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  • The Best Planned City in the World: Olmsted, Vaux, and the Buffalo Park System by Francis R. Kowsky
  • Peter Harnik (bio)
The Best Planned City in the World: Olmsted, Vaux, and the Buffalo Park System
Francis R. Kowsky. 2013. University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, MA, USA. 304pages. Hardcopy Edition: ISBN 978-1-62534-006-1.

Before Chicago there was Buffalo.

Before sunrises bounced off the shimmering waters of Lake Michigan onto the grand economic powerhouse of the Windy City, sunsets bounced off the shimmering waters of Lake Erie over the grand economic powerhouse of the Queen City. Before Frederick Law Olmsted worked his design magic on the World Columbian Exhibition and Jackson Park, he and Calvert Vaux had worked their magic on Delaware Park, Scajaquada Parkway, and the Front.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, playing off its key location between the Great Lakes and the one flatwater route to the Atlantic Ocean at New York City, Buffalo flourished. The success began in 1825 with the Erie Canal and then mushroomed through the proliferation of railroads paralleling, and in fact overshadowing, the pathbreaking waterway. Through another geographical quirk, while Buffalo was spared the carnage of the Civil War, it profited hugely from the shipment and manufacture of all kinds of needed war material. By 1890, the city would become the world’s largest coal and lumber distribution center while it also manufactured fertilizer, soap, railroad cars, milling machinery, refrigerators, carriages, farm implements, iron stoves, bridges, scales, boots, shoes, and furniture. At the time the nation’s eighth-largest city, it gave the U.S. two Presidents, and was reputed to have a higher percentage of millionaires than any other place in the country.

Buffalo seemed to have a future without limit as its residents looked westward. To the east, of course, it was doomed always to play second fiddle to its cross-state rival, New York. But Buffalo’s leaders, particularly in the business community, made the best of the situation by carefully studying some of the breakthroughs coming out of the larger, older city. Thus, in 1868, an invitation was made to Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the men who had designed Central Park, to come upstate and pass their judgments on the opportunity for Buffalo to demonstrate its civic arrival with a grand new park.

This is the story that Francis Kowsky tells, and he does so virtually to perfection.

When Olmsted closely examined the city for the first time, he was accompanied by his prominent host, attorney William Dorsheimer. (Vaux was away in Europe.) Dorsheimer had many good ideas and observations, but Olmsted on his own came to a set of breathtakingly creative conclusions. Rejecting the expected approach of one big central park (as in New York and Brooklyn) he recommended that Buffalo construct three distinctly purposed parks connected by a web of handsome parkways.

Parkways were a new genre. Olmsted and Vaux had been toying with their unprecedented concept in Brooklyn, but physical and political challenges stymied [End Page 132] most of their brainstorms, including the idea of linking Central and Prospect Parks. Buffalo, with three separate parks, is where the idea was most needed and where it came together. And this seed was planted on most fertile ground, for the existing street grid of the original village had been thoughtfully laid out back in 1804 by Joseph Ellicott, a former assistant to the man who planned Washington, D.C., Pierre L’Enfant. Through Ellicott’s good eye for geography and terrain, Buffalo began life with the bones of an excellent plan upon which to grow, and the Olmsted/Vaux parkways extended it beautifully. This led to Olmsted’s half-laudatory, half-self-serving 1876 quote that became the title of Kowsky’s book.

From the vantage point of today’s politics, it is almost inconceivable that the Buffalo park system came into being so quickly. From the first visit in August, 1868, through a formal presentation in October, to the presentation of a finished report with working plans in August, 1869, through a Common Council vote in November, through preliminary work in the spring of 1870 and the beginning of...


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