Our Heritage

Buffalo Conservatory; Photo by John W. Berndt
21. Buffalo, NY

THE BUFFALO & ERIE COUNTY CONSERVATORY

The Buffalo and Erie County (New York) Botanical Gardens was the vision of three men starting in 1868 when the Buffalo Parks Commission asked Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. and Partners to work with Lord & Burnham Architects and John F. Cowell, a botanist. Olmsted is known for designing New York City’s Central Park. For Buffalo, he created a unique concept (and the first of its kind in the United States) that connected the Buffalo botanical gardens with three other parks using circles and connecting parkways. These designs were showcased at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition.

The park, begun in 1894, took six years to complete and was built on 156 acres of farmland. A tri-domed glass, wood, and steel conservatory was included in Olmsted’s plans and was designed by the Lord & Burnham Company. The conservatory was built, at a cost of $130,000, between 1897 and 1899; it was one of the largest public greenhouses in the U.S. There are only two tri-domed conservatories in the country (both in New York) and less than a dozen Victorian conservatories left in the U.S.

Lord & Burnham used as their inspiration, the well-known Kew Gardens Palm House in London, when designing the Buffalo Gardens conservatory. The Lord & Burnham Company began in 1849 when Frederick Lord began building greenhouses as an addition to his carpentry business. In 1872 his son-in-law, William Burnham, became his business partner, and Lord & Burnham was born.

In addition to building greenhouses, Lord & Burnham also designed boilers which were needed to evenly distribute heat to the large areas contained within the conservator buildings. These boilers also had to have adjustable heat and, obviously, be dependable. In the late 1800s, plants and flowers were becoming more popular for funerals, weddings, and parties. The Victorian public also became increasingly interested in houseplants, using palms and ferns to decorate their indoor living spaces. Affluent homeowners began adding greenhouses to their estates to provide fresh flowers and fruits. These conservatories also became popular places to hold parties and entertain guests. Municipalities and cities followed suit, building greenhouses for public use.

Jay Gould, a leading American railroad developer, hired Lord & Burnham to rebuild the wooden greenhouse at his Tarrytown estate after it burned down. Lord & Burnham, according to LuEsther T. Mertz Library of the New York Botanical Garden records, “…was the first to introduce small sash bars with supporting iron frames rather than wooden rafters in the rebuilding. Lord & Burnham also pioneered the use of ground glass in the windows. Panes of glass could be made larger to fit a larger surface. These fundamental changes in material allowed more light to reach the growing plants.” The palm dome, which is located off the portico entrance, is filled with palms and fruit trees and soars an impressive almost 70 feet (66 feet and 11 15/16 inches to be exact)!

In keeping with tradition, the plants in the Buffalo Botanical Gardens continue to be arranged in Victorian style. Plants similar to each other from throughout the world are kept together. Thousands of visitors have viewed the extensive collection of plants over the past 100-plus years. In 1905, six greenhouses were added to the tri-domed conservatory and in 1930, Lord & Burnham completely renovated (from the foundation up) the conservatory, which had begun deteriorating. In 1979, Florence DaLuiso, who lives in a house across the street from the conservatory, began forming the B&EC Botanical Gardens Society. The large greenhouse had, once again, fallen into some disrepair and was in danger of being closed. Her efforts worked and Erie County took over the upkeep of the conservatory in 1981.

The Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens, a national historic site, are open every day of the week and are closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. Visit the official web site for hours and more information.

Photo Courtesy of John W. Berndt on Flickr