Through horror movies and TV shows, we’re often conditioned to think of former psychiatric hospital facilities as places to fear. The fact that many of these locations now sit abandoned doesn’t help—nor do the stories of overcrowding that circulated before deinstitutionalization began in the mid-1970s.
On a recent trip to Buffalo, New York, I decided to confront my own fears and visit the Richardson Olmsted Campus, once home to the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane. Unlike many of the other former asylums currently surrounded by rusting fences and “No trespassing” signs, the grounds and several buildings of the Richardson Olmsted Campus are open to the public.
There are 13 buildings in the complex: Three have been repurposed into a luxury hotel and the remaining 10 are still in a state of suspended ruin, abandoned since 1974. Public tours take visitors through two of the vacant buildings and into a renovated corridor of Hotel Henry. But more than offering a stunning before-and-after comparison, exploring the Richardson Olmsted Campus also provides an intimate glimpse into the complicated history of mental health care in the U.S.
Construction on the complex began in 1872 and the process brought together three innovative thinkers and designers of the time: Henry Hobson Richardson, Frederick Law Olmsted, and Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride. Richardson, a prominent American architect, pioneered the style referred to as Richardsonian Romanesque, an interpretation of 11th- and 12th-century Roman design. Olmsted, popularly known as the father of American landscape architecture, designed some of the most famous parks around the country, including New York City’s Central Park. Working with Kirkbride’s plans, the men tried to use architecture and landscape design to create a space conducive to treating mental illnesses.
“It was built in the late 1800s when Buffalo was really having its heyday,” says Christine Krolewicz, the manager of planning and operations for the Richardson Olmsted Campus. “We think of that as a time when Buffalo was in a position to start thinking about social issues.” The word “asylum” may have negative connotations today, but “it was actually really meaningful to have what was called an ‘asylum’ in your community at that time because it meant that you were a big enough city to take care of people,” Krolewicz says.
Read the full article at Roadtrippers Magazine online.