Facet by facet and hand in hand with friends and funders, the Olmsted Parks Conservancy has been polishing the jewel of Buffalo’s public infrastructure: the park-and-parkway system designed by Olmsted and Vaux – beginning 150 years ago this fall. With all the neglect and depredation the system suffered in the 20th century, they have had their work cut our for them, and will be at the job for years to come. It is worth celebrating every step along the way, no matter how small.
Renovating a comfort station may seem like a small step, but in the case of the Rumsey shelter near the intersection of Delaware and Forest, it’s a great leap forward for the often-overlooked Rumsey Tract section of Delaware Park. The irony is, as I learned last year on the Hoyt Lake walking tour with the Conservancy’s historian Jim Mendola, that this was once the most visited part of the park. As soon as the Delaware Park streetcar line was extended to Forest Avenue, the park entrance at that corner became the easiest to reach for much of the city’s population, then clustered south of North Street. In 1900, a comfort station that also served those waiting for trolleys was built there. It was removed in a mid-1930s WPA project to reconfigure Delaware Avenue through the park (more on that below). As a replacement, the WPA built the current Rumsey shelter, farther into the park, that has been closed for decades. The current project means that, by next season, it will once again provide comfort.
How did the Conservancy celebrate this step last week, with no ground to break or ribbon to cut? By planting a tree, of course – actually, two trees. Because funding for the restoration was provided by the Niagara River Greenway and also a grant from Bank of America – $500,000 altogether – representatives of both were on hand.
And so was Councilman Joel Feroleto, whose district is named for the park. He said he learned the good news that everything had fallen into place for the project to move forward on a recent Hoyt Lake walking tour he took.
After the tree planting, the building was open for anyone who wanted a “before” look (see photo gallery below). There is damage inside, and it clearly needs an overhaul, but it didn’t appear “trashed.” Notably, the fireplace mantle is missing, but will be replaced using the original architectural drawings as a guide. In recent decades, the space has been used for equipment storage. The project will not restore heat to the building (there is an old boiler in the building’s partial basement), so under the current plan it will not be open in the winter.
It was lead project architect Tony James who told me the shelter was actually built as part of the same WPA project that widened Delaware Avenue in the park, creating the “s-curves” and the two-arch bridge. When I looked into that further, I ended up following some interesting historical threads. Feel free to follow along, or skip ahead a section if that’s not your thing.
From Olmstedian parkway to Clarkean parkway
The Rumsey shelter owes its existence to a Depression-era WPA project that transformed a section of Delaware Avenue from an Olmstedian parkway to the more modern kind of parkway we associate with the automobile era.
In the original park-and-parkway system laid out for Buffalo by Olmsted and Vaux, Delaware Avenue played an important role as the link connecting it all to downtown’s Niagara Square. And early on, Delaware Avenue played the role of Olmstedian parkway beautifully. Although without the planted medians of the northern parkways – or those laid out later in South Buffalo – with its stately rows of elms and with both sides fronted by mansions of generous setback, Delaware Avenue was the most beautiful street in the city end-to-end and the most desired address of generations of her most well-to-do. From North Street to Utica, you can still get a sense of what the entire street was once like.
All that changed in the “Roaring 20s.” Easy access to capital and industrial growth led to an explosion of development around the city. Beginning with the building of the Statler on Delaware at Niagara Square, the overall character of the street south of North shifted rapidly from residential to mixed-use commercial, as old-money families whose names are on street signs and institutions around the city abandoned the increasingly crowded downtown core for farther-out areas then considered suburban. The old mansions were knocked down and replaced by handsome storefront buildings whose developers aimed to make lower Delaware into Buffalo’s Fifth Avenue – right down to the use of Indiana Limestone.
At the same time, greenfield development in North Buffalo and even beyond (some of which I wrote about here), for families who increasingly owned at least one auto, made Delaware Avenue an increasingly vital traffic artery. As a result, in the late 20s, Buffalo began to widen the street, sacrificing miles of the stately elms that had formed a cathedral-like canopy overhead. This came much to the dismay of a young Charles Burchfield, who had relocated to Buffalo from Ohio earlier in the decade. Burchfield developed a deep connection with nature as a boy, and there is a mystical quality in many of his paintings of trees. One of his most iconic tree paintings, depicting three elms, is on display now in the Burchfield-Penney’s current exhibit, Burchfield’s Arboretum. In the same exhibit is another picture he painted of the elms that once lined Euclid Avenue, Cleveland’s once-grand avenue. Burchfield made his feelings about the wholesale removal of the elms clear in the sarcastically titled Civic Improvement.
Not even Delaware Park could insulate Delaware Avenue from these relentless changes. In the same WPA project that gave us the Rumsey Shelter, the section of the avenue through the park was radically transformed. In creating the S-Curves and the two-arch bridge we see today, the WPA changed a parkway of the Olmsted-Vaux era into a parkway of the early automotive era – two very different yet related things. Bear with me while I draw a thread from one to the other.
Early in the automotive era, Westchester County undertook to create scenic drives along several rivers. Beginning with the Bronx River, these projects were originally part of hydrology efforts to improve drainage in the early suburban communities. In many ways, the original idea was not so different from the Muddy River improvements made by Frederick Law Olmsted in Boston’s Emerald Necklace, which included scenic carriage drives long the river corridor. These drives connected other parks and landscapes in the corridor, but were also themselves within parklike, landscaped corridors, different from and separate from city streets.
At that time, practitioners of the still-young profession of landscape architecture still drew their inspiration from the extensive, nationwide body of work by the founders of the profession, Olmsted and Vaux. Many of them were in the profession’s second and third generation of practitioners, and many were trained in Olmsted’s firm, which carried on after his death under his son and nephew, or in one of the firms founded by practitioners who had trained in Olmsted’s firm. Increasingly, many also received academic training at schools such as Cornell that offered degrees in landscape architecture.
One young Cornell graduate, Gilmore David Clarke, working for Westchester County, developed the plans for the Bronx River Parkway. His design took inspiration from Olmsted in several ways. One, as mentioned above, was that the parkway was a scenic drive along a waterway – a road within a park, something very different from the other roads and streets in the county. Second, it was kept apart from those other roads and streets by grade-separated crossings. It was a variation on the “separation of ways” from Central Park, except that it separated local, mixed-vehicle traffic, including commercial, from long-distance, auto-only traffic, excluding commercial. And it separated the traffic with stone-faced, arch bridges, which resembled those New Yorkers had been used to seeing in parks all their lives. The parkways also curved to follow terrain, the bends in the river, and to provide varying views, which is how Olmsted and Vaux laid out drives and roads in the parks and suburban subdivisions they designed.
The Westchester parkways (Bronx River, Saw Mill River, and Hutchinson River) became iconic. Bordering the nation’s most populous city, in one of the most populous states, they caught the eye of many people and became widely adopted and emulated in much the same way the park designs of Olmsted and Vaux had been in the previous century. According to a 1985 publication by the New York State Department of Transportation and The Museums at Stony Brook, “The Bronx River Parkway proved to be not only an engineering success, but also a new expression of uniquely American landscape architecture.” Early Modernist Sigfried Giedeon, in his pioneering book Space, Time, and Architecture, wrote about the then-new American parkway,
But it was not, like certain Continental highways, laid out for military purposes, driven rigidly through the country in dangerously straight lines. Nor was it, like a railway, built to provide the most direct and rapid transit. Instead it humanized the highway by carefully following and utilizing the terrain, rising and falling with the contours of the earth, merging completely into the landscape.
And – cue the ominous music – this is where Robert Moses enters the story. In 1924, Robert Moses was appointed president of the Long Island State Parks Commission and chairman of the New York State Council of Parks. He held both positions for nearly forty years. Using his growing power and influence in state government, he was determined to create a park and parkway system (does that sound familiar?) in Long Island. Never one to make small plans, his ambition was to create a park and parkway system not just for an entire city – as Olmsted and Vaux did in Buffalo – or even for an entire county, but for an entire region. And so he did. Because he could.
Robert Moses brought Gilmore Clarke on board as a consultant, and had him design the Long Island parkways in the same vein as their Westchester predecessors. Over time, however, the design evolved. According to the 1985 publication by DOT and Stony Brook,
Initial changes to the parkways generally followed the original design. However, the earliest parkways tended to be two-lane undivided roadways, while those built during the 1930’s introduced divided roadways with wide turf medians and improved ramps.
The change to wide, turf medians meant changes to the bridges, too. Double-arch spans replaced single arches as the norm. As Thomas J. Campanella, director of the Urban and Regional Studies Program at Cornell University and Historian-in-Residence of the New York City Parks Department, wrote in CityLab, “Low-slung and clad in ashlar stone, the bridges were essential to parkway stagecraft—part of a suite of details meant to create a sense of romantic rusticity.” Thus was born the standard for parkways in New York (see collage for examples).
Because of the influence of Robert Moses, and his multiple appointments to multiple park authorities and boards, and his four-decade staying power, nearly four dozen parkways were built all across New York. They even influenced highway design in other states such as New Jersey. In western New York, the never-completed Lake Ontario Shore Parkway links Rochester with many of the state parks along the lake to the west, and the Niagara Scenic (formerly Robert Moses) Parkway links Niagara Falls with the riverfront and lakefront state parks to the north. Both of them can be traced back to Moses’ original Long Island concept of a regional park-and-parkway system linking state parks.
All of this is a long way – perhaps too long – of saying that when the WPA took on the task of extending the widening of Delaware Avenue northward through the park, what they did was replace that section of road as Olmsted and Vaux had laid it out with a “Clarkean” parkway. All the elements are there: a wide, planted median, multiple lanes in each direction, curves (the well-known “S curves”), and a two-arch bridge faced with ashlar stone. In fact, the bridge looks remarkably like other bridges on the downstate parkways. Such a design was then standard practice around the state, and represented the best thinking of the time.
All this is also a way of saying how unfortunate it was that the 198 wasn’t designed with a similar landscape sensitivity and awareness of it’s park surroundings – although it might have been. As Steve Cichon shows in a Buffalo Stories post, in Buffalo’s postwar highway plan – created just a decade after the WPA’s Delaware Avenue project – the Scajaquada is shown as a parkway. And indeed, a few years later, the first step forward, the Main Street underpass, was designed with at least a nod toward park aesthetics. The trench was faced with quality limestone masonry work. But during the time the project moved westward, highway design became increasingly the province of the engineers. By the time the 198 approached its western terminus, it was being built with no concern whatever for the land, water, or community. Landscape architecture – even for a road being put through a park – became an afterthought. In fact, the stature of landscape architecture within the New York State Department of Transportation dropped so far that it became known, derisively, as “weed and seed.” In light of that, DOT’s highway-centric approach to rethinking the 198, from which they haven’t deviated much in a decade and a half, should be no surprise.
Rumsey Ramble renaissance?
The southernmost portion of Delaware Park, originally part of the Rumsey estate, was the last part of the park to be created. It is also one of the most beautiful and picturesque parts of the park, with a varied terrain of ridges and valleys and hills that, like Forest Lawn Cemetery, may exist simply because the hummocky post-glacial topography was never leveled for either farming or development. It is about as close to a ramble or ravine landscape (as Olmsted and Vaux created in Central Park and Prospect Park) as can be found in any of Buffalo’s Olmsted parks, although without the dramatic, rugged rock outcroppings. And like many other Olmsted and Vaux parks, it even has a rustic stone-arch bridge, which I understand was requested by Rumsey in the bequest of his property.
As lovely as it is, and as well-used as it once was by the masses taking the Delaware streetcar, the Rumsey tract seems to have been largely forgotten for some time, perhaps coinciding with the closing of the shelter. That began to change with a renewed appreciation for the Rumsey Woods and events like a maple sugaring demonstration held at the shelter five years ago. Recently, other work has been done in the vicinity to refurbish hillsides and paths.
The renovation and reopening of the Rumsey shelter creates an opportunity to rediscover this part of the park . The work of Olmsted was primarily about scenery and artificially created landscape, and the Rumsey tract offers one of the best opportunities to experience that in Buffalo.
At the same time, people are increasingly embracing biophilia, and grasping the importance of nature and ecology for all of us. The MMAs (Maintained Meadow Areas) in the parks are a way the Olmsted Conservancy has recognized that and adapted. Because it is situated parallel to the south shore of Hoyt Lake, and even along Scajaquada Creek, parts of the Rumsey Tract are wet much of the year – as was pointed out at a recent public meeting on the update of the park system master plan. The tract also borders the “toe” of Hoyt Lake, that was filled in last century thanks to various public works projects, and which currently provides a meadow habitat. Hopefully, Hoyt Lake can eventually be restored to its original dimensions. For now, it would be interesting to explore whether some portion of the “toe” could be converted to wetlands along Scajaquada Creek, that would provide ecosystem services such as water cleaning and helping absorb high-water events.
The confluence of a riparian area, wetlands, woodlands, and meadow could allow creation of a wonderful natural area. The opportunity to experience – all in the same area of the park – some of the best Olmstedian scenery in Buffalo as well as nature and ecology would appeal to many. And it’s not an original idea: Olmsted himself designed Boston’s Back Bay Fens as a place where landscaped scenery and recreation met nature providing what we now call ecosystem services to address runoff overflow and pollution in a waterway.
Activating the shelter – with love
There is no question that the restoration and reopening of this shelter is a positive development for Delaware Park, and an important symbolic step away from the neglect and disinvestment that afflicted many things in Buffalo for decades.
I wonder, though, if between now and the reopening of the shelter in the spring we shouldn’t be looking at doing more with it. One reality of that corner of the park is its sense of isolation, and that causes the kind of hanging-out that the unused shelter currently attracts, even if benign, to be unnerving – especially as the shelter and its northern retaining walls command a narrow passage of the overgrown paths in the area.
I put that question to Greg Robinson, director of park administration for the Olmsted Conservancy, who told me that he sees the reopening of the shelter turning that situation around. As an example, he cited their experience in Cazenovia Park, where similar concerns about hanging out around the little-used park casino were resolved when a day care began using the building.
Still, I wonder if just reopening the comfort station will be enough to make people comfortable with that part of the park. It’s a different situation from a day care, with responsible adult staff on site, using a central, highly visible location like the Caz Park casino.
A project sketch showing people around the shelter looks promising, but does the current plan do enough to make that a reality? A Buffalo Rising article from the spring mentioned that past discussions of the future of the Rumsey shelter had included some combination of business and service use in addition to the rest rooms. About those discussions, Prish Moran, owner of Sweet_ness 7 Café, said that she “had a tentative lease…to restore the space and open a coffeehouse,” and had also worked out a deal “with other local businesses to be a hub to rent bicycles and cross-country skis, as well.” Her business would have maintained the rest rooms, and kept the shelter open seven days a week, year-round. To me, that sounds like just the right thing for that spot, but it fell through. Prish said she heard that neighbors had opposed that plan, but – at the time the article was published – she was “still very open to making it happen.”
Now that the restoration is funded and underway it may make sense for the Olmsted Conservancy to revisit the opportunity for a partnership arrangement there. A place to grab a cup of coffee in that corner of the park, rent a bike, sit and read a book, or warm up from winter sports would not have an overwhelming impact on the neighborhood. The neighbors might even find that the increased “eyes on the park” would make “their” corner of the park a more pleasant – and, yes, comfortable – place to visit.
In addition, someone like Prish Moran brings not just coffee to the places she sets up shop, but also love. Whether it’s inviting everyone to rediscover that neglected corner of the park, or serving them great coffee and yummy treats, or organizing cleanups and ecological stewardship, or maple sugaring demonstrations, or encouraging year-round use, what we need is not just a restored and reopened building, but one with a human presence and a human touch.
That may be the missing ingredient in this project, and there’s still time to stir it in.