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Olmsted's 125 year park legacy

Go to any city, and you’ll see the influence of Frederick Law Olmsted’s vision for public parks: grassy meadows, winding paths, and natural watercourses. Imitation is certainly flattering, but our park system—now celebrating its 125th year—is an authentic original. Olmsted designed only four such systems in the world, including Rochester’s. In many respects, this was his final masterpiece before he retired in 1895.

With their redesign of New York’s Central Park in the 1850’s, Olmsted and architect Calvert Vaux fundamentally altered our idea of what a park should be, how it should look, and how it should function. “He was a gamechanger, like Frank Lloyd Wright or Einstein. We can’t imagine what it was like to think like people thought before Olmsted did his work and opened up a whole dimension,” says JoAnn Beck, cochair of the Landmark Society’s Olmsted subcommittee.

After the Civil War, Rochester, like many American cities, entered a long period of industrialization. The skies over our urban centers grew murky. Development gradually impeded public access to our waterways and crept into surrounding farmland. Change came gradually enough that most did not take notice of dwindling open spaces. Rochester still had several public squares for strolling, and locals continued to enjoy picnics at Mount Hope Cemetery. Rochesterians were so complacent that, if not for surgeon Edward Mott Moore and his relentless advocacy for the health benefits of clean air and recreational space, our park system might not exist at all.

Historic photos courtesy of the Landmark Society
Olmsted’s original plan for Highland Park, above, included the Children’s Pavilion, lower right, which was dismantled in 1963. At lower left, sheep graze in Genesee Valley Park.

In 1883, nurserymen George Ellwanger and Patrick Barry offered a donation of twenty acres of land to the city. As part of the deal, they asked that the land be developed into an arboretum for the public to enjoy. City officials refused the initial gift—but in October 1887, Moore finally persuaded a hesitant city council, and the reluctant taxpayers it represented, to accept the land from Ellwanger and Barry. In April 1888, the city formed the Board of Park Commissioners, headed by Moore, and those twenty acres would soon become Highland Park.

Impressed by the work Olmsted’s firm had done to design Buffalo’s park system, the commissioners paid the company $5,000 in October 1888 for an initial period of three years to design a complete park system. Surprisingly, Olmsted did not want to design Highland Park. It was missing a key element he required for a park design: water. There was a manmade reservoir on site, but Olmsted preferred his landscapes to look natural.

“Straight lines were for engineers, not parks,” he would say. “Olmsted designed two types of parks,” explains local historian Tim O’Connell. “One was the pastoral,” with open landscapes and meadows. This was typified by Genesee Valley Park. “The other is the rustic, or scenic, like Seneca Park [including Maplewood], where the canyon of the Genesee would be protected and made wild.”

Olmsted personally hand picked the sites for Seneca and Genesee Valley Parks, which he called “nearly ideal.” For the design of Highland Park, Olmsted offered his friend and partner, Calvert Vaux. “The parks commission said ‘No, you either design all or you’ll design none,’” O’Connell recounts. Olmsted acquiesced and got to work designing Highland, Genesee Valley, Seneca, and Maplewood.

Rochester’s collection of Olmsted parks now extends beyond those original “big four.” In 1893, the Parks Commission went back to him for a redesign of the city’s squares and street trees, including Washington Square and Franklin Square (Schiller Park) in downtown, Plymouth Circle (now Lunsford Circle Park in Corn Hill), Madison Square (Susan B. Anthony Square), Jones Square, and Brown Square.

Photo by Lisa Hughes
A swan glides through the pond at Seneca Park.


It’s hard for us now to imagine Rochester without these beautiful public spaces. Many local people have favorite memories or a special place in the parks that speak to them on a very personal level. A question posed to Rochesterians online recently drew many different responses: the magnolia grove or the meandering path through the Pinetum at Highland Park, the broad sweep of the polo grounds at Genesee Valley, and the swan pond (Trout Lake) in Seneca Park, to name a few. “My favorite place was the bucolic spot where Red Creek drifted into the Erie Canal near the Genesee,” Rochester resident Gary Bogue recalls. “There was a footbridge nearby and a glade with grassy banks alongside the tributary.” When Bogue returned to Rochester after years away, he went to see his favorite spot again. “I found that same place, now beneath the I-390 expressway.”

While these parks may seem like they are permanent, in reality they have always been in flux. Spotty maintenance over time has caused some great losses of views and various structures. The Highland Park Conservancy, for example, is now fundraising to rebuild the beloved Children’s Pavilion, destroyed in the 1960s. As Tim O’Connell points out, one of the biggest challenges facing our parks today may be the way government views them. Three golf courses, two expressways, a zoo, and several other housing projects have all carved into public parkland for exclusive uses.

“Government tends to view parkland as a land bank: something that can be used for development. That is wrong.” Like a great work of art that has enriched the soul of our city for 125 years, Rochester’s park system is a treasure entrusted to us for the benefit of future generations and deserving of our utmost care and protection.

“Olmsted was an amazing visionary who wasn’t designing for his own generation or even his children’s. We are the beneficiaries now,” says Katie Eggers Comeau, an architectural historian and board member of the National Association of Olmsted Parks. “Many cities would love to have the incred- ible parks we have.” Others may make copies, but Rochester, you’ve got an original.

Mike Governale is interactive art director at Partners and Napier. He’s the founder of Reconnect Rochester and regularly shares “local history and new ideas” at RochesterSubway com.

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