Niagara Falls State Park

Landscape Architect: Frederick Law Olmsted, Calvert Vaux | City: Niagara Falls, NY | Project Type: picturesque
Date Visited: 09.07.12
Location: 24 Buffalo Ave Niagara Falls, NY 14303
Size: 400 acres (about 140 acres are underwater)
State Reservation: 1885

Niagara Falls State Park is America’s oldest state park. In the late 1800s, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux were hired to prepare a master plan for the preservation and enhancement of the surrounding landscape. The masterplan sought to minimize or hide artificial elements, such as roads, so as to create as natural and beautiful a setting for visitors as possible.

And if you’re someone who finds it upsetting that landscape architects are often uncredited for their work, you’ll be happy to know that Olmsted’s name, role, and picture areĀ all over the parks’ signs and pamphlets.

To get to the park from the Canadian side, I walked across Rainbow Bridge ($.50 toll to enter the U.S.). It offers a great set of views across Niagara River and to the Falls.

Unfortunately, the State Park’s park design diverged from Olmsted and Vaux’s proposals that encouraged a more pedestrian-friendly layout. Olmsted and Vaux wanted visitors to spend more time exploring the park’s scenic vistas by foot, without the distractions of programmed activity and restaurants. Even before he was hired for the master plan, Olmsted had joined “Free Niagara,” a conservation movement that spoke out against industrial pressures on the landscape. Today, however, the Niagara Falls State Park is surrounded by commercial activity and dominated by souvenir shops and parking lots, all features Olmsted and Vaux protested in their original plans.

In the 1960s, the condition of the state park as a nature sanctuary was exacerbated by the construction of the Robert Moses Parkway, which cut through the park and destroyed much of the original landscaping. Development has made it so that cars, rather than people, dominate the area.

Given the demands of an eight-million visitor count per year, however, it is understandable that the facilities (from parking to commercial) have expanded to accommodate visitor numbers. Still, the visual quality of the park had been so severely degraded from its original vision that in April 2012, the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation released the Niagara Falls State Park Landscape Improvements Plan (pdf) in April 2012 with an intent to revisit the original master plan of Olmsted and Vaux.

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