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The History of Hamlin Park Part I: Early Development and Design

Now that Hamlin Park has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places I’ve decided to do a short series of the history of the neighborhood. This information comes directly from the National Register nomination that Preservation Studios completed. Check back for additional installations in the series in the coming weeks. This series originally appeared on the preservation exchange and views of buffalo.

The Hamlin Park Historic District is primarily a residential neighborhood on the east side of Buffalo, New York that is roughly bounded by Main Street to the north, Humboldt Parkway to the east, East Ferry Street to the south, and Jefferson Avenue to the west. It is currently listed as a local historic district within the same boundaries.

1880 Land Ownership Map of Hamlin Park
1880 Land Ownership Map of Hamlin Park

The area now known as Hamlin Park historically developed in two stages. The northern section (north of Northland Avenue and known as the Hager Division) was developed several years earlier than the southern section, which is known as the Driving Park.  Each section illustrates a different residential planning philosophy, yet they are unified by similar patterns of development, as well as by physical changes that were implemented in the 1960s through federal funding.

The Hager Division was largely developed by the early 20th century, although some homes date to the late 19th century. Homes in the Driving Park section were mostly built after 1912, when the land was sold to real estate interests. The majority of Hamlin Park, including residential and commercial buildings, was fully built out by the mid-1920s.

The Hager Division adhered to the picturesque Olmsted ideals as exemplified in the nearby Parkside neighborhood while the Driving Park development, laid out immediately after building started in the Hager Division, followed 20th century themes such as rectilinear street grids and uniform lots. The western portion of the Hager Division links the two sections; it was built out later than the eastern Hager portion and shows the transition to rectilinear streets that became commonplace in the Driving Park.

Hamlin's Driving Park, 1869
Hamlin’s Driving Park, 1869

Most of the buildings in both the Hager Division and the Driving Park were not individually designed, but rather modeled after homes in pattern books or styles popular at the time. Many home building companies that built in the Hager Division, also constructed similar homes in the Driving Park section during or near the same period. On any given block one can find the same house repeated, but differentiated from neighboring homes by details like porch pediments, types of columns, placement of dormers, and variations in materials. As a result, there are similar architectural characteristics that are carried out throughout the entire district, creating a feeling of continuity throughout the neighborhood.

The period of significance for the Hamlin Park District encompasses two eras from 1860 until 1975. The first era, from 1860 to 1912 documents the development of the neighborhood from the first building constructed through the planning of both the Hager and Driving Park sub-divisions, and is represented by the repeated architectural styles and density typical of late-Victorian streetcar neighborhoods, as well as the layout styles of the two subdivisions which represent two distinct development ideals. The second era, from 1966-1975, documents the neighborhood’s participation in the federal Model City program, and is evidenced by physical changes to porches, house siding, and other cosmetic and structural improvements funded through Model Cities.  These periods, though documented architecturally, are also defined by the demographic changes of the neighborhood.

The initial residents of Hamlin Park were upwardly mobile Polish, German, and Jewish families moving from the nearby neighborhoods of the Fruit Belt and Broadway Filmore, seeking to leave the crowded, mixed-use neighborhoods for the quiet and comfort afforded by an almost entirely residential development. The 1950s saw a dramatic demographic shift throughout Buffalo’s East Side, and Hamlin Park was no exception. African Americans already had an established community in the Ellicott District near downtown prior to World War I, but Buffalo’s prominence in manufacturing during World War II, made it an ideal destination during the Great Migration. The expansion of African American families throughout the East Side prompted the exodus of ethnic whites from those neighborhoods, and though Hamlin Park had a smoother transition than most, by the time the Kensington Expressway was finished, all of the neighborhoods white residents had left for North Buffalo or the suburbs. Hamlin Park was targeted with the poverty-fighting Model Cities program along with several of the neighborhoods to the South, but unlike other target areas, Hamlin Park was one of the only neighborhoods with dramatic success at preserving its integrity.

A stark contrast between the Expressway and Humboldt Parkway
A stark contrast between the Expressway and Humboldt Parkway

There are two street plans in the Hamlin Park Historic District that reflect differing planning philosophies of the 19th and 20th centuries. The majority of the district is laid out in a standard rectilinear grid, but a small portion to the northeast reflects the planning philosophies of the nearby Parkside neighborhood with gracefully curving streets and planted features. The street plan has remained largely unchanged, with the exception of several northern streets that once crossed through Humboldt Parkway, but were severed from the adjacent neighborhood due to the construction of the Kensington Expressway.

Many of the lots are similar in size, but vary in shape as these blocks meet the curving streets laid out by August Hager in the late 19th century. Streets within the Driving Park portion of the district (Bound by Northland, Humboldt, East Ferry, and Jefferson) represent the largest concentration of blocks designed with streetcar neighborhood uniformity and compactness in mind. This design reflects the delineation from the Romantic ideals Hager sought to illustrate with his streets in the northern portion of the district. Most of the homes have shallow lots with small lawns in front and a planted buffer between the sidewalk and street. Open porches and/or balconies are repeated on practically every property and many homes feature a rear balcony off a second floor bedroom.

The Scajaquada Creek flows east to the west through Hamlin Park, hidden below the streets by culverts that capped it in the 1920s. Although no longer exposed, the footprint of the creek is clearly visible by the ribbon of parks on top of it. The creek enters the district at Humboldt Parkway just above Hamlin Road and turns north to Northland Avenue via Donaldson Road. From there it winds between Northland and Florida and continues west down the street before curving north, just below Beverly Road and exiting the district west of Jefferson Avenue to Forest Lawn Cemetery.

An example of the culvert that buried the creek
An example of the culvert that buried the creek


Written by Mike Puma

Mike Puma

Writing for Buffalo Rising since 2009 covering development news, historic preservation, and Buffalo history. Works professionally in historic preservation.

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