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Community Roots: Selections from the Local Legacies Project
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In front of lilacs, Christina Blackwell, 1930 Lilac Queen
In front of lilacs, (l) Christina Blackwell, 1930 Lilac Queen, with unknown woman, Highland Park, 1930. Photo: Charles Zoller, courtesy of George Eastman House

Rochester, New York's Lilac Festival

On September 29, 1890, thousands of Rochester's citizens turned out to witness the birth of Highland Park, the crown jewel of Rochester and Monroe counties' boldly conceived system of public parks. The official occasion was for the dedication of a gift, the Ellwanger & Barry Memorial Pavilion, to the children of Rochester, intended to foster their good health, and as a memoriam to children who had died in the cholera epics in preceding decades. (At that time, Ellwanger & Barry was the world's largest nursery.) The round pavilion had three levels, and crowned the summit of Highland Park, offering magnificent views of the surrounding town and countryside. At that time the park, designed by America's leading landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, was nearing completion. For the first time in Rochester's history, people had open public spaces to enjoy. For years, the pavilion, now gone, was a city landmark.

By 1900, the park's first superintendent, a Scottish immigrant, John Dunbar, had assembled all of the best lilacs then in cultivation. They flourished, and thousands of visitors gathered each spring to admire their flowers. The lilacs' fame extended beyond Rochester. A day long celebration, Lilac Day, was announced on the nearest Sunday that coincided with the lilacs' peak bloom. Later the day was extended to Lilac Week. A Lilac Parade was introduced that began from downtown to the park's summit. In 1930, a Lilac Queen was added to the parade, and the park's hours were extended to the evening with the advent of electric flood lights that lit the park's fountains and flowers. Lilac Week evolved into the Lilac Festival, with musical performances, managed by the Monroe County Parks Department and the Visitor's Bureau.

Every spring, Highland Park's vast collections of trees, shrubs, and perennials glow for weeks with flowers in every shape and hue. The most famous of these have been the rhododendrons and lilacs. Highland Park is on the National Register of Historical Places, and is designated by the American Association of Landscape Architects as a Medallion Site.

Documentation includes a 10-page legacy report, 20 slides and eight historic photos.

Originally submitted by: Charles E. Schumer, Senator.

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The Local Legacies project provides a "snapshot" of American Culture as it was expressed in spring of 2000. Consequently, it is not being updated with new or revised information with the exception of "Related Website" links.

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