Oasis Under Glass: Buffalo's Botanical Gardens
A WNED PBS Original Production
Enjoy this three-part series of a WNED PBS original production, "Oasis Under Glass: Buffalo's Botanical Gardens." Explore the rich history of the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens that has proudly served the community of Western New York for over 120 years by connecting people with nature and exotic plants from all over the world. Despite the economic, political, and environmental challenges that it faced, this beautiful glass conservatory continues to share its unique experience with visitors from all over the world year-round and will continue to grow and amaze visitors for generations to come.
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Episode 1: Creating the Conservatory
Discover the beginning of the story of the Buffalo Botanical Gardens from its early years of the development of South Park and the Arboretum by Frederick Law Olmsted and the designing of the glass conservatory by Lord and Burnham. Learn about the first ever Director of the Botanical Gardens, John F. Cowell, whose knowledge of botany and horticulture brought thousands of exotic plants from all over the world right here to Buffalo, NY.
Episode 2: Preserving the National Historic Site
As the Botanical Gardens faced several economic, political, and environmental challenges, key leaders from the community such as Florence DaLuiso-Zoll came together to push for the Botanical Gardens to become a National Historic Site, so that it could be saved from demolition and improve its care and collection with the help of a dedicated group of volunteers, preservationists, and Erie County.
Episode 3: The Future of WNY's Cultural Gem
As the Botanical Gardens Society took over the day to day operations, new educational programs developed as well as other creative ways to generate revenue and serve the community. The Buffalo Botanical Gardens is a unique nonprofit cultural institution that has brought visitors near and far to experience the healing nature, function, and of course the natural beauty of plants. After 120 years of being a cultural gem of Western New York, The Buffalo Botanical Gardens has exciting plans for the future that will serve generations to come.
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 the beautiful Crystal Palace 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.
Did you know?
The Botanical Gardens is coated with a protective liquid shade to help control the temperatures inside the conservatory for both the plants and the visitors! Learn more below!
Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903)
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 a parks system for Buffalo.
His unique design included The Park (Delaware Park), The Parade (Martin Luther King Jr. Park), The Front Park and connecting parkways and circles. Buffalo was the first American city to undertake this unique concept which later became Olmsted’s model that he used when designing parks in other cities throughout the country. Olmsted was called upon to enlarge the park system to include South Buffalo. He designed two additional parks including Cazenovia Park and South Park.
Olmsted’s Buffalo park system design was so innovative that it was featured at the 1876 Centennial Exposition that was held in Philadelphia. The designs were described 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 commissions for his later work: Boston's "Emerald Necklace", Chicago's "Riverside" Community, Yosemite Valley, The Biltmore Estate, and the Niagara Falls Reservation. His ideas influenced urban beautification throughout the nation including the creation of The Mall in Washington, DC.
History of South ParkPart of a complete Buffalo parks system design from Frederick Law Olmsted, South Park was one of many parks installed in Buffalo. South Park was established and installed between the years of 1894-1900 from 156 acres of farm land. 11.4 acres within South Park were designated by Olmsted to include a conservatory to showcase tropical plant species and surrounding outdoor formal gardens. The formal gardens surrounding the conservatory were designed
to lead visitors into the more informal park along many walking paths. The remainder of South Park was designed to feature an Arboretum, a Pinetum, a Shrub Garden and a Bog Garden. The arboretum included trees planted together as botanical families. Most of the trees in the park today are from original plantings made between the years 1894-1910.
The park design also included a large pond for boating, a boat house, bandstand, a ring road for horse carriages, and a meadow. Unfortunately, the formal gardens, walking paths, boat house and bandstand were never constructed. In 1915, a nine-hole golf course was added to the meadow and trees were planted to divide the fairways.
When you drive, hike or jog the South Park Ring Road, you will enjoy all the Olmsted vistas including a small lake at the center and a surrounding meadow. Today, the Buffalo Olmsted Conservancy continues its efforts to restore and preserve South Park and the Olmsted-designed park system in Buffalo.
Lord & Burnham Co.
In 1849, Frederick A. Lord began building greenhouses for his neighbors as a hobby. They were so impressed by his wood and glass structures that he decided to make it his full-time job in 1856. After beginning his firm in Syracuse, NY, Lord moved to eastern New York State where he built greenhouses for large estates along the Hudson River.
In 1872, his son-in-law, William A. Burnham joined the successful firm. Throughout the 1870s and 1880s, Lord & Burnham Co. built Conservatories throughout the country, including San Francisco, New York, and Pittsburgh.
As they became the premier Conservatory designers of the time, Lord & Burnham Co. was chosen to design the greenhouse for Buffalo’s South Park. Originally called the South Park Conservatory, the structure was built for approximately $130,000 in the area of the park that Olmsted had designated for a conservatory.
The South Park Conservatory was modeled after the famous Crystal Palace in England. It was designed as a tri-domed Victorian conservatory and was constructed of glass, wood, iron and steel. When completed in 1899, it ranked as the third largest public conservatory in the United States and ninth in the world. While the appearance of the South Park Conservatory showed resemblance to that of the one at Kew, England, it is apparent that Lord & Burnham Co. created a structure that was also quite different and unique.
The Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens is still considered one of Lord & Burnham Co.’s greatest accomplishments.
Other Lord & Burnham Co. designed conservatories include:
- Conservatory of Flowers, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, 1876
- Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, Schenley Park, Pittsburgh, 1892-1893
- Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens, Buffalo, New York, 1895-1899
- New York Botanical Garden, 1899-1902
- Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion State Historic Park, Canandaigua, New York, 1903-1915
- Reynolda Gardens, Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, NC, 1912
- United States Botanic Garden, Washington, DC, 1933
- Volunteer Park Conservatory, Volunteer Park, Seattle, Washington, 1912
Professor John F. Cowell (1852-1915)
Professor John F. Cowell was a local attorney and educator who was a genius in botany and horticulture. Cowell was named the first director of the conservatory, before it was built.
His passion was deep rooted in horticulture and his mission was to expand and diversify the conservatory’s collection. He spent much of his life traveling throughout North and South America and the Caribbean in search of seeds and small plants to grow for the collection. He also traded plants with other conservatories to obtain specimens from Africa, Asia, Australia and the Mediterranean.
Cowell was also charged with overseeing the selection and care of the plants and trees included in South Park. The park was intended to be a showcase of a wide range of trees and shrubs as well as aquatic and tropical plants. He personally located and obtained unusual tree specimens to be included in the Arboretum.
When the Botanical Gardens opened in 1900, before television or even mass photography, plants within the conservatory were seen as exotic wonders. History holds that one Sunday, thousands lined up to view the flower of a new giant tropical water lily. Cowell loved to share the wonderment that existed in nature that few could ever afford to see.