Richardson Olmsted Complex grounds and restoration

On Saturday I had the chance to take a tour of the Richardson Olmsted Complex, originally the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane. Or, as I knew it in college, as the cut-through and quickest way to the bars and Mighty Taco on Elmwood Avenue. It's been 33 years since I first saw the towers and wished I'd be able to get in to see the insides since then. My friend Kelly Hayes McAlonie is on the board of the Complex and arranged a private tour for her friends as a birthday gift for herself. Her birthday and we get a gift! I like that! For tour information, visit here.

The building was designed by one of America's preeminent architects of the time – and one of the greatest American architects, Henry Hobson Richardson, in collaboration with the country's most heralded landscape architect (then and now), Frederick Law Olmsted. It was started in 1870 and finished 20 years later (though technically you could say they're STILL working on it). Richardson received the commission when he was just 30 years old. By the time of the construction, Olmsted had already designed NYC's Central Park and Prospect Park–and his largest project–Buffalo's parks and parkways system.

The inside is in the throes of restoration. It was stabilized to stop its "decomposing" in the past few years. Much restoration in very defined areas of the building was accomplished for the National Trust for Historic Preservation Conference of 2011. Now it's on a restoration track appropriate for the planned use of the buildings. The last use was office space for the the Buffalo Psychiatric Hospital which shares space on the grounds, but in more modern buildings. They last occupied only a small part of the building, and moved out in 1995. It's been abandoned up until a few years ago.

First off, it will become a boutique hotel with 90 rooms (due to open in 2015). It will be run by the management of the Mansion on Delaware Avenue, Buffalo's only 4-star hotel. The entrance to the hotel will be on what most consider the back of the building, accessible from Rockwell Road, alongside Buffalo State College. The buildings will have capacity to add another 30 rooms easily to the hotel if it warrants.

There will also be an architectural museum,  conference center, a visitors center and probably MUCH more -- the buildings are massive. The most surprising feature was the ballroom on the fourth floor. The flat space on the roof between the two towers is an immense ballroom that was originally a chapel and probably used as a gymnasium over the years. When completed as part of the conference center, it should accommodate 300 for a sit-down dinner.

The bridge walls will be covered with stone.
We were asked not to take photos on the inside of the building. There are some portions that are restored completely, some that have the plaster stripped to the brickwork, and others that are stabilized but have 3-5 inches of fallen plaster, woodwork, doors on the floors, and look a frightful mess. It was a hardhat tour.

What surprised me most about the inside is how much light there is. For as foreboding and massive as the exterior is with its large chunks of Medina sandstone and imposing scale, it is amazingly light filled and airy. As a matter of fact, it was Olmsted that suggested canting the building toward the sun to maximize the hours and quality of daylight. The building's different wards on each side of the main administration tower were each set back and each one smaller in scale so the towers looked even more imposing..

The hallways in each ward are impossibly wide, intended to be common areas to encourage interaction among patients, exposing them to maximum daylight and fresh air from cross ventilation from huge windows (when the weather accommodated). With a name like the State Asylum for the Insane, one would think it different inside. Patient rooms were very small, but that was purposeful, to discourage patients from spending time in their rooms. Not sure how they'll convert the tiny patient rooms into 21st century hotel rooms!

At the time, the city of Buffalo ended pretty much at North Street, so this was considered rural. The grounds stretched back to the Scajaqueda Creek and contained gardens, farms, pasture, cattle, blacksmiths, and everything else needed to make the Asylum self-sustaining. Patients had chores from farming to landscaping that encouraged physical activity and interaction with others.

But about the grounds... This is not a historical restoration of the grounds as Olmsted designed them. It is instead "informed" and inspired by Olmsted's designs for the property. They're calling it "Olmstedian." Not being part of the grounds restoration committee, I do not know why that decision was made, but they say, "By answering the question, “What would Olmsted do now?” the design builds upon Olmsted’s original intent while conserving existing resources, preserving the fabric of the space, and creating connections and purpose."

The South Lawn, which faces Forest Avenue, was designed by Andropogon Associates of Philadelphia, PA. Two original trees from Olmsted's time are still there. Other trees remain and 125 other new trees were planted in clusters, much like in Olmsted's time. Open spaces, intended for public use and private parties was planned into the lawn - wide open spaces for large scale events and smaller more intimate spaces for smaller gatherings. There are 5,000 square feet of rain gardens addressing storm water drainage and water quality. A 1,700 foot pedestrian loop was created to make it more park-like. Roads were re-laid out to accommodate hotel guests, visitors, and emergency vehicles. LOTS of parking lots were removed.

5,000 sq ft of rain gardens!
I am ever-so-tangentially involved (I'm on the board of directors) with the ongoing historic landscape restoration project at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Graycliff Estate –which is actually almost complete–taking the landscape back to 1932, its year of peak historic significance. The landscape was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright - in his own hand - and added to later on by the "first lady" of landscape architecture, Ellen Biddle Shipman. So I've been interested to see how another historically-significant architectural masterpiece chose to handle their landscape restoration. Part of my job with the board is to get the word out on its landscape restoration, so you can bet you'll hear more about it here!

I'm also anxious to see where the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Darwin Martin Complex takes their landscaping in the future too. They've already restored some aspects of the grounds and have plenty of ambitious plans for the future. We're all in this together!


  1. It'll be interesting to see what it looks like when the restoration is complete, it looks quite lovely now. Thanks for the photos and fascinating information.

    1. This is one of those projects that may never be actually finished. Once restoration of the first few buildings is done and viable businesses are there, income may be generated for future restoration of the remaining buildings This building is BIG!

  2. Great projects and great historical info, Jim. I am sure you will do the Board well.

    1. Historic restoration of landscapes is interesting to me. Nothing I'd ever be able to completely involve myself with though. They are processes that last years. I don't have that sort of patience!

  3. I remember driving by when I was a kid and there would be people sitting behind the bars on what I remember as porch-like projections. Thanks for the update. Have you seen the new book on Olmsted and Buffalo? I have it but have not managed to read much of it yet.

    1. The porch-like projections were not original to the buildings so those may all disappear. The original intent for the facility was to keep things open, and airy, not barred or confining. At the time, it was thought that people with psychiatric problems needed a place they could go for fresh air, physical activity, and continued interaction with others. When this was built, it was constructed "out in the country." At the time, buffalo pretty much ended at North Street - this was the country! As the city of Buffalo grew and surrounded the campus (and much of the campus was surrendered for Buffalo State College), the prevailing treatment for patients was medication.


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