-ranging, visually rich history of Elmwood that the reader can turn to again and again for information on various aspects of the subject. Olmsted’s Elmwood begins with the acknowledgement that a “village made this book” Indeed, and it is the continued pride, resilience, and commitment of hundreds of individuals and organizations that will ensure Elmwood’s future as a community.

Carol Grove taught as an adjunct assistant professor of American Art at the University of Missouri, Columbia, and specializes in the study of American landscapes and architecture. She authored Henry Shaw’s Victorian Landscapes: The Missouri Botanical Garden and Tower Grave Pork (2005) and, with Cydney Millstein, co­ authored Houses of Missouri 1870-1940 (2008) and Hare & Hare, Landscape Architects and City Planners (2019). She is an author of the forthcoming Buildings of Missouri (University of Virginia Press in conjunction with the Society of Architectural Historians, 2024). Grove’s articles can be found in Landscape Journal, Journal of Society of Architectural Historians, and Nineteenth Century.

Nineteenth Century Magazine