The Richardson Olmsted Complex, the former Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane, was a partnership between noted American architect H.H. Richardson and best known American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. The complex of buildings and grounds, with its signature Gothic towers, is a National Historic Landmark. The complex was also known as the Buffalo State Hospital and operations continue today as the Buffalo Psychiatric Center, in modern buildings on the site.
The Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane started construction in 1870 and was completed almost 20 years later. It was a state-of-the-art facility when it was built, incorporating the most contemporary ideas in psychiatric treatment. The design of the buildings as well as the therapeutic grounds were intended to complement the innovations in psychiatric care practiced at this facility.
At the time Richardson was commissioned to design the complex he was still relatively unknown, but he was later to become the first American architect to achieve international fame. The complex was ultimately the largest building of his career and the first to display his characteristic style - what came to be known as Richardsonian Romanesque – and is internationally regarded as one of the best examples of its kind. Among many others, his genius also yielded the New York State Capital in Albany, NY, Albany City Hall in Albany, NY , Trinity Church in Boston, MA, and the Glessner House in Chicago, IL.
The complex and grounds were originally built on 203 acres of largely undeveloped farmland. The V-shaped design consisted of the central tower building with five buildings flanking on each side, connected by curved corridors. This design was representative of what was then known as the Kirkbride Plan, named after the physician who developed it. As a stage of development in the classification and treatment of mental illness, Kirkbride’s system used an architectural response to create a humane treatment environment. This curative system was premised in the belief that one’s physical and social environment could cause and cure mental illness. The Kirkbride Plan was a system of congregate care that classified patients according to affliction and degree, in wards designed for maximum light, ventilation, and privacy, and a home like atmosphere. “Although it was used at almost 70 hospitals by 1890, the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane is an important example, owing to the rigor with which it not only adhered to, but also improved upon the Plan stipulations” (Richardson Olmsted Complex Historic Structures Report, p. 5).
The extensive therapeutic landscape was designed by Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. Initially they advised on the selection of the site in Buffalo and eventually on the siting of the building complex on the grounds. The Asylum was located adjacent to “The Park”, now Buffalo’s Olmsted Park and Parkway System, Delaware Park, and Forest Lawn Cemetery to create a vast open space north of the city center. The building was sited at an angle to maximize sunlight, create a public area to the south and a private, agrarian and service landscape to the north.
Curvilinear drives and walks were laid out to access the grounds and frame the outdoor “pleasure grounds” (recreation spaces) and gardens. The grounds north of the hospital buildings were developed as a large, 100-acre farm, which extended to the rear boundary of the grounds at the Scajaquada Creek. “The Olmsted and Vaux plan developed the asylum grounds to integrate the landscape with the medical treatment of patients. This was a remarkable innovation in this type of institution, marking a shift away from incarceration treatment and toward active therapeutic treatment of mental illness. Few of these therapeutic asylum landscapes exist today, and because of this, the historical significance of the Richardson Olmsted Complex is nationally recognized” (Richardson Olmsted Complex Cultural Landscape Report, p.2).
In 1927 the northwestern campus was severed in half and the farmland portion was developed as Buffalo State College. The site was reduced from 203 acres to 91 acres.
Many changes in buildings and landscape occurred on the site over time. Sections of the Buffalo State Hospital were demolished and the buildings gradually deteriorated. In 1969 the three brick buildings on the east wing were demolished to make room for an adolescent treatment facility. The entire complex of buildings has been abandoned and, without routine care, allowed to deteriorate.
Treatment for people with mental illness continued in the Complex until the1970’s and administrative functions until the 1990’s. The new Strozzi Building was built east of the historic complex in 1965 and Buffalo Psychiatric Center services continue in this modern adjacent facility. In 1997, after completing an extensive statewide Master Plan, the NYS Office of Mental Health announced its intention to divest itself of several psychiatric hospital sites, including the old Buffalo State Hospital.
The complex is internationally regarded as one of architecture’s great treasures. In 1973 it was added to the State and National Registers of Historic Places, and in 1986 it was registered as a National Historic Landmark – one of only seven such sites in Western New York - and is listed on the National Trust’s 1999 list of 11 Most Endangered Places and the Preservation League’s statewide list of seven "sites to save."
Over time many studies took place and recommended numerous reuse options were evaluated but none were implemented. Among the options studied were: research incubator educational park; office or residential uses; arts center with various galleries, studios, etc.; and senior assisted living housing and the consolidation of Buffalo Public School’s Olmsted Schools.
In 2004 and 2005 stabilization work on the Complex buildings took place with $5 million that was allocated by the State of NY, following a lawsuit against the state about maintenance of the buildings. This work centered largely on emergency repairs to seal the buildings from water infiltration and secure the buildings.
After years of pressure from preservationists, prominent Buffalonians, and elected officials, $100 million in funds was dedicated in 2006 by then NYS Governor George Pataki to rehabilitate the Richardson Olmsted Complex. Of the $100 million, some of the funding was used to complete two other arts institutions, the new Burchfield Penney Art Center and the Frank Lloyd Wright Darwin Martin House Visitor Center, leaving $76.5 million.
In 2006 the board of the Richardson Center Corporation (RCC) was appointed by then Governor George Pataki to chart the future course of the rehabilitation. Completed are essential reports and additional stabilization, including an Urban Land Institute Advisory Panel Report, Historic Structures Report (by Goody Clancy), Cultural Landscape Report (by Heritage Landscapes), Architecture and Visitor Center Visualized Concept Study (by Ralph Appelbaum Associates), an Architecture Center Feasibility Study (by ConsultEcon) and a Master Plan (by Chan Krieger Sieniewicz. Underway are ongoing stabilization measures.