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09.11.2009
Richardson Reprieve
Massive asylum complex to be reused in Buffalo
The Richardson Asylum, which sits on a Frederick Law Olmsted-designed grounds in Buffalo.
Brian Faix

A shuttered asylum in Buffalo, New York, is poised for new life as visitor’s hub, architecture center, boutique hotel, and conference facility in a park setting. The original complex, built over a 20-year period from 1870 to 1890, includes a massive central building by Henry Hobson Richardson, with a landscape designed by Frederick Law Olmsted.

Building on a historic structures report by Goody Clancy Architects, fellow Boston-based architects and planners Chan Krieger Sieniewicz recently completed a masterplan for the adaptive reuse of the site, which, in later phases, could also include housing and classroom space for the adjacent Buffalo State College. Many similar facilities sit abandoned and decaying, but due to its architectural distinction, the asylum complex, now known as the Richardson Olmsted Center, has been a cause célèbre for preservationists.

Given the depressed economic picture in Buffalo, the plan emphasizes practical, buildable phasing. New York State has pledged $76.5 million toward the preservation and reuse of the buildings. “It’s a sober plan,” said Alex Krieger, a principal at Chan Krieger Sieniewicz. “We want to reverse the decline, and fill in the program as funding allows.”

The V-shaped complex is credited as the first example of Richardsonian Romanesque, the style for which the architect is now known. The asylum was built according to the plans of Dr. Thomas Kirkbride, a pioneer in the field of mental health who was responsible for creating asylums across the country. The facility once covered 200 acres and included a large working farm. A central building, with imposing towers and high-pitched roofs, is flanked by connected ward buildings totaling 400,000 square feet. The tower building and adjacent structures were built in sandstone, while the remaining ward buildings were built in brick and are considerably more deteriorated.

Work will center on the tower and the two ward buildings, which will be stabilized for development. The deteriorating brick buildings to the rear will be mothballed for later use. The convention and visitors bureau has already agreed to create a visitor’s center in the tower building, and the nonprofit Richardson Center Corporation (RCC) is organizing a new architectural center that will be located there. RCC hopes that the stabilization of the buildings, as well as the activity of the nonprofit tenants, will help attract private development for the boutique hotel and the conference facility.

The first stage of work includes moving parking lots from the front of the tower building, restoring the Olmstedian quality of the landscape, and creating a park-like atmosphere for the adjacent residential neighborhood. “It will show people that work is being done and help bring people into the site,” said Monica Pellegrino Faix, the RCC project coordinator.

The project, said Krieger, “represents the work of three important figures. Richardson was the most important American architect between Bulfinch and Wright, and Olmsted and Kirkbride were the leaders in their field.”

Krieger believes that the site can be integrated into the adjacent Olmsted-designed parks system and can build off nearby cultural institutions, which include the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and the Birchfield Penny Art Center.

Along with the recently completed Toshiko Mori–designed visitor’s center at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Martin House, the project is one of many initiatives to capitalize on the city’s architectural heritage, which includes notable works by Louis Sullivan, Eliel and Eero Saarinen, Wright, Richardson, Daniel Burnham, and others. In fact, the RCC hopes to have the architecture and visitor’s centers open in time for the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s annual convention in 2011.

A version of this article appeared in AN 09.09.2009.

Alan G. Brake