Postcard From Buffalo: Terrace Park, 1902, or What was there before the Skyway
September 16, 2019
POSTCARD FROM BUFFALO: TERRACE PARK 1902. Buffalo's very first public park—going back to Joseph Ellicott's original 1803 survey and platting of New Amsterdam—was The Terrace Park. It ran from Seneca Street northwest to where Court and Jackson Street intersect today. Topography argued for it to become a public park and promenade: It was a steep slope, which Joseph Ellicott described as being up to 40 feet high. The top of the slope (which became Upper Terrace) offered views over the flats extending to Lake Erie several blocks away, while the slope itself was difficult to build on.
Until Olmsted's Park and Parkway system was laid out in the 1870's, Terrace Park was Buffalo's primary outdoor recreation and social space. You want a balloon ascension? The square at The Terrace and Church Street was the place. You want to build a market or raise a liberty pole? The square at The Terrace, Main & Lloyd was the spot. The implementation of the Olmsted plan ironically led to the piecemeal destruction of the Terrace; The Terrace must have been viewed as no longer necessary.
In the early 1880's, the city allowed the New York Central to build tracks across Main Street (these would shortly be routed through a tunnel) in exchange for establishing a passenger service on a belt line. A trench was cut across the slope to create a gradient to Church Street, where the tracks turned to run along the Erie Canal. A station was built between Swan and Church streets. Several footbridges were built to cross the trench and keep the Canal District connected with downtown. A four-block stretch of Terrace Park was thus abandoned. Part of this became the site of a new and imposing Buffalo Police Headquarters in 1884. With the building frontages on lower Pearl and Lock Street, a de facto square was created.
Another de facto square was created where The Terrace met Church Street. This was the closest open space to the civic heart of the city, the interface between the proto-industrial waterfront and emerging office and government precincts. This square was where perhaps the most famous aeronaut of the 19th century, Samuel Archer King, launched his hot-air balloon Buffalo, on September 16, 1873. The balloon was manufactured on an upper floor of the Aetna Building on Prime and Lloyd streets in the Canal District, and its ascension warranted a story in the New York Times. King called it the largest balloon in the world; it contained over 94,000 cubic feet, and the letters of Buffalo were seven feet high. King took the Buffalo all across the country. In 1877, it delivered the first airmail-stamped letters on a flight from Nashville to Gallatin, TN.
The comparative illustration immediately below shows that the lands of the original Terrace are almost entirely free of buildings to this day. Removing the Skyway would be the first step in a process that could reconstruct the entire Terrace as the broad, long public promenade it was designed to be and a role it fulfilled from 1803 until the late 1960's. The only remnants are visible at Genesee Street west of WKBW-TV, and behind the Erie County Holding Center.