A forgotten gem of the rust belt
October 26, 2007 10:38 PM   Subscribe

The Buffalo State Hospital is a vast complex of moldering Victorian buildings, sitting right in the middle of a residential neighborhood of Buffalo. It is also an architectural gem, not only by Buffalo standards, but for the nation as a whole. It is one of the largest and most complex commissions of New England architect H. H. Richardson, who is known for promulgating his unique, heavy looking stone Romanesque variant of the then dominant Queen Anne style. The Buffalo asylum’s grounds were planned by landscape architect (and designer of Central Park) Fredrick Law Olmsted.

On a side note, Olmstead later died in another asylum which he had landscaped!

Like many Victorian mental institutions, it is vacant, and has fallen into disrepair.

Despite the grim image these buildings hold on the modern imagination, the Buffalo state hospital and many like it represented a significant advance in the care of the mentally ill. The buildings’ linear arrangement is an excellent example of the Kirkbride Plan for mental asylums. The narrow buildings allowed maximum light and air. Their linear arrangement allowed the patient to progress from one end of the building towards the administrative center, as he or she became more ready for discharge from the hospital.

After decades of neglect, the building appeared doomed, until a lawsuit by a local preservation group forced the state to honor its commitment to preserve and reuse historic structures, to the tune of approximately $70M. The Richardson Center Corporation was formed to oversee the restoration and re-use. In May 2007 the RCC invited a panel from the Urban Land Institute to undertake a study to determine a potential use for the site. Their preliminary recommendations [PDF] envision it as the crown jewel in Buffalo’s wealth of historic buildings, housing a history center classrooms, and businesses. The Richardson-Olmsted center would be a hub for architectural tourism.
posted by pieisexactlythree (16 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Off topic? I know someone who has one of these. It has an amazing sound. Wict, wict wict ECHO
posted by Mblue at 11:38 PM on October 26, 2007

Great post. I love Richardson's work and had never heard of this building. Love the two towers.
posted by octothorpe at 5:18 AM on October 27, 2007

Here in Massachusetts, we have three or four abandoned (or semi-abandoned) mental institutions known for their amazing architecture and notorious for the "care" of their patients. The one with which I'm most familiar is Met State, as a pair of local filmmakers have directed a short film about it.
posted by pxe2000 at 5:28 AM on October 27, 2007

Like many Victorian mental institutions, it is vacant...

"Many?" Let us hope all! What a cool complex to have in your neighborhood, though. I think that some future generation, perhaps one already born, will flatten this place without a thought. The Victorians were of interest to us, their great-grandchildren, but the echoes of that age will die in the collective consciousness, as their great novels and philosophies go increasingly unread, their music unlistened to, and their shameful record of colonialism (all the major western nations) becomes all that is taught about them in schools. A beautiful hundred-year-old building at the hospital where I work has been slated for demolition this year, without a voice raised in protest. (It's not used for patient care, but office space.)
posted by Faze at 6:19 AM on October 27, 2007

Fantastic. Thank you. I too am a Richardson fan: Sever Hall and Trinity Church in Boston, and of course the Allegheny County Courthouse in Pittsburgh are classics.
posted by chinston at 6:20 AM on October 27, 2007

That is a beautiful edifice.
I just came back from my hometown, and was deeply troubled to see that the Northampton State Hospital had been razed.

This looks to be more of a treasure. I hope Buffalo does a better job than Noho at saving its heritage.
posted by Busithoth at 6:35 AM on October 27, 2007

Excellent post. When I lived in Buffalo I always wanted to try to get into this building. I lived a few blocks away. I never did find a way in.

The nyasylum site has some excellent photos of this place.
posted by punkrockrat at 7:10 AM on October 27, 2007

Like many Victorian mental institutions, it is vacant...

"Many?" Let us hope all!

The active mental institutions that I am familiar with are depressing, blocky, run-down buildings from the 1970s.

I think the Victorian institutions, at least in terms of architectural value, were much more humane that the places where the mentally ill are warehoused now.
posted by jayder at 8:49 AM on October 27, 2007

Buffalo architects Buffalo architects buffalo, buffalo Buffalo architects,
posted by Anything at 9:46 AM on October 27, 2007

I just came back from my hometown, and was deeply troubled to see that the Northampton State Hospital had been razed.

But what's become of Sun Tan Man?

(This is an inside-Northampton joke made solely for Busithoth's benefit.)
posted by william_boot at 9:57 AM on October 27, 2007

william, I do believe he's passed on.

but everytime the light turns to walk at the intersection, there's that cuckoo sound to remind us.
posted by Busithoth at 11:40 AM on October 27, 2007

I grew up near Buffalo and never knew about this complex or Olmsted's role in it. I did know that Olmsted had designed the park system in Buffalo, and system that had fallen under disrepair until Tom Tole's wife, Gretchen, took it on as one of her causes. Fabulous post.
posted by bluesky43 at 2:20 PM on October 27, 2007

I live a block away from these fine, moldy places.

I wrought iron, enclosed patios on the sides of some of the buildings. They look like bird cages.

There is constant chatter about these being turned into something new, recently the rumor is a hotel.

As beautiful as the buildings are they are also an edifice to disgusting and inhumane practices. I hope someone turns them into something new so they wont have that association any more.
posted by munchingzombie at 3:27 PM on October 27, 2007

Like many Victorian mental institutions, it is vacant...

"Many?" Let us hope all!

The active mental institutions that I am familiar with are depressing, blocky, run-down buildings from the 1970s.

In Oregon, we'd gladly take your blocky buildings. Around the time I moved here (1993), the state had undertaken a nifty-sounding resturcturing of its mental health system. The new plan was to move patients from large complexes to many small, community-based care centers. Unfortunately the legislature negelected to fund the new centers, and thus many of our mentally ill ended up in doorways and bus shelters.

Meanwhile, the Oregon State Hospital, the setting of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, remains in operation, long after it ought to have been "repurposed."
posted by pieisexactlythree at 3:36 PM on October 27, 2007

I, too, live in this neighborhood. Especially in winter, it is thrilling to gaze down the length of Richmond Avenue toward the towers.

I'm aware of at least one film project about the hospital and its architecture.

Buffalo is graced with many beautiful buildings. It's a strong point for visiting, if you are interested in such things, and some tours are given. There's also a very informative website, which is sadly down at the moment due to issues at its host.
posted by Riverine at 6:59 PM on October 28, 2007

Great post, thanks. I just moved near this building about a 18 months ago, and from where I sit now, I can see the tops of the towers. Buffalo is a great place to live, the people are friendly, the architecture is nice and the winter isn't so bad.

I have noticed that there is a huge inertia here in Buffalo, and that is a huge disappointment. With all of the arguments about what to do with the scarce resources this city has, it tends to do nothing. I've seen it in the community's opposition to a planned hotel adjacent to the Richardson complex, and the ongoing nonsense about the Bass Pro shop. Buffalo is a town that begs for economic improvement and spits at anything that looks remotely like gentrification. Can't have one without the other, I'm afraid.

I'd really like to see something positive happen to this landmark building. It's unfortunate that there are no real leaders in Buffalo that will make it happen. 10 years from now, after several millions more are spent on consultants to satisfy community handwringing, the site will probably look the same.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 8:30 AM on October 29, 2007

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