Richardson Olmsted Complex
One of the most striking buildings on the city’s West Side, the Buffalo Psychiatric Center, 400 Forest Ave., was designed in 1870 by America’s foremost architect of the time, Henry Hobson Richardson. Ground was broken in 1871, the first patients were housed in the partially-completed complex in 1880, and the entire project was completed in 1895, nine years after Richardson’s death.
The imposing administration building, constructed of five-foot thick reddish-brown Medina sandstone, is the first major example of a style that became known as "Richardsonian Romanesque," characterized by strength, simplicity and power. The rocky texture was balanced with plainly finished blocks of the same material for doors and windows, and with simple Romanesque geometric designs. Stout half columns and round arches frame the main entrance.
Its medieval-style 185 feet tall twin towers are the building’s most striking features; drive by at night in order to appreciate their illuminated magnificence. Each has four corner turrets and dramatically steep copper roofs accented with dormered windows. The towers, which were never intended to serve any function, remained unfinished on the inside.
The administration building went through several designs. As Buffalo architectural historian Dr. Francis Kowsky notes:
In the earliest drawings, the central building is a low, chapel-like structure with a tall spire. This design reflected asylums Richardson had seen in France. In the final version, two great towers rise from the massive roof of the four-story structure, resolutely proclaiming it the heart of the institution and evoking the image of a secure haven for the distraught.¹
The building once housed hospital officers and their families on the second and third floors, and there was a large chapel on the fourth floor. The hospital consisted of ten connected pavilions stretching from either side of the administration building. The complex was the largest ever designed by Richardson, more than 2,000 feet long with 400,000 square feet of space.
The five pavilions to the east were built first (the outer three were demolished in 1969). Richardson designed all the buildings to be made of stone but, with the architect’s permission, the outer pavilions were built from brick in order to economize.
The hospital was one of the most progressive mental institutions in the country at the time. The wards on each floor of the pavilions provided a home-like atmosphere for patients, most of whom occupied private rooms overlooking the grounds. Sitting rooms, some with fireplaces, and dining rooms were included on most floors. Long, bright corridors on the south side of each ward served as recreation areas during the day.
The layout of extended buildings followed the "Kirkbride system," named after a Philadelphia doctor who devised the plan. Protection was improved in event of fire, because each pavilion could be sealed from the one adjacent by means of iron doors in the curving connecting corridors. Patients were classified and housed according to the nature and degree of their mental illness.
More than 200 acres of farmland behind the buildings, where much of the hospital’s food was grown, extended to Scajaquada Creek. Farming was believed to have therapeutic value for patients able to work. Buffalo State College today occupies most of the original farm.
Nationally-known landscape designers Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux planned the landscaping of the hospital grounds, integrating their design into what became part of Buffalo’s Olmsted parks system. The grounds, like those of a great chateau, were both ornamental and utilitarian, with landscaped parkland around the main buildings providing space for group exercise activities. In recognition of the significance of the entire Richardson complex, the buildings have been placed on both the National Register of Historic Places and the National Historic Landmark list.
Rehabilitation plans are moving forward to revive the Richardson Olmsted Complex as one of Buffalo’s crowning jewels. The Richardson Center Corporation is proceeding with rehabilitation of the buildings and grounds as a mixed-use, multi-purpose civic campus of public and private activities. Potential reuse options for this historic complex of H.H. Richardson designed buildings and Frederick Law Olmsted designed grounds are vast and will include an Architecture and Visitor Center. For more information, please visit the Richardson Olmsted Complex website at www.richardson-olmsted.com
¹Francis M. Kowsky, "A Towering Masterpiece: H. H. Richardson’s Buffalo State Hospital," from Buffalo Spree, March/April 2000. Also see Chuck LaChiusa, "Buffalo as an Architectural Museum: Buffalo Psychiatric Center", and Andy Olenick and Richard O. Reisem, Classic Buffalo: A Heritage of Distinguished Architecture (Buffalo: Canisius College Press, 1999), pp. 114-15.
Photos by Chuck LaChiusa