Standing sentinel 190 feet over Buffalo, New York, the twin towers of the Richardson Olmsted Complex (ROC), formerly the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane, keep watch over the V-shaped campus begun by H.H. Richardson and Frederick Law Olmsted 143 years ago. The National Historic Landmark is slowly coming back to life since it was abandoned nearly 40 years ago thanks to a $56 million redevelopment effort that is converting the facility into a boutique hotel, conference venue, and architecture center.
Deborah Berke Partners and Buffalo-based Flynn Battaglia Architects are renovating the central-most of the ROC’s three Romanesque Revival buildings. “We were trying to find a way to speak to the Richardson building that felt of our time and ‘of us’,” said Stephen Brockman, partner at Deborah Berke Partners. “We didn’t want to copy or imitate Richardson.” The design team is leaving as much of the original building intact as possible. “There’s such amazing fabric there,” Brockman said. “Our number one task is to be a good steward of the building.”
Courtesy Deborah Berke Partners
Among the minimal interventions planned for the ROC is a simple plane of glass enclosing a new north entrance. “It’s the furthest thing from the Complex’s Medina sandstone as you can get.” A perforated-metal staircase leading to the first floor glows in the evening, creating a focal point. “The stair itself became the filament that glowed within the entry lantern to signal this is an important point,” he said. “The transparency of the glass wall’s parapets allows you to see we’re not disturbing the building behind it.”
This sense of transparency is at the heart of the design. The first floor acts as the public face of the building with a restaurant and two galleries for the Buffalo Architecture Center flanking a historic central stair. The ROC’s history as a hospital will be emphasized throughout the building. “The architecture center will really cohabitate with the hotel,” Brockman said. Tours including preserved patient rooms will showcase the importance of the building in relation to the greater architectural heritage of Buffalo.
Philadelphia-based Andropogon Associates has already re-imagined a pastoral Olmsted landscape on the south side of the ROC, which officially opens on September 18. Chris Mendel, project manager at Andropogon, said the team chose not to copy Olmsted’s plans outright, instead opting to “rehabilitate” the 9.5-acre landscape, reinterpreting the design using his original principles. “Olmsted included a very literal choreography as he introduced you to the site and buildings to create an emotional response to what you’re seeing,” he said.
To the north, an active farm once helped sustain the 600-bed hospital, and Andropogon is reinterpreting this agricultural tradition with a new modern landscape. “Historically, the significance of the north landscape has all been obliterated,” Mendel said. Andropogon adapted an abstract pattern of linear elements recalling the rows of a farm field to create a spatial and visual armature organizing a series of distinct outdoor rooms.