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Olmstedian Scajaquada: Scajaquada Arboretum?

South Park Arboretum tour with David Colligan

Last year as part of Olmsted-ucation Week, celebrating 150 years of Olmsted in Buffalo, the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy hosted a visit by the director of Boston’s famed Arnold Arboretum. Dr. Ned Friedman and others were in town to launch the South Park Arboretum Restoration Project, an important effort being co-chaired by Attorney David Colligan and Conservancy Trustee Richard Griffin.

The announcement was accompanied by an arboretum presentation and panel discussion. In addition to Dr. Friedman, the panel included Lucy Lawliss, Chairwoman, National Association for Olmsted Parks; Doug Blonsky, Former CEO & President, Central Park Conservancy; and Landscape Architect Kyle Zick, ASLA, consultant to the South Park Arboretum project.

Lucy Lawliss and Ned Friedman

It was a great discussion, in which Dr. Friedman mentioned that he is only the seventh director of the Arnold Arboretum since it was created in 1872. The first was Charles Sprague Sargent, the irresistible force who started the arboretum and convinced his Brookline neighbor Frederick Law Olmsted – although initially reluctant – to design it.

And what a design it turned out to be. If you’ve never seen the Arnold Arboretum, you owe it to yourself to pay a visit there right now. No, seriously: you can see much of it on Google Street View – even the footpaths. I recommend starting at the South Street entrance by clicking here. (There is also a great collection of photos on TripAdvisor.) Olmsted took full advantage of the undulating terrain and slopes to create a landscape of winding paths, carriage drives, and dramatic views all while creating a logical layout for the tree and shrub families the arboretum would need to display.

Arnold Arboretum, Oak Path and Beech Path

What about a Scajaquada Arboretum?

After all the talk about the South Park Arboretum last year, I was surprised to learn last fall that there is another arboretum in Buffalo: the Maud Gordon Holmes Arboretum at Buffalo State College, as I mentioned in this post.

The Holmes Arboretum began under the leadership of Dr. Edna Lindemann, first director of the Burchfield Art Center, which later became the Burchfield-Penney. Over a half-century the arboretum declined to the point where it and its namesake were all but forgotten, but a dedicated group organized by Dr. Susan McCartney, director of Buffalo State’s Small Business Development Center, has been working on bringing it back. More about this later in the post.

The arboretum is predominantly on the northeast corner of campus, just across Elmwood Avenue from a stately grove of oaks at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, and just across the creek from McKinley High School, which has unique programs in horticulture and forestry. It’s also not far from the Cherry Blossom Festival that Buffalo enjoys in the spring, at the Buffalo History Museum. All these proximities raise the question: could the existing arboretum at Buffalo State expand across the lines of Elmwood Avenue and Scajaquada Creek? Could it become a larger “Scajaquada Arboretum”?

This is an especially relevant question to ask as real planning finally gets under way for the 198, because it goes to the question how the landscape where Elmwood Avenue meets the Scajaquada Corridor could be remade should the expressway be removed. (And it should.)

Let’s take a look.

Elmwood-Scajaquada crossing: then and now

Where Elmwood Avenue meets the Scajaquada Corridor is a kind of landscape “four corners.” All four corners, or quadrants, of this “intersection” have something in common: the presence of an institution. The Buffalo History Museum on the northeast “corner,” the Albright-Knox Art Gallery on the southeast, Buffalo State College on the southwest, and McKinley High School on the northwest.

These institutions themselves have some things in common: they’re educational, they’re public (or serve the public), they’re all accessed from Elmwood Avenue, they feature large institutional buildings, they have landscaped grounds, and they all have frontage along Scajaquada Creek – or would, without the expressway. Also, unusual for generally flat Buffalo, the grounds of each include slopes – or (again) would, without the expressway.

And apropos to this discussion all have excellent collections of trees in their landscapes.

North Bay (now Mirror Lake) in original park plan.

If the 198 expressway were to be removed, what would that mean for the landscape of the Elmwood/Scajaquada crossing? It is a reasonable thing to ask if, as I argued earlier in this Olmstedian Scajaquada series, the expressway could be entirely removed west of Lincoln Parkway. One way to answer that is to look at the landscape’s past. And a great past it’s had.

In the original park plan of Olmsted and Vaux, this area had the mix of structure-free pastoral and picturesque landscape that characterized most of the park, as can be seen in the original park plan for what was then called the “North Bay.”

But before long, Buffalo’s Olmstedian landscape experienced the same phenomenon as those in other cities such as New York and Boston: institutions began to move to them, taking advantage of the beautiful setting. In Buffalo, that began with the planning of the Pan-Am Exposition, which took a page from the playbook of the 1893 Columbian Exposition in using park landscape and waterscape as a setting for large, Neoclassical and Beaux-Arts buildings.

Once the institutions arrived, they changed the character of the area, as did putting through Elmwood Avenue. By 1899, with planning underway for the exposition, the revised park plan altered its pastoral and picturesque conception to incorporate the Baroque character that took hold in America with the Columbian Exposition and would dominate for decades to come. With the arrival of the City Beautiful messiah, the Scajaquada Valley was exalted, the crooked pathways were made straight, and the rough shoreline made plain.

As the protagonist of Lauren Belfer’s historical novel City of Light, set at the time of the exposition, put it,

The Albright Art Gallery and the New York State Building were surprising additions to the park. The other park buildings, such as the boathouse and the bandstand, had been designed by Olmsted’s partner Calvert Vaux, and they retreated into the trees, leaving nature preeminent. But these two edifices dominated their hillsides as if trying to prove that man, not nature, was the most noble creation on earth.

Significant changes indeed, yet they paled next to those that would come a half-century later, resulting in the concrete-and-steel dominated landscape there that is the only one most of us have ever known.

Elmwood-Scajaquada crossing, then and now

Elmwood-Scajaquada crossing: future?

So back to the question: if the expressway is removed, what happens to the landscape at the Elmwood-Scajaquada crossing?

It can’t return to the original Olmstedian plans, due to the institutions now occupying all four quadrants. Those institutions and the nearby Elmwood Village also make this one of the most heavily used areas of the park. The realignment of Elmwood Avenue also complicates things. Given that, how could that area become Olmstedian again, post-expressway?

Looking to an arboretum as a design theme could provide an answer, because while an arboretum is an atypical Olmstedian landscape, it could be ideally suited to this location. Why atypical? Early in his landscape architecture career Olmsted resisted designing arboreta, considering them incompatible with the scenic effects he was looking to create. But after his initial reluctance, Olmsted warmed to the task, taking advantage of the undulating terrain and slopes to create a landscape of winding paths, carriage drives, and dramatic views all while finding a place for the tree and shrub families the arboretum would need to display.

The result was the Arnold Arboretum, one of Boston’s most beloved landscapes. It is especially beautiful during the spring, when many trees are flowering, and during the fall foliage season.

(As mentioned above, you can see much of it on Google Streetview by clicking here.) The arboretum is overseen by a pioneering public-private partnership between Harvard University, which operates the arboretum, and the City of Boston, which owns the land and maintains the infrastructure.

At the Elmwood/Scajaquada “four corners” the creek valley, with its curves and slopes, could also be the setting for scenic views, a relaxing system of paths, and new tree and shrub species chosen and located for a combination of educational value and scenic affect. Trees and shrubs that may be uncommon for the area would tend to have an eye-catching, dramatic effect just by virtue of being unusual. And by virtue of being carefully grown and tended, they would also have a manicured quality that would complement the institutional buildings nearby, a carefully tended collection of some of Buffalo’s best architecture.

Arnold Arboretum in the fall. Image by Katie Slivensky (@Paleopaws).

The key, it seems to me, can be found in putting together the pieces of what’s already at each of the four quadrants into a coherent whole, and linking them with enhanced connectivity across the creek and along the creek so that they all work together and are no longer isolated from each other. And although the landscapes of each of the quadrants have developed in isolation for decades, all involve trees. Beautiful trees. Trees that enhance and set off their institutions, creating an environment where people don’t just want to visit and experience a building and what it contains, but the landscape that contains it.

So the question becomes, could the landscapes of those now-isolated quadrants be enhanced and combined into a kind of extended, interconnected arboretum in that part of the Scajaquada corridor? One that could create a beautiful creek valley, an attractive environment to walk through, that would still – along with the water – provide a dramatic setting for the institutions and also educate people about trees and shrubs?

To answer that, let’s take a closer look at what’s already in those quadrants.

Northeast: Buffalo History Museum

The landscape of the northeast quadrant of the Elmwood/Scajaquada “intersection” may be the most beloved, judging by how many enjoy the annual Cherry Blossom Festival. That festival smartly celebrates the Buffalo History Museum and its landscape, overlooking Mirror Lake and flanked by a grove of flowering cherries on one side and the Japanese Garden on the other. The landscape makes nice use of slopes and terraces for a multi-level space that provides almost a set of outdoor stages and rooms for the festival.

Sadly, construction of the expressway did much to sever this wonderful landscape from the rest of the park, and the history museum from the rest of the cultural district. It not only put a barrier across Mirror Lake, but it realigned Elmwood Avenue, cutting the direct link that once existed between the museum and the art gallery.

Could that direct connection one day be restored, either by re-re-aligning Elmwood Avenue or creating a new link on that old alignment, say an elegantly designed footbridge or “garden bridge” (more on that in the final section)? And at water level, removal of the 198 could allow recreating a semblance of the beautiful, naturalized dam and water-level footpath from the original plan, replacing the current bleak, bare concrete s-dam. Compare the two below:

Note that a great illustration of how that area could be improved was drawn by our David Steele in a 2016 post showing Elmwood returned to its original alignment and the naturalized dam restored. Detail below:

Incorporating the history museum’s existing fine collection of trees into a larger arboretum would also be a great opportunity to put some sadly underused spaces nearby back into service. The Reinstein Center would make a great space for environmental education associated with an arboretum as well as a boathouse on its lower level. If the Elmwood Avenue embankment were opened up (as discussed in an earlier post), or if Elmwood Avenue were returned to its original alignment as shown in the illustration above, the creek valley could be widened and the Reinstein Center could once again be near the water. It’s lower level garages could house rental boats.

The unused space across Nottingham from the museum, where the original Elmwood Avenue alignment used to make a bend, could also be enlivened with an arboretum plan, with plantings making that a useful, rather than abandoned, space. That space includes a tangle of scrub brush that could be cleared out to make room for more plantings.

Remnant space from the original Elmwood Avenue alignment.

An arboretum plan could even include the largely overlooked area between the museum and Lincoln Parkway, bounded by Nottingham and the 198.

Northwest: McKinley High School

As I pointed out in a piece[LINK: ] last year, the southeast corner of the grounds of McKinley High School already contains a landscape akin to an arboretum, with a grove of ornamental, flowering trees. It provides a lovely setting for the school and creates a nice visual pairing with the monumental history museum and large, stately homes just across Elmwood. An arboretum in the Elmwood/Scajaquada “four corners” could include additional trees on and around the school grounds.

This is no accident: McKinley High School is home to the city school district’s horticulture and forestry programs. The horticulture program includes landscaping and greenhouse operations. What that could mean for a large arboretum in the area is that the McKinley program could not only help create and maintain it, but the arboretum could help the program by providing a living laboratory and “library” of tree and shrub species – all within walking distance of the school.

At McKinley, forestry is actually part of an ecological program that includes water quality and limnology, the study of fresh-water bodies like lakes and streams, and aquatic ecology. How unfortunate, then, that the fresh-water body running past the school is nearly inaccessible from school grounds. A project to remove the expressway and naturalize the creek corridor, restoring a riparian zone, would make it easier for the school to use the creek as a teaching tool and living laboratory.

As it happens, arborists are in high demand, with employers recently holding a local job fair to fill openings created by demand and retirements. Training in these areas creates opportunities in the skilled trades for students, giving them a path to the middle class without the need for a college degree.

The school is already a partner with Buffalo State through the Liberty Partnership Program at the college, which last year funded a four-day Adirondack learning experience for horticulture and aquatic ecology students, that, according to one of the teachers (PDF), brought them back with a new attitude toward life and learning.

So that’s lots of common ground to build on, so to speak.

Southwest: Buffalo State College and the Maud Gordon Holmes Arboretum

As I mentioned in this recent piece, until last year’s Burchfield-Penney Art Center exhibition, Burchfield’s Arboretum, I hadn’t known that there was an arboretum on the campus of Buffalo State College. (So the exhibition worked, right?)

The exhibition, curated by Burchfield archivist Tullis Johnson, celebrated Burchfield’s paintings of trees, in conjunction with a new effort to renew the arboretum established in 1962 and dedicated to Maud Gordon Holmes, founder of the Garden Center Institute of Buffalo.

It began under the leadership of the Burchfield-Penney’s Dr. Edna Lindemann. Lady Bird Johnson and Charles Burchfield were present for some of the earliest plantings in the 1960s, so it was a big deal.

Renewal of the arboretum is a project of the Friends of the Maud Gordon Holmes Arboretum, led by the capable Dr. Susan McCartney, head of the Small Business Development Center. They have created lovely new guide maps to the arboretum, which you can download and print (PDF) here and here, then head to campus to stalk your arboreal prey.

One of the prizes of the collection is one of the few American Elms left in the city. It overlooks the Scajaquada and bears silent witness to the expressway’s blighting of the landscape. Yet it also provides a sign of hope, that it will someday see blight return to beauty. “Olmsted” means, literally, “place of the elm” and this very place represents some of the worst blight from the 198 and also greatest promise for what could be after its removal.

One things its removal could allow would be expanding this on-campus arboretum to the creek, across the creek, and even across Elmwood Avenue. It would certainly be a tribute to Maud Gordon Holmes and those who worked to establish the arboretum in her honor, like Lindemann and Charles Burchfield. It would also be a beautiful landscape for those who, like Burchfield, admire and appreciate and want to protect trees. Which, in this era of climate change and environmental degradation, is most of us.

Southeast: Albright-Knox Art Gallery

Earlier in this series I talked about the landscape near the Albright-Knox. There is a fine collection of trees between Iroquois Drive and the museum. But in the area between the drive and the expressway, through which an access ramp passes, not so much. Apparently that entire area was disrupted for the construction of the 198, then replanted and maintained with less care than the museum side of Iroquois Drive.

The removal of the expressway west of Lincoln Parkway, then, would allow that area between Iroquois Drive and the creek to be rethought, re-landscaped, and selectively replanted with a better collection of trees.

Scajaquada Arborteum: bridging Buffalo’s cultural nodes

After looking at all four quadrants of the Elmwood/Scajaquada crossing, clearly they all have rich resources in culture, education, recreation, landscape, and nature. And clearly, creation of an arboretum could overlay a theme or thematic glue to help tie the quadrants together. But that would only be so if removal of the 198 results in the addition of new linkages and enhancement of existing ones.

Altogether, those linkages could include:

  • Multi-use path on the west side of the Elmwood Avenue bridge over the creek.
  • Sidewalk on the east side of the Elmwood Avenue bridge over the creek.
  • On the south bank of the creek, where the expressway used to be, new paths and landscape underneath the Elmwood bridge.
  • An elegant pedestrian bridge, or even “garden bridge” on the alignment of the original Elmwood Avenue bridge, directly linking the Albright-Knox and the Buffalo History Museum, as discussed below.
  • A “water-level” bridge by re-configuring the Mirror Lake dam to include a pedestrian path, like the dam in the original Olmsted-Vaux park plan (pictured in the section “Elmwood-Scajaquada crossing: then and now”).
11th Street Bridge Park

Garden bridges, mentioned above, have generated a lot of buzz in the post-High-Line era of big-ticket landscape architecture projects – although not all good. The garden bridge project recently proposed for London failed spectacularly, like almost everything Boris Johnson has put his hand to. But a project under development in Washington, D.C. seems to be on track.

But garden bridges are not new. The Green Roof Technology blog has pointed out (here and here) that such bridges go back to at least 1977.

Bridging Buffalo’s Arts Nodes, posters

Three years ago, UB Architecture and Planning students looked at this question of how to better link the separated nodes in Buffalo’s cultural district, in a design studio class taught by Professor Hiro Hata. Although the class didn’t explicitly consider an arboretum, the landscape context naturally led them to look at concepts such as landscape bridges and garden bridges. The student team of Marie Myers Shearing and Kalyna Paraszczak developed some especially good concepts entitled “Bridging Buffalo’s Arts Nodes,” shown here with Professor Hata’s permission:

Bridging Buffalo’s Arts Nodes, initial concept. Perhaps not practical, but recognizing the central problem: needing to connect the four disconnected “corners” of the landscape. And doing so by having one “foot” in each “corner.”
Bridging Buffalo’s Arts Nodes, final concept. A landscape bridge linking the art gallery and history museum, largely at the location of the original Elmwood Avenue bridge.

Remaking the 198 corridor – especially west of Lincoln Parkway, where the strongest case can be made for outright removal – opens many exciting possibilities for restoring and remaking the landscape. An arboretum could be a good concept to serve as a framework and theme for remaking the landscape there. It would provide an ideal setting for the institutions that dwell at those four corners, and serve as a teaching tool in an era when learning to restore forests and habitat has taken on a new importance.

McKinley High School horticulture students at the 2019 Cherry Blossom Festival

Written by RaChaCha


RaChaCha is a Garbage Plate™ kid making his way in a Chicken Wing world. Since 2008, he's put over a hundred articles on here, and he asked us to be sure to thank you for reading. So, thank you for reading. You may also have seen his freelance byline in Artvoice, where he writes under the name his daddy gave him [Ed: Send me a check, and I might reveal what that is]. When he's not writing, RaChaCha is an urban planner, a rehabber of houses, and a community builder. He co-founded the Buffalo Mass Mob, and would love to see you at the next one. He represents Buffalo Young Preservationists on the Trico roundtable. If you try to demolish a historic building, he might have something to say about that. He is a proud AmeriCorps alum.

Things you may not know about RaChaCha (unless you read this before): "Ra Cha Cha" is a nickname of his hometown. (Didn't you know that? Do you live under a rock?) He's a political junkie (he once worked for the president of the Monroe County Legislature), but we don't really let him write about politics on here. He helped create a major greenway in the Genesee Valley, and worked on early planning for the Canalway Trail. He hopes you enjoy biking and hiking on those because that's what he put in all that work for. He was a ringleader of the legendary "Chill the Fill" campaign to save Rochester's old downtown subway tunnel. In fact, he comes from a long line of troublemakers. An ancestor fought at Bunker Hill, and a relative led the Bear Flag Revolt in California. We advise you to remember this before messing with him in the comments. He worked on planning the Rochester ARTWalk, and thinks Buffalo should have one of those, too (write your congressman).

You can also find RaChaCha (all too often, we frequently nag him) on the Twitters at @HeyRaChaCha. Which is what some people here yell when they see him on the street. You know who you are.

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