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The 1890 Park

After two previous failed attempts to get the Rochester City Council to accept the offer of donated land to be the start of a public park system, City Council in October, 1887, accepted the offer of 19.63 acres from George Ellwanger and Patrick Barry, leading citizens of Rochester. The land offered was a part of their world- famous Mt. Hope Nursery and adjoined the lands of the 1875 city reservoir. The gift specified that the city would hire a landscape engineer to develop the park and establish an arboretum of the first class; but along with the restrictions came the offer to provide from the Mt Hope Nurseries numerous specimen and rare plants for use in the new park. The New York State legislature created the City of Rochester Parks Commission in April 1888, and this commission would develop and operate the city parks system until 1916. On the advice of the Buffalo Parks Commission, they interviewed leading landscape engineers and selected Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. and Sons as their adviser. This relationship with the Olmsted firm was to last into the twentieth century.

Initially, Frederick Law Olmsted was reluctant to design the new park because he thought that it lacked an element essential to good park design. The elements he desired were turf (lawn), forest and free flowing water; the lands to be designed lacked the water element. Olmsted voiced his desire to develop two parks along the Genesee River, north and south of the existing city, connected by a series of park boulevards. The Commission stood firm: he could design all the parks or none of the parks. Olmsted relented and began the task of designing a park system for the citizens of Rochester, one of only four systems he designed in
the country.

One of the characteristics of an Olmsted landscape and, consequently, one of the principles of landscape architecture, is the look of natural beauty, even though the landscape is designed and in some cases constructed. In Highland Park, dedicated in 1890, Olmsted used the existing topography of the Pinnacle Range, a glacial moraine, to emphasize the plant materials and park elements incorporated into the design. The high ground east of the existing reservoir served as the location of a focal point and as a viewing feature of the surrounding areas. To enhance the scenic vistas, a three story pavilion designed by Shepley, Rutan & Cooledge of Boston, and based on a sketch by Olmsted, was constructed, using funds donated by Ellwanger and Barry and dedicated in September 1890 to the children of Rochester. This structure served as the park's focal point until it was demolished in the 1960's.

The broad south-facing lands from the heights to Highland Avenue were planted with flowering shrubs and trees. On the eastern edge of this area is a natural ravine that leads up to a picnic grove; the ravine slopes are planted with rhododendron and azaleas. The picnic grove was constructed just east of the pinnacle and overlooks the pinetum valley drive on the north where an extensive collection of conifers is located. Just to the north of the reservoir is a drive planted with evenly spaced trees, an alley, that leads from South Avenue to the pinnacle and the Children's Pavilion. North of the main drive is a diminutive valley that serves as an open meadow area surrounded by mature deciduous trees planted on the slopes. This valley leads to another drive into the park, Doctor's Drive, from the residential neighborhood to the north and meets the Pinetum Drive. Numerous trails and paths cross the park land allowing access to the extensive collections on foot. This area described, east of South Avenue, west of Goodman Street, south of a residential neighborhood and south to Highland Avenue and Elmwood Avenue, is the historic 1890's section of Highland Park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. & Sons and constructed by the City of Rochester Parks Commission. A relatively few 20th century changes have occurred but the design intent and the constructed landscape are intact. This area of Highland Park is registered as a National Historic Landmark and is a part of the City's Mt. Hope Highland Preservation District.