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Architecture Around Buffalo: Richardson Olmsted Complex

Lucas Watson, Features Contributor

The Richardson Olmsted Complex, the Buffalo Psychiatric Center, the Buffalo State

Hospital, the State Lunatic Asylum and the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane all are names given to this fascinating building that has history going back to the 1870s. The imposing towers of the Richardson Olmsted Complex have been Buffalo landmarks since their completion in 1880.

When seen at night, they are a breathtaking sight. The iconic towers of the Richardson Olmsted Complex remind us of the important place that Buffalo occupies in the nation’s early efforts to care for the mentally ill with dignity and humanity, using techniques that were cutting edge in that day.

Likewise, the picturesque skyline speaks of the sublime aspirations that early leaders of Buffalo had as the city began its rise to prominence among the world’s modern cities. Three of the greatest names in architecture and landscaping collaborated on this project: Henry Hobson Richardson, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux.

It can be said that this collaboration would be legendary and produce a masterpiece upon its 203-acre lot on the outskirts of the city at the time. Amidst the park planning and landscaping of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux with “The Park” (now Delaware Park) and Forest Lawn Cemetery in immediate vicinity, the lot that the Buffalo State Asylum would occupy was in the heart of Olmsted’s designs and parkway system.

Originally, the Buffalo State Asylum was designed with a large farm that would provide food for its own use and provided patients with beneficial employment. Today, the Buffalo State College campus occupies most of the former farmland. The building was the largest commission of H.H. Richardson’s career and the advent of his characteristic Richardsonian Romanesque Style. Richardson was considered a part of the trinity of American architecture (Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan being the other two architects that made up the trinity). With its distinctive Medina sandstone as a major facet of its construction and walls, a mixture of rough and finished stone and geometric shapes in the Romanesque style forms the facade of this building.

What distinguishes this building from so many others is its architectural prowess, its layout and location. The layout is unusual. It’s called the Kirkbride System of asylum design and gives the building its distinctive V shape. The plan was named after a physician who had codified it in the early 19th century, when mental illness first became recognized as a treatable disease. At a time when psychological medicine was just beginning to distinguish between various kinds of disorders, Kirkbride’s scheme allowed physicians to group patients by “type” and “degree” of their illness. This design was seen across many asylums and was built during the second half of the 19th century. The Richardson Olmsted Complex is one such example. It served as the primary mental facility in Buffalo until the 1970s, when patients were moved to a new building on the campus; afterwards, it was abandoned. In 1973, the Richardson Olmsted Complex was put on the National Register of Historic Places, and in 1986 it was named a National Historic Landmark, one of only 2,500 landmarks in the nation. All of this happened when it was sitting in the heart of the upper west side.

In recent years, The Richardson Olmsted Complex has gone through a massive revitalization. In this current first phase of revitalization, a hotel and conference center has been put into the complex, and an architecture center has been added, as well. Tours of all sorts are offered, including photography tours, patient life tours and an in-depth tour. With Hotel Henry offering rooms in the Richardson Olmsted Complex, it is a unique experience. Additionally, the Lipsey Architecture Center offers exhibitions, tours and outreach to teach interested people about Buffalo’s architecture, landscape design and its urban planning, as well as their respective roles in our unique Buffalo culture.

The Richardson Olmsted Complex tells a story of Buffalo, from its proud beginnings and being at the forefront of its day both architecturally and in psychiatry. It will remain a staple of this city, an icon both architecturally and culturally and a symbol of our cities past and future.

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