Widely considered one of Buffalo’s most important buildings, construction on the Richardson began in 1872 and opened eight years later.
The monumental project was led by four important thinkers of the 19th century:
- American architect Henry Hobson Richardson, the father of Richardsonian Romanesque architectural style;
- American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed Central Park in New York City, as well as Buffalo’s beautiful system of parks and parkways;
- Architect and landscape engineer Calvert Vaux;
- Thomas Story Kirkbride, a founder of the Association of Medical Superintendents of American Institutions for the Insane, a precursor to the American Psychiatric Association.
Together, the team incorporated the most enlightened humane principles in psychiatric treatment of the times. Over time, mental health treatment changed, and the buildings and the grounds changed along with it. Stepping back through history, year by year, this is the ongoing story of the Richardson Olmsted Campus.
Landscape Architect Frederick Law Olmsted
Buffalo becomes a city.
After decades as a small village located in modern-day Black Rock, Buffalo, New York, was incorporated as a city in 1832. The completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, with Buffalo as the terminus, had led to a period of tremendous growth and prosperity for the City of Good Neighbors. Buffalo would go on to double in population throughout the 1840s and 1850s, with the city growing quickly northward from the harbor. Buffalo’s meteoric rise made it an attractive location for large projects; Buffalo had it all: land, population, wealth, proximity to water, and a vibrant educational community. When the time came, it would be easy for the state to choose Buffalo as the site for the new state hospital.
The American Civil War begins; Richardson and Olmsted meet.
The American Civil War began in 1861 and would last for four years. During this time, Louisiana-born Henry Hobson Richardson was abroad studying art and architecture. When he returned, he moved north, where he would meet Frederick Law Olmsted and eventually be hired to design the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane.
Olmsted and Vaux arrive in Buffalo.
Frederick Law Olmsted first arrived in Buffalo, New York, in 1868. With his partner, Calvert Vaux, he would go on to create a unique and massive public park system for the city over the course of the next three years. After completing this work, Olmsted would describe Buffalo as “the best-planned city as to its streets, public places and grounds in the United States, if not the world.”
Buffalo gets the bid.
In 1869, the New York State legislature authorized the creation of a new mental asylum for Western New York. There was fierce competition among Lockport, Batavia, Warsaw, Westfield, Mayville, and Buffalo to be chosen as the location for the new asylum, with each community offering different incentives. Eventually, Buffalo was chosen after the city guaranteed the hospital a free “perpetual supply of pure Niagara water.” The city was also a major transportation center with the largest population in Western New York, plus a nearby medical college. Frederick Law Olmsted, just completing the Buffalo Park System which included nearby Delaware Park, was asked to design the 203-acre asylum campus as well. Asked for a recommendation for an architect, Olmsted suggested his next-door neighbor and young friend, Henry Hobson Richardson. Despite little previous experience, Richardson was hired on Olmsted’s recommendation. The project would go on to become the largest of Richardson’s entire career.
With architectural plans drawn, construction begins.
Working from plans drawn up by the nascent hospital’s Board of Directors, H.H. Richardson created an architectural plan for the new Buffalo State Asylum that conformed to the Kirkbride Plan of treatment. This system was also known as “moral management” and it encouraged the creation of a calm, airy environment for people with mental illness, believing that a peaceful atmosphere would help treat, and possibly cure, many ailments. Construction on the hospital began in 1871, with a cornerstone laying ceremony taking place a year later in 1872. Ultimately, construction on the main buildings would continue for the next 20 years, with additional buildings added to the campus in later years. Architect H.H. Richardson would not live to see the buildings completed.
First patients arrive.
When half the buildings were complete, the decision was made to admit patients. On November 15, 1880, the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane formally opened its doors to patients. The eastern wing of the hospital was complete with five majestic wing buildings to house up to 300 patients. The large central Administration Building soared over the neighboring community with its two towers. Construction on the western wing, also to include five connected wing buildings, would have to wait until resources were available later in the decade.
The second phase of construction begins.
Funds were finally approved by the New York State Legislature to begin construction on the western wing of the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane. Construction on these buildings began in 1889 and would finally complete the symmetrical design originally envisioned by architect H.H. Richardson in 1870. Tragically, Richardson died of kidney disease in 1886 and would not see his plan completed. Other architects picked up the project, including Green & Wicks and W.W. Carlin, designing the remaining buildings inspired by Richardson’s plans. The full wingspan of the hospital would be completed in 1896.
With treatment evolving, expansion continues beyond the main buildings.
With the passage of time, the nature of treatment for mental illness evolved from the Kirkbride Plan of “moral management” to Cottage Style, which called for numerous small cottages throughout the campus, each dedicated to small groups of patients. From 1900 to 1945, the hospital would embark on a series of expansions, building a new chapel, new residences for the staff, workshop buildings, occupational therapy centers, and specialized cottage-like pavilions for patients with tuberculosis.
Tower tops get covered in copper.
In 1918, the entire roof was replaced—the roof itself was redone with slate shingles and the tower tops themselves were covered in copper. Today, the green copper-topped towers are iconic throughout Buffalo, but they are not original. Given the enduring popularity of the copper, it was decided to install new copper roofs on the towers during the rehabilitation rather than return to the clay tile of the 19th century.
One-hundred acres of farmland for the future Buffalo State University.
Of the original 203-acre site, 100 acres to the north of the main buildings were dedicated to farmland. This working farm had provided food to the hospital since it opened in 1881. Patients could opt to work on the farm as part of their therapy. However, after years of diminishing returns from the farm and the improvement of transportation allowed the arrival of fresh produce from off-site sources, New York State decided to sell the northern half of the site to the city of Buffalo for the creation of what is now the Buffalo State University campus.
Site improvements underway.
In 1933, part of Frederick Law Olmsted’s original landscape was paved over to create a parking lot in front of the Towers Building. At the time, there was a total patient population of 2,486. In 1939, two new asphalt tennis courts were installed for the use of patients and employees, in addition to the three already on-site.
Patient population peaks.
By 1950, the total patient population reached its highest point—2,766 patients called the hospital home at that time. Over the next decade, the hospital would begin a slow decline as medications improved and patients were discharged.
A new approach to mental health.
In 1963, President Kennedy signed The Community Mental Health Act into law. Calling it a “bold new approach,” the act created new community mental health centers throughout the country. These centers were intended to take the place of large state psychiatric hospitals like the Buffalo State Hospital, with the idea patients would be better served out in their community. The Community Mental Health Act, combined with more effective psychotropic medications and new psychotherapy treatments, resulted in large numbers of patients being discharged from state hospitals.
The Strozzi Building opens.
The 1960s were a time of modernization in America and state hospitals were no exception. The Buffalo State Hospital’s administration pressed for more modern facilities and, on October 21, 1965, the new Reception and Intensive Treatment Building (named the Strozzi building) was opened by Governor Rockefeller. Located just to the east of the historic buildings, the eight-story Strozzi Building provided 544 beds for patients.
Making room for modernization.
To make way for a new, modern rehabilitation building, the hospital demolished the three easternmost wing buildings of the original Richardson design. This tragedy forever altered the historic configuration laid out almost a century before. The new, one-story rehabilitation center (named the Butler Rehabilitation Center) was completed in 1970.
A place in the history books.
For its architectural significance, the Buffalo State Hospital was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. This designation for the first time recognized the uniqueness of the site as a confluence of three geniuses: architect H.H. Richardson, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, and physician Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride. As the site became abandoned, its placement on the National Register (and latterly, its designation as a National Historic Landmark in 1986) would become an important stepping stone toward reviving the historic buildings.
The decreasing patient population, in combination with the difficulty of maintaining the massive historic buildings, led to the decision to move all remaining patients into more modern facilities. This process would take four years. In 1974, the last patients moved out of the historic buildings into the neighboring Strozzi Building. The central Administration Building would continue to be used for office space into the 1990s, but the wing buildings were mothballed and left vacant.
Landmark status unlocked.
In addition to being listed on the National Register for Historic Places in the 1970s, the site was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1986. Today, there are only 2,600 National Historic Landmarks in the entire country, eight of which are in Buffalo. Being designated a National Historic Landmark gave the former hospital recognition for its architecture and medical significance and a new level of national prestige. While the new landmark status was not a guarantee that the site would be preserved, it gave local preservationists one more tool in their quest to save the building.
A suit against the state.
Invoking a little-used public buildings law, the Preservation Coalition of Erie County claimed victory in their suit against the State of New York in November 2002. This law held the state responsible for the upkeep of its historic landmarks and paved the way for reuse, starting with $7 million from the state to begin stabilizing the buildings.
State support secured.
With Governor Pataki’s support, in 2004 the New York State Legislature appropriated $100 million for the rehabilitation of the Richardson Olmsted Campus. While some of this money would later be given to other projects, the Richardson rehabilitation project was finally underway. The nonprofit Richardson Center Corporation was created in 2006 to oversee the massive project, with funding from the state released incrementally in 2007.
A multi-faceted master plan.
Following a review by the Urban Land Institute, the Richardson Center Corporation committed to a plan for the campus that focused on community uses and finding new, economically-sustainable functions for the buildings. This plan would come to define the next decade at the Richardson Olmsted Campus, eventually producing a formal Master Plan for the site in 2011 and resulting in the reuse of the Towers Building and two flanking buildings as a hotel, restaurant, and architecture center.
The community comes together.
With the Master Plan in place, the Richardson Center Corporation formed a board and held its first two community meetings in 2007. The purpose of these meetings was to bring the Buffalo community into the broader reuse conversation. Since then, community meetings have become a regular occurrence as the Richardson Olmsted Campus has developed over the years.
Critical stabilization begins.
The first step toward reusing the massive Richardson Olmsted Campus was stabilizing all the buildings. For four years starting in 2008, the Richardson Center Corporation used $10 million of the appropriated funds to shore up areas in danger of collapse, repairing roofing, installing new exterior lighting, sealing broken windows, and installing ventilation and security systems. This stabilization work was designed to preserve the buildings in their current condition and prepare them for new uses.
South Lawn returns to glory.
Opening up the 42 acres of the Richardson Olmsted Campus to the public was a key goal of the reuse project. While the site had been off-limits and deteriorating for decades, the nonprofit Richardson Center Corporation wanted to transform the site into a community space. To that end, the South Lawn greenspace was completed in 2013. This greenspace, originally part of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s design for the hospital grounds, had been paved over in the twentieth century to make room for two large parking lots. The renewal of the South Lawn returned the area to its Olmstedian glory. The project removed the parking lots, planted 125 new trees, planted environmentally-friendly rain gardens, and created a welcoming space for recreation and gathering.
Award-winning redevelopment project No. 1—hotel and conference center opens.
Construction of the first phase of active redevelopment began in 2014. The center three of the 13 buildings on-site were selected for the first reuse. Over the course of two action-packed years, the decrepit buildings were transformed into a state-of-the-art hotel with 88 rooms and large conference and event spaces. Hotel Henry would open under independent management in 2017. The results of the redevelopment were recognized that same year by a range of professional organizations and media, including: Preservation Buffalo Niagara (Neighborhood Conservation Award), Buffalo Spree (WNY Best Makeover for an Existing Building, Interior Design (Annual Best of the Year Awards), the American Institute of Architects’ Buffalo/Western New York Chapter (Commercial/Institutional Design Award), and the American Association of Planning’s Upstate NY Chapter (Best Practice Award).
A prestigious preservation award—and then some.
In 2018, the Richardson Olmsted Campus was a proud recipient of the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation National Preservation Award, which recognizes and celebrates the “best of the best” in preservation projects across the country—projects that highlight cutting-edge preservation approaches or technologies. This is the highest national recognition bestowed upon a preservation project by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. In addition to the high honor from the Driehaus Foundation, the Richardson Olmsted Campus was also recognized by New York State (Historic Preservation Award), Preservation Buffalo Niagara (Project of Distinction, the Preservation League of New York State (Excellence Award), Buffalo Business First (Brick by Brick Award), and the UB School of Planning and Architecture (Dean’s Medal of Honor).
Documentary premieres on WNED.
In April 2019, a documentary filmed by WNED debuted on television for the first time. The 30-minute production tells the story of the site through a mix of interviews, archival images, and contemporary footage. Soon after the premiere, the Richardson held its latest public information session about ongoing redevelopment efforts. The Richardson also received two grants from Saving America’s Treasures and the Western New York Foundation in 2019, and in February 2020, yet another public information session was held to update the community about ongoing redevelopment efforts.
This global phenomenon had severe negative social and economic impacts causing disruption around the world. The challenges experienced with government-mandated restrictions impacted travel, dining and hospitality – with the hospitality industry one of the most acutely impacted. These restrictions over almost two years caused unsustainable economic stresses that lead to the unfortunate closure of the hotel and restaurant. In addition, the programming and redevelopment plans for the remaining Richardson Campus were put on hold, while the non-profit Richardson Center Corporation did what it could to prevent a complete closure of the campus.
New Partnership with Douglas Development.
The Richardson Center Corporation has partnered with Douglas Development to reimagine the hotel and conference center and relaunch them as the Richardson Hotel. In addition, the Richardson Center Corporation has completed lease agreements with Douglas Development to stabilize and adaptively reuse the majority of vacant buildings on campus.