Skip to content

The crown jewel of Olmsted's South Park

Modeled after rare glasshouses in London, England, Lord and Burnham’s conservatory would become a national historic site.

Our rich history

The conservatory and Botanical Gardens were created from the visions of extraordinary people. David F. Day, Frederick Law Olmsted, John F. Cowell, Frederick A. Lord and William A. Burnham of Lord & Burnham Co.. Each of these talented individuals contributed to the inception, design and success of the South Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens.

In the 1860s, David F. Day, a Buffalo city attorney and judge, and later Parks Commissioner, was instrumental in including botanical collections in the City of Buffalo and continued to support a south park conservatory project with great enthusiasm.

Distinguished for his creativity in designing New York City’s Central Park and Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, Frederick Law Olmsted was called upon by the Buffalo Parks Commission in 1868 to design parks for Buffalo. His unique design included not one but three parks, The Park (Delaware Park), The Parade (Martin Luther King Jr. Park), The Front Park, connecting parkways and circles. As Buffalo expanded, Olmsted was called upon to enlarge the park system by adding additional parks including Cazenovia Park and South Park. South Park was constructed between the years of 1894-1900 from 156 acres of farmland.

Olmsted’s final design of South Park included a conservatory and surrounding formal gardens. In 1894, Professor John F. Cowell was appointed as the first Director of the conservatory and to oversee plantings in South Park. He was considered a genius in botany and horticulture and his passion was deep rooted in his mission to expand and diversify the soon to be park and conservatory’s collections. He gathered plants, trees and flowers from every corner of the world and his expertise and guidance allowed for many successful years for the conservatory.

While South Park was being constructed, Lord & Burnham Co. was busy designing the South Park Conservatory. The design was modeled after glass conservatories in England and was built by a Buffalo construction company, George P. Wurtz & Son for a total cost of $130,000. Upon opening in 1900, the conservatory was the third largest public greenhouse in the United States and was ranked as the ninth largest in the world.

The 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo helped to spur the success of the South Park Conservatory by providing trolley rides from downtown Buffalo to the conservatory. Tens of thousands of people visited the breathtaking conservatory and delighted in the exotic collection of plants and flowers.

The South Park Conservatory continued to grow both literally and figuratively throughout the early 1900s and six greenhouses were added in 1907. In 1915, the conservatory experienced the unexpected and tragic loss of one of their most important visionaries, Director John F. Cowell. His love of horticulture and his extraordinary contributions will never be forgotten.

In 1929, the City of Buffalo considered demolishing the conservatory due to poor management, low attendance and structural disrepair. Fortunately in 1930 federal funding became available to help repair the conservatory, which allowed Lord & Burnham Co. to completely renovate the deteriorating building. The structure was rebuilt to withstand the blustery Buffalo winters and heavy pollution from the steel mills close by.

Post Great Depression and WWII, the Botanical Gardens’ budget was reduced in the 1940s partly due to the drastic decline in attendance. However, by the 1950s there was a rejuvenation of interest in the South Park Conservatory and visitor attendance increased.

The future of the conservatory was once again threatened when the infamous blizzard of 1977 damaged the conservatory. Fortunately in 1979, Florence DaLuiso, a dedicated volunteer, stepped forth to lead a passionate group of citizens and volunteers to raise public awareness about the conservatory. The efforts put forth by the group resulted in the creation of the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens Society, Inc. and its Board of Directors. DaLuiso’s efforts didn’t go unnoticed, as she was selected as the society’s first president. The Society was designated as a 501(c)(3), not-for-profit corporation and was dedicated to restoring, reviving and remaking the Botanical Gardens to its’ fullest potential. The Society sparked public interest by leading school tours and showcasing the horticulture treasures to the community and tourists.

In 1981 Erie County purchased the conservatory and 11.4 surrounding acres within South Park from the City of Buffalo for $1. This called for a name change, thus creating the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens. In 1982 the Botanical Gardens was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the New York State Register of Historic Places.

In 1986, the Society became a member of the Museum Education Consortium of Buffalo to further its focus on education and community outreach. The amount of volunteer support was inspirational and their love of the Botanical Gardens, showed throughout the conservatory.

Throughout the 1990s, the caretakers of the city parks, the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy, partnered with Erie County staff at the Botanical Gardens and members of the Society to restore the outdoor shrub garden. In 1999 the county replaced the outdated and antiquated heating system with a state of the art boiler system as a more efficient way to regulate greenhouse temperatures.

In 2000, major restorations began which included the complete renovation of the main palm dome including the addition of steel supports and safety glass panels. Dinosaur topiaries were added to the horticulture collection in 2001 and the following year, greenhouse 9 was renovated to ensure a safe place to store the world’s largest public collection of ivy.

On August 16, 2004, the Society and Erie County formed a public/private partnership that would ensure the growth and long-term viability of the Botanical Gardens. Today, the Society takes full responsibility for day-to-day management and horticultural functions whereas the county contributes to capital improvements.

That same year, the Society’s Board of Directors hired a professional staff to oversee operations, horticulture, marketing and educational programs. A formal volunteer program was also established as the Society depended heavily upon the commitment and knowledge of an ever growing group of volunteers. A comprehensive master plan was also put in place as a road map for the future.

2005 was a year of re-inventing. An admission fee was charged to the public for the first time as a way to help the Society become self-sustaining. The admission fee also required a major renovation to include space for an admission desk and a gift shop. Additional renovations included expanded restrooms for visitors and hardscape walkways leading up to the front entrance. The main palm dome was reconfigured, the horticulture collection within was replaced and a new automatic, thermostatically controlled misting system was installed. This system was designed to keep the plants healthy and help to make their care more efficient. The misting system was also installed in greenhouse 2 and 3.

Greenhouses 11 and 12 were completely renovated and restored between 2005 and 2007 as outlined in the master plan. In 2007 the Outdoor Children’s Garden was constructed and opened to the public. The Society and Erie County constructed an administration building, two state-of-the-art greenhouses and a visitor parking lot in 2011.

A comprehensive strategic plan was created in 2011 to span the following three years. The strategic intent of the plan is for the Botanical Gardens to take its rightful place as an essential community cultural institution — the horticultural hub of Western New York, perceived by all as the primary reference center for everything botanical. Through a broad array of attractions, programs and services, we will be relevant to the interests and lives of an ever-expanding audience.

In 2012, the indoor Wegmans Family Garden was constructed and the outdoor Children’s Garden was renovated. In 2013, the horticulture exhibit in greenhouse 11 underwent a major renovation and a Native Garden and gazebo were added to the outdoor grounds. By the end of 2013, dozens of community collaborations had been established and exciting new programing emerged.

Between 2015 and 2016, greenhouses 2 and 3 were completely restored by Erie County. In January 2017, The Society installed and opened two new exhibits, the Aquatic Garden and the Asian Rainforest, inside the renovated greenhouses. With the help of generous donors and members, the Society raised the funds to create and install the new exhibits. Projects like these ensure the Botanical Gardens will thrive for generations to come.

With a dedicated family of employees, over 250 active volunteers and a dynamic board of directors, the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens Society is thriving! Today, over 140,000 people annually visit the Botanical Gardens to enjoy the amazing architecture and the indoor and outdoor garden sanctuaries. It is a gathering place where visitors can find peace and harmony and enjoy the simple power of the natural world. Some visitors also see it as a place for spiritual healing, meditation and reflection.

The historic Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens is a living museum that inspires curiosity and connects people to the natural world. It is a premier cultural destination that engages visitors through a distinct and unique plant collection.

Explore more


Deepening connections between people and plants.


Help us grow.


Sowing a bright future.