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Rochester Loves Lilacs!

The Story of the Lilac Festival

The Creation of Highland Park
Designing the Park
The Memorial Pavilion
Photo Gallery: The Men Who Gave Us Highland Park
Photo Gallery: Lilac Time, Lilac Sunday and the Lilac Festival
More Library Resources


The Creation of Highland Park

In the 19th century, before Highland Park existed, there was a nursery. This nursery, the Mount Hope Nurseries, was owned by Patrick Barry and George Ellwanger. It was started in 1840 and by 1850 it was the largest nursery in the country. There were no modern-style parks in Rochester so people who wanted to get outside for recreation went to nearby Mount Hope Cemetery and to the extensive nursery gardens at the offices of Messrs. Ellwanger and Barry, which had been landscaped with rare plant specimens. 1

In 1876, the Mount Hope Reservoir (later to be renamed the Highland Park Reservoir) was constructed. This utilitarian yet attractive feature added to the charm of the area.

In the early 1880s, Ellwanger and Barry offered 20 acres of nursery land to the city to be used as a park. At first the Rochester Common Council declined the offer. However, Dr. Edward Mott Moore, a physician who promoted the benefits of fresh air for health, encouraged the acquisition of the land. His influence and that of others led to the City's acquiescence.

Mayor Cornelius R. Parsons formally accepted the land on January 27, 1888. It was to be called Memorial Park and was to be focused around the existing reservoir. The Rochester Parks Commission was organized in that year also. Dr. Moore became the first Superintendent of Parks. The Commission began consulting with park officials at Buffalo, who recommended hiring the country's leading park designer, Frederick Law Olmsted.

Designing the Park

When Olmsted was hired, he was placed in charge of designing what became Seneca, Genesee Valley and Highland Parks in Rochester. The Seneca Park design focused on the Genesee River gorge, the design of Genesee Valley highlighted the rolling hills of the area, and Highland Park was designed as a horticultural preserve. Civil engineer Calvin Laney was retained to prepare maps and plan the parklands and plantings. He in turn hired horticulturist John Dunbar of Long Island to be in charge of supplementing the rare specimens donated to the cause by Ellwanger and Barry. John Dunbar was the person who created the evergreen forest, or pinetum, on the north side of the hill and the lilac display on the south side. The lilacs had crowd-pleaser appeal right from the start. One Sunday in May over 300 people gathered to enjoy them.


The Memorial Pavilion

George Ellwanger suggested that an observation pavilion be built at the top of the hill near the reservoir, and offered to pay for its construction. The Ellwanger & Barry Memorial Pavilion, commonly known as the Children's Pavilion, was dedicated in a ceremony on September 29, 1890 and the park was officially christened Highland Park. This pavilion stayed at the park until the mid 1960s, when it was dismantled due to its neglected state. 2


The Men Who Gave Us Highland Park

Click on image for larger view. Click on name to view catalog record.

Patrick Barry
Horticulturalist, Benefactor
Patrick Barry was born in Ireland and came to Rochester in 1840. He joined George Ellwanger to begin the Mount Hope Nursery. Barry was also the author of many articles on horticulture.
John Dunbar
He was Assistant Superintendent of Parks and Arborculturalist. Dunbar,a noted horticulturalist,
Also wrote articles. He created several new lilac
George Elliott
Elliott was a Rochester Park Commissioner who had also been a City Alderman. He was interested in the park system as a way of increasing tax valuations. He believed that planting parks in the city's four sections and connecting them by parkways would financially benefit the city and landowners.
George Ellwanger
Horticulturalist, Benefactor
Ellwanger is known for his partnership with Patrick Barry in the Mount Hope Nursery, the largest of its kind in America at the time. He traveled widely in search of new seeds and plants, and was also active in Rochester life.

Calvin C. Laney
Civil Engineer
Laney was a Rochester Parks System employee from 1888 until 1928. He began as an engineer, and eventually became Parks Commissioner. After his retirement he continued his work with the parks.
Edward Mott Moore
Moore was a surgeon who took an active part in the life of Rochester. He was surgeon-in-chief of St. Mary's Hospital, helped establish the Infant Summer Hospital and was President of the Board of Park Commissioners.
Frederick Law Olmsted
Landscape Architect
Olmsted is considered "the father of American landscape architecture". He planned, designed and constructed public parks all through the United States, including New York City's Central Park.

PICTURE CREDIT: Johnson, T. engraver; from a photograph by Notman, James. "Frederick Law Olmsted." October 1893. The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920, Library of Congress.

Cornelius Parsons
Parsons was a businessman and elected official. He was elected to the city council at the age of 25 and also was mayor of Rochester and a state senator.


Lilac Time, Lilac Sunday and the Lilac Festival

The first Lilac Sunday was held in 1905. By 1908 around 25,000 people attended. The festival gradually expanded to Lilac Time and Lilac Week. In 1978 the event became the 10-day-long Lilac festival. A day to enjoy lilacs and springtime had expanded to include Lilac Queen contests, horse-drawn carriage rides, concerts, parades, children's amusements, races, exhibitions and, of course, food.

Click on image for larger view. Click on date to view catalog record.


1 "The Legacy of Frederick Law Olmsted" [pdf] by Marjorie Wickes and Tim O'Connell, in Rochester History Volume L No. 2 [Rochester, N.Y.: Rochester Public Library], 1949.
Article/E Resource

2 McKelvey, Blake. A Growing Legacy: An Illustrated History of Rochester's Parks. City of Rochester, 1988, page 16.

More Library Resources

For information on Rochester's lilacs, the lilac festival and Highland Park, see:

Lilac Festival, Rochester, N.Y. Produced by the City of Rochester Bureau of Communications.
Discusses the annual Lilac Festival at Highland Park and related festivities throughout the Rochester area, the history of lilacs, Highland Park and briefly highlights places to visit in Rochester and the Finger Lakes Region.
VIDEO/917.4789 VHS-7626
Louis, Dorothy. How Lilacs Came to Rochester : a Musical Narration of Rochester, New York. Featured during the 1976 Bicentennial Celebration and again in 1980. Composed by Dorothy Louis; musical arrangement by Don Jones. Rochester, N.Y. : Bookworm, c1982.
Book/974.789 L888h
Horsey, R. E. Lilacs in the Rochester Parks [pdf]. New York: The Author, 1938.
Book/E Resource
The Lilacs at Highland Park, Rochester, N.Y. 1912 [pdf].
Pamphlet/E Resource
Azaleas and Rhododendrons at Highland Park, Rochester, N.Y. 1912 [pdf].
Pamphlet/E Resource
Lilac Bulletin Full of Facts [pdf]. Dr. C. S. Sargent Describes Arboretum Collection.
Pamphlet/E Resource
Presentation of the Ellwanger & Barry Memorial Pavilion, Highland Park, Rochester, N.Y. September 29, 1890 [pdf].
Pamphlet/E Resource
RVF Rochester--Parks : Highland Park. [1918-1963] Scrapbooks of clippings on Highland Park and its famed lilacs in Rochester, N.Y.
Available in Rochester Public Library's Local History Division

For information on Rochester's park system, see:
McKelvey, Blake, 1903- A Growing Legacy : an Illustrated History of Rochester's Parks, text by Blake McKelvey ; editing and layout by Shirley Cox-Husted and Ruth Rosenberg-Naparsteck. Rochester, N.Y. : Parks Centennial Committee for Education and Interpretation, c1988.
Book/qr974.789 M154g
"An Historical View of Rochester's Parks and Playgrounds" [pdf] in Rochester History Volume 11 No. 1 [Rochester, N.Y.: Rochester Public Library], 1949.
Article/E Resource
Veteran Reporter. The Origin & Development of Rochester's Park System by a Veteran Reporter [pdf]. [Rochester?] : Union and Advertiser Press, 1908.
Book/E Resource
Parks and Playgrounds, Rochester, N.Y., January 1, 1919 [pdf].
Pamphlet/E Resource

For information on growing lilacs, see:
Bennett, Jennifer. Lilacs for the Garden. Buffalo, NY ; Willowdale, Ont. : Firefly Books, 2002.
Book/q635.9338 B471L
Fiala, John L. Lilacs, the Genus Syringa. Portland, Or. : Timber Press, c1988.
Book/q583.74 F438L