In 1868, the city of Buffalo Parks Commission started meeting with landscape architect Fredrick Law Olmsted, Sr. (1822-1903) and Partners. He was known for his work as chief architect ofNew York City's Central Park and designer for Brooklyn's Prospect Park. For Buffalo, he designed a park system including The Park (Delaware Park), Parade (Martin Luther King Jr Park) and Front Park with connecting parkways and circles. Buffalo was the first American city to undertake this unique concept. Buffalo became Olmsted's model for other cities to follow in creating beautiful cites and residential districts interlaced with large and small recreational areas. Olmsted's designs for Buffalo's Park System were exhibited at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, described them as showing "the best planned city as to its streets, public places and grounds in the United States, if not the world." These designs made Olmsted world-famous leading to his commisions for his later work: Boston's "Emerald Necklace", Chicago's "Riverside" Community, Yosemite Valley, The Biltmore Estate, and Niagara Falls Reservation. His ideas influenced urban beautification throughout the nation including creation of The Mall in our Nation's Capital (Washington DC).
South Park was created in 1894-1900 from 156 acres of farm land. The conservatory was included to showcase tropical plant species while the rest of the park was designed to feature the more hardy temperate species including an Arboretum (collection of trees), a Pinetum (collection of evergreens), a Shrub Garden and a Bog Garden. The formal gardens around the conservatory were designed to lead visitors into the more informal park along many walking paths. The park also included a large pond for boating, a ring road for horse carriages, and a meadow. The walking paths as well as a boat house and bandstand were never completed.
Olmsted's 1894 Plan for South Park
The tri-domed glass, wood and steel building was designed by the premier conservatory designers of the time: Lord & Burnham, Co. from New York's Hudson Valley.
Seen in this 1908 Postcard
The construction methods were based upon the famous Crystal Palace and Kew Gardens Palm House in England. When the conservatory was built in 1897-1899, it was one of the largest public greenhouses in the country (at a cost of $130,000). Today there are less than a dozen large Victorian conservatories in America and ours is one of two with the tri-dome design along with the New York Botanical Gardens in the Bronx.
The first director of the Botanical Gardens was Professor John F. Cowell (1852-1915), a local attorney and educator, was considered a genius in botany and horticulture. He oversaw the growing of plants for the park and personally located and obtained unusual tree specimens. He spent decades traveling all over America, South America, and the Caribbean, exploring the wilderness and sending back seeds and small plants to grow for the conservatory. Professor Cowell traded some of these plants with other conservatories to obtain plants from other areas of the world including Africa, Asia, Australia and the Mediterranean.
As in Cowell's time, the plants are now arranged in classic Victorian style - similar plants from throughout the world are grouped together. When the gardens opened (before television or even mass photography) these plants were exotic wonders. History holds that one Sunday, thousands lined up to view the flower of a new giant tropical water lily. Even today, when tropical plants are in most homes, most of the plants in the Gardens' collection are uncommon outside of their native area. The sheer number of different kinds of plants is dazzling.
Shortly after it opened, thousands of visitors to the 1901 Pan-Am Exposition took a long trolley car ride out to see South Park's conservatory and botanical gardens. The extensive collection and unique nature-like plant exhibits quickly gathered national fame in botanical circles.
Chief Gardener Bott in Fern House In 1905, six rear greenhouses were added.
with Mrs. Starr and Teddy in 1910
(Photo by Waler B. Starr)
In 1915, a nine-hole golf course was added on the meadow.
After Cowell's death in 1915, the facility had numerous cycles of deterioration and rebirth. In 1930, Lord & Burnham completely renovated the deteriorating conservatory from the foundation up, "streamlining" the design of the building. They hoped this re-design would help the conservatory better withstand the winter weather and the heavy pollution from the steel mills just upwind. After decreased budget and attendance in the 1940's (due to changing tastes), the facility had a rejuvenation in the 1950's. In 1979, the conservatory was once again in poor shape and city budget difficulties threatened the facility with closure. From 1979-81, Florence DaLuiso, whose home is across the street from the Conservatory, formed the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens Society to help save the building by leading school tours and showing the children its treasures. The publicity worked and the County of Erie took over the Conservatory in 1981.
In 1985, the front entrance portico was renovated to reproduce the original design and the exhibits in the front houses were replaced. In 1990-96 the Shrub Garden was restored by Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy, County staff at the Gardens and the Society
The Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens Society, Inc. and Erie County have a longstanding working relationship. On August 16, 2004, The Society and Erie County formed a public/private partnership. While Erie County continues to play an important role in the future of The Gardens, formation of this new partnership gave The Society 100% responsibility for the day-to-day management and operations of The Gardens. The Society is a 501(c)(3), not-for-profit corporation dedicated to restoring, reviving and remaking The Gardens to its fullest potential!
The Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens is a national historic site, education center and tourist destination full of exotic horticulture treasures. Although there are some plants native to our temperate region, most are native to tropical and sub-tropical regions of the world. Made up of three glass domes and nine greenhouses, this breathtaking conservatory is situated on 11.4 acres at the entrance to Buffalo’s historic South Park.