First a park, then a Parkside

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Even as late as 1880, the area to soon be known as Parkside was still chiefly farm land, but an eye toward development had been sharply trained on the area for decades. Though most of the building in the neighborhood wasn’t to be completed until the first two decades of the 20th century; it was the last two decades of the 19th century when the area began to take on a look familiar to what we know today.

First concocted in 1858, The Civil War interrupted plans for Buffalo’s park system. It was 1869 when construction began of the masterpiece that would ultimately feature The Meadow at The Park (today Delaware Park) as its crown jewel. But even after the initial decade-long delay, the plan was an evolving one, even as shovels hit dirt.

An 1883 Olmsted map, including the Parkside Development. Note the different street pattern, with only one street where Crescent, Summit, and Woodard were eventually laid. Buffalo Stories archives

As the park was being built, the city continued to grow. Frederick Law Olmsted changed the design of what is now Delaware Park as the outline of the Beltline Railway became apparent. In 1874, Elam Jewett built, paved, and maintained Jewett Parkway himself, as an easy entrance to the park for those getting off the New York Central Beltline railway. Other than Main Street, Jewett Parkway was the first street laid out in modern Parkside. Included in Olmsted’s plans was a neighborhood he called “The Parkside,” built around Delaware Park and Jewett’s curving Parkway. It was first written of by Buffalo officials in the 1872 Parks report, in reference to “The Park.” It’s also among the first times the name by which a future community would be known was published.

The Park, 3-and-a-half miles north of the City Hall, a ground designed to be resorted to solely for quiet rural enjoyment. The more notable features are, a grand sweep of undulating turf, one hundred and fifty acres in extent, and containing a goodly number of large well-grown trees, a body of water of forty-six acres, an open grove suited to picnics, and closer woods offering wilder and more secluded rambles. The Parkside, a detached suburb adjoining the Park on the north and on the east, designed by private enterprise, so as to secure to it a permanent sylvan character distinct from the formal rectangular streets of the city proper…. “Parkside,” a district nearly three square miles in area, extensively planted, and guarded against any approach to dense building.

Buffalo’s Parkside was among Olmsted’s first attempts in his pioneering work in suburban residential planning, preceded only by his plans for Riverside, Illinois– a planned Chicago suburb. He laid out the streets in a gently curving, or curvilinear, pattern, encouraging leisurely travel.  At the same time, the plan discouraged use of the neighborhood as a thoroughfare, with none of the streets leading directing to the city. Olmsted envisioned tree lined streets with boughs joining to create a canopy over the roadways. Parkside was meant almost as an extension of the park, serving to buffer his crown jewel from the bustle of Main Street and from future incongruous development, but also with an eye towards creating the ideal residential environment.

In 1871, a pair of young deer was donated to the Parks Commission by prominent Buffalo furrier Jacob Bergtold. A Deer Paddock was fenced in on the meadow, and the deer were put in the care of Elam Jewett. From this simple gift would grow the earliest origins of the Zoo, still operating on the same spot as that original 1871 Deer Paddock.  A pair of bison and eight elk were added to the animal collection in 1895, and a zoo curator was hired the same year. Two years later, the bear pits, designed to look like Roman ruins, were built as the zoo we now know was beginning to take shape.

Animals were much more free range at the earliest beginnings of the zoo (above), but the modern zoo took shape quickly (below.) Buffalo Stories archives

In a cry that rings familiar in today’s age, the 1881 Annual Report of the Parks Commissioner calls for ways to lessen the expense of maintaining the grass in the Meadow. What might be unfamiliar, though, is the method:

To maintain a trim and becoming appearance of the ground, frequent cutting of the grass in necessary… On the open areas, and more especially n the large meadow, much of the annual expense and waste of mowing might be avoided by pasturing. The meadow would maintain a large flock of sheep, which would by their presence, add much to the interest and naturalness of this part of the park.

Sheep grazing in the Delaware Park Meadow, near Ring Rd. Aside from the sheep, only veterans of the Civil War on the civil service list were eligible to work in the parks.

For decades, sheep were seen grazing in the meadow in Delaware Park. Their presence on the broad lawn gave “an additional attraction to Park visitors, and served to give a natural animation to the quiet character of this portion of the park.” Another quaint description from the Superintendent’s 1886 report describes riding on the Meadow:

The meadow is open to equestrians whenever the turf is firm, but in the spring and late in autumn it is usually too soft. In a wet season like the last some portions are in an unfit condition about half the time all through the summer. Shutting off the equestrians from the meadow on this account causes perpetual friction, as the cause for such restriction is rarely understood, and an open stretch of smooth turf offers the best possible conditions for a free gallop. No method of constructing or maintaining a bridle road will provide so good a footing for the horse, or be so easy for the rider. But whenever the ground is wet, deep footprints are cut into the sod in galloping over it, and when these become dry and hard, horses are liable to stumble on them or sprain their joints. To enjoy permanently the privilege of galloping at full speed with perfect safety over the Park Meadow it is necessary that it should not be damaged by use when the ground is soft. Though few equestrians have appreciated this necessity, the risk of damage to the turf is so great that, so far as I am aware, no riding whatever is allowed on the grass in any other park in the country.

Horseback riding was soon joined by golf in the meadow; the course was laid out in 1886, nine holes were added in 1894.  Bicycle riding was also a great fad near the turn of the century, and practiced often on the road around the meadow. The continued growth of the zoo also made the meadow area more and more popular with not just sportsmen, but families and those looking to take in the sunshine and fresh air.

In 1900, on the eve of the Pan-American Exposition, Frank Goodyear offered the city one million dollars to expand and beautify the zoo. Though this offer was rejected for political reasons, Goodyear’s gift of Frank the Elephant was accepted, and the excitement surrounding the possibility of the large monetary gift emboldened planners and curators. The number of animals swelled to over 600. At the turn of the century, between 20,000 and 30,000 people visited the zoo and picnicked in the park each week.

Frank the Elephant spent his first few years at the zoo chained to a tree, before funds were raised to build a proper elephant house.

Right in the middle of Parkside, Camp Jewett was a tent city set up as inexpensive lodging for attendees of the Pan American Exposition in 1901.  The rent was $1.50 a day for one of the tents, and one could take the “Main Street-Pan American-Zoo” trolley line directly to the Expo. Over 175 tents were set up on the entire block between Parkside and Woodward, and West Oakwood Place and Florence Avenue. The photo has Woodward in the foreground, and one can clearly see the Electric Tower (which stood at approximately Lincoln Parkway and Amherst Street) over the meadow.  From the Collection of Len Mattie.

While planners continued to add features to make the park more accessible and more desirable to the residents of the nearby city, one feature that would make the park– and the entire park system– more sylvan and park-like was already there, ready to reap.

Just Parkside is a very apt name for the neighborhood as it stands today; its one-time appellation Flint Hill is just as likely, as any Parkside Gardener will tell you.  The stone that gardeners find in their soil, is the same that was blown through to create the Kensington Expressway, the same that most Parkside basements are made from, and the same that was quarried just of Parkside Avenue near Florence Avenue behind the Olmsted Park’s Lodge.

Onondaga Limestone is that ubiquitous gray stone embedded with chunks of black chert, or flint. “Black Rock” was so named because of the large outcrop of Onondaga Limestone, loaded with chert, that stuck out into the Niagara River near where the Peace Bridge now stands.  The apparently useless Onondaga Limestone bridges behind the Delaware Park Lodge, on the golf course, once spanned the great hole made by the excavation of rock there.

The quarry was an early important element in the development of the park. Stone extracted from the quarry formed an early foot bridge over Scajaquada Creek, went into the construction of the state asylum, built the now demolished Farmstead (which stood where the Zoo parking lot is today), and built the bear dens and other rock formations at the zoo. The foundation of Buffalo’s Parkway system was also made from crushed stone from the Parkside Quarry.

The Farmstead stood in what is now the zoo’s parking lot from 1875-1950. It was the home and office of the Park Superintendent, and was built from limestone quarried from the park.

The last stone was mined from the site in 1897, but the old park quarry was transformed into a beautiful garden. When the Parkside Lodge was built in 1912, rustic bridges were built to span the chasm to link the lodge and bowling greens with the meadow. The current stone bridges, now at ground level, were built to connect the edges of the great hole in 1920.

The spot became the place where the young romantics of the neighborhood would take their love to see it blossom. In 1908, in a day before road and automobile safety standards we have today, the Buffalo Express reported that a couple died when their car plunged over the poorly marked edge of the quarry on a dark Saturday night.

The Quarry was a pit filled with gardens, behind the Parkside Lodge. The seemingly useless bridges there today once spanned the chasm.

Some of Parkside’s earliest neighborhood activism and some of the earliest references to the neighbors of the park as “Parksiders” come in the form of rallying against proposed changes to the quarry. As Parks planners developed plans for a sunken gardens on the site, they also proposed building the park’s stables there as well. Though Parkside was still early in its development as a residential community, the few that were here let their voices be heard against the building of the stables. An October 21, 1908 Buffalo Express headline blared, “Parksiders Make Good.”

The following was written in the inimitable style of the turn of the century Buffalo Express, after the decision was made to place the stables in their current location, between Agassiz Place and Forest Lawn Cemetery, on the south side of what is now the Scajaquada Expressway.

For just about three hours after the decision was made, the park commissioners rested in the belief that all was satisfactory. Then they were undeceived. There was an uproar in the Parkside district which reached even to the respective homes of several park commissioners. And the howl was against the building of the new stable in the stone quarry, abandoned as that place might be.

No, indeed, the stone quarry might be a bit wild. It might be the catchtrap for the flotsam and jetsam of the park system, utterly neglected and almost abandoned, yet the Parksiders did not deem it low enough to warrant its association with a stable. Petitions were circulated, public meetings held, persons who never before made public speeches made them, and the upshot of the whole matter was that the park commissioners decided they would build the stable elsewhere.

This 1908 victory would be the first of many for the ebullient residents who live between the Park and Main Street; Humboldt Parkway and the Beltline.

Lawn Bowlers on the court adjacent to the Parkside Lodge, 1912

©2009 Buffalo Stories LLC, staffannouncer.com, and Steve Cichon

This page is an excerpt from
The Complete History of Parkside
by Steve Cichon

The 174-page book is available along with Steve’s other books online at The Buffalo Stories Bookstore and from fine booksellers around Western New York. 

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Steve Cichon

Steve Cichon writes about Buffalo’s pop culture history. His stories of Buffalo's past have appeared more than 1600 times in The Buffalo News. He's a proud Buffalonian helping the world experience the city he loves. Since the earliest days of the internet, Cichon's been creating content celebrating the people, places, and ideas that make Buffalo unique and special. The 25-year veteran of Buffalo radio and television has written five books and curates The Buffalo Stories Archives-- hundreds of thousands of books, images, and audio/visual media which tell the stories of who we are in Western New York.