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Risen from the Dead: Buffalo's Richardson Olmsted Complex

The Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane, as it was called when originally built in 1870, has long been known as one of the city’s top haunts, perhaps in part because the building has been closed since 1974. During the nearly 40 years of dereliction, the curious wondered at it from afar, and many ghost-hunters tried to illegally gain access to the building. Stories from that period include rumors of eerie figures and slamming doors, according to The Spectrum, an independent student publication of the University at Buffalo. Other anomalies are purportedly captured in the anonymous footage of “Haunted Film," a record of one photographer’s nighttime journey through the building. For all of the supernatural myths surrounding the Richardson Olmsted Complex, the site is incredibly peaceful. It is now reopened after an impressive show of community support, inspired by a goal to save the building from deterioration. New York States of Mind toured the space before the public opening, and observed the impressive architecture — built in a style called “Richardsonian Romanesque” that features “massive stone walls and dramatic semicircular arches, and a new dynamism of interior space,” according to Jeffery Howe of Boston College’s Digital Archive of American Architecture. We also saw the newly renovated Towers Administration building featuring the iconic 185-foot tall Gothic towers and some of the areas that still show wear and tear from the building’s past.

Photo: "Buffalo Asylum 2" by Tim Engleman is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The complex was a partnership between noted American architect H.H. (Henry Hobson) Richardson and architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, who also worked together to design Center Park in New York City. Olmsted once remarked that Buffalo was “the best designed city in the country, if not the world.” The asylum was a state-of-the-art facility during its time, and included the most up-to-date developments in psychiatric treatment. A Kirkbride design, named after Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride (1809-1883), a founding member of the Association of Medical Superintendents of American Institutions for the Insane (AMSAII), the building was meant to foster inner peace. Conforming to Kirkbride’s standards the rooms of the facility are large and airy, with sizable windows that provide ample light, and the grounds are vast and manicured. The patient rooms were small to encourage the use of both outdoor space and the day rooms (hallways set up like living rooms that received a great deal of light). From an aerial vantage point, one can see the red Medina sandstone building as it spans out, shaped like a flock of birds, surrounded by the grounds. Originally the complex was built on 203 acres of undeveloped land. The grounds to the north developed as a 100-acre farm. In 1927, part of that farmland was used to build Buffalo State College. In 1974 patients were moved from the Richardson-designed buildings to newer structures, and the Richardson building fell into disrepair. Beautiful photography of the building’s pre-restoration interior can be found at The Kingston Lounge. The Richardson Olmsted Complex was declared a National Historical Landmark in 1986. As the result of a lawsuit against the State for allowing the building to fall into such decay, stabilization efforts began in 2004 with $5 million in allocated funds. In 2006, then-Governor George Pataki dedicated $100 million in public funds through a series of grants, disbursed through Empire State Development, to fund repair and development, and the Richardson Center Corporation was formed. Substantial time was devoted to creating a master plan to identify economically viable and sustainable development ideas that would allow public access to the building. Buffalo’s citizens were consulted during this time: there were 10 public meetings, and the board received emails and letters expressing opinions addressing proposals for how the space could be reworked. Some of the money went to other public spaces, such as the Burchfield Penney Art Center and Frank Lloyd Wright's Darwin D. Martin House Complex, and with the remaining $76.5 million, plans evolved to use the Richardson Olmsted Complex as a boutique hotel, café, conference and architecture center. Buffalo Business First reports that the boutique hotel in the Richardson Olmstead complex will be the largest boutique hotel in Erie County, and that it will provide cultural tourists with a unique entry point to explore Buffalo. The players involved in the process include a team of architects (Buffalo-based Flynn Battaglia Architects, New York City-based Deborah Berke Partners and Boston-based Goody Clancy), a boutique hotel (Buffalo’s INNVest Lodging), a landscape designer (Andropogon Associates) and construction manager (LP Ciminelli). Block Club, which we introduced back in June, and 19 Ideas have been selected to create the brand and marketing plan for the hotel and conference center. In the future, a curving road on the north side of the building will connect to the main entrance, allowing visitors a view of Richardson’s original archways, which will be enhanced by contemporary design.

On Saturday, Sept. 28, an opening celebration with music and activities was held on the South Lawn off Forest Avenue. As per the public’s request, the space, which used to be concrete parking lots, has been transformed into a beautiful public space with greenery and park benches. Visitors can also see parts of the Richardson Towers Administration building that have been restored. Once the boutique hotel, conference center and architecture center are built and running, main parts of the building (including the Towers Administration building) will be open to visitors year-round. The response has been enthusiastic. When the doors were opened one night during the National Preservation Conference in 2011, a line of people eager to visit stretched down the front steps. “It reaffirmed how much people really love this building,” said Monica Pellegrino Faix, who has been working for the Richardson Center Corporation since 2007. “There is something that people feel drawn to. We’re focusing on what was here in the past and how the building and grounds worked together as a healing treatment. We’re focusing on what we are doing in the present to give it a new use and what the future holds.” The space that was once closed off, evoking images of mystery and ghouls, is now open and inviting. Through the combination of the past, present and future, the Richardson Olmsted Complex features prominently in the zeitgeist of Buffalo’s renaissance.

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