Richardson Complex - Table of Contents

A Towering Masterpiece: H. H. Richardson's Buffalo State Hospital

by Francis R. Kowsky

Reprinted with permission from Buffalo Spree, March/April 2000

Click on photos for larger size

Photo by Paul Pasquarello

Photo by Paul Pasquarello

Other Photos by the author


One of the most magnificent buildings erected in the United States in the 19th century was the large stone and brick hospital that stands on the grounds of the present day Buffalo Psychiatric Center. Unused for patients since the mid-1970's, the hospital buildings were designed by architect Henry Hobson Richardson in 1870. At the time, Richardson was a young, unknown talent, but he was destined to become the first American architect to achieve international fame. "No one used architectural forms with so much originality, no one with so much grace and tenderness, no one with such strength" said William Dorsheimer, the Buffalo lawyer who first brought Richardson to the city. In 1868, Dorsheimer asked Richardson to design a house for him in the fashionable French style. (It still stands at 434 Delaware Avenue.) Perhaps it was Dorsheimer, the chief promoter of the innovative park system that Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux had proposed for Buffalo, who got Richardson the job to design the mammoth hospital.

The Buffalo State Hospital, as it was formerly called, was to be the largest building of the master's career and the first to display his characteristic style -- what came to be known as Richardsonian Romanesque. Here we confront no timid gestures, no less-is-more minimalism. This is architecture that indulges in bold statement and celebrates hardy forms.

Richardson had fallen in love with the rugged masonry and massive proportions of 12th-century medieval architecture while studying in Paris during the Civil War years. As a Southerner (he was born on a plantation in Louisiana in 1838) educated at Harvard, Richardson found it impossible to choose sides in the conflict. In 1865, he returned to the States and set up practice in New York, where he lived until 1874 when he moved to Boston. Two years before, he had won the national competition to design Trinity Episcopal Church there. Trinity, now recently restored to its original glory, made Richardson's reputation.

Construction of the Buffalo State Hospital, which was one of several asylums erected by the state just after the Civil War, extended over many years. In May 1870, Governor Hoffman instructed the new board of managers to acquire plans for the institution that was to occupy 200 acres of land in north Buffalo. Dr. James P. White, a prominent local physician, headed the board, and Dr. John P. Gray, the renowned director of the Utica Asylum, acted as consultant. In August 1870 the board accepted Richardson's ground plans for a 600-patient structure.

Ground was broken for the new buildings in June 1871, with Rochester's A. J. Warner (architect of Old County Hall in Buffalo) as superintending architect. The entire complex of eleven buildings was not finished until ten years after Richardson's death in 1886. By that time, Richardson had furnished plans for several other buildings in Buffalo, including a design for the public library at Lafayette Square, which was never built, and the now demolished Delaware Avenue mansion of steamboat millionaire William Gratwick.

The hospital

Dr. Gray dictated the stretched-out plan of the hospital, which, on paper, resembles a V-shaped formation of geese in flight. It consisted of five independent pavilions on either side of the central towered administration building. This arrangement followed what was known as the Kirkbride system of asylum design. The plan was named after the Philadelphia physician who had codified it in the early 19th century, when mental illness first became recognized as a treatable disease. At a time when psychiatry was just beginning to distinguish between various kinds of disorders, Kirkbride's scheme allowed physicians to group patients by the type and degree of their illness. Also, in the event of fire, any single pavilion could be sealed off from the others by means of iron doors.

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, and long, bright corridors on the south side of each ward served as recreation areas during the day. (The ugly, iron-grated porches that disfigure the fronts of the patients' quarters are later additions.)

From drawings preserved at Harvard University's Houghton Library, we can see that Richardson's ideas for the exterior of the majestic administration building changed several times before the board approved the final design in 1872. 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. (The towers were never intended to house any functions and to this day are unfinished on the inside.) In the final resolution of his design, Richardson had drawn inspiration from contemporary British Gothic Revival architects.

In 1876, pressed to economize, Richardson suggested that the three outer pavilions on each side of the administration building be constructed of brick rather than stone, as he originally intended. The drawings he made in 1876-1877 for these brick wards were his final efforts on behalf of the project. Others oversaw the completion of the buildings according to his plans. The most notable was Peter Emslie, a respected Buffalo engineer. The twin towered administration building and the pavilions for male patients to the east of it were opened in 1880. (The three brick pavilions on this side were demolished in the 1960s.) By 1896, Emslie had finished the western range of pavilions for female patients.

The walls of the administration building and the pavilions to either side impress us as steep cliffs of rough-faced Medina sandstone, a reddish-brown stone quarried in Orleans County. Richardson enhanced their rocky texture with plainly finished blocks of the same material for doors and windows and with simple geometric designs that recall Romanesque ornament. The stout halfcolumns and strapping round arches that frame the main entrance to the administration building would have drawn the special admiration of medieval craftsmen.

From the beginning, Frederick Law Olmsted helped shape the Buffalo hospital. The project was, in fact, the first major work on which he and Richardson joined forces. Later, they became fast friends and frequent collaborators. The final version of the landscape plan, which Olmsted developed alone in 1876, called for treating the front area as park-like open space. Olmsted, who with Vaux had also laid out the grounds of the Hudson River State Hospital at Poughkeepsie and the Hartford Retreat in Connecticut, believed that simple landscapes of tree-shaded lawns would exert a therapeutic effect on troubled minds.

On his plan, Olmsted indicated dense plantings bordering sections of roads and paths. He carried the same treatment along the property boundary where he wished to screen the grounds from the outside world. On Forest Avenue, however, he left an opening in this wall of green to allow passersby a view of Richardson's splendid administration building. Behind the hospital buildings, a large farm stretched to Scajaquada Creek. Here for many years the institution raised food for its own use and provided patients with what physicians considered beneficial employment. Today, the Buffalo State College campus (begun in the 1920s) occupies most of the former farmland.

The imposing towers of the Buffalo Psychiatric Center have been Buffalo landmarks since their completion in 1880. Especially when seen illuminated at night, they are a breathtaking sight. Since last September, thanks to the efforts of Assemblyman Sam Hoyt and the generosity of the Niagara Mohawk Power Company, the Ciminelli Construction Company, and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the twin spires have commanded our attention in this new and dramatic way. The towers forcefully remind us of the important place that Buffalo occupies in the nation's initial efforts to care for the mentally ill with dignity and humanity. Likewise, the picturesque skyline speaks of the lofty aspirations that early civic leaders had for Buffalo as it began its rise to prominence among the world's modern cities in recogmtlon ot tne slgmtlcance of the entire Richardson complex, the Secretary of the Interior has included the buildings on both the National Register of Historic Places and the highly selective National Historic Landmark list.

But the story does not end there. In the spring of 1998, Mayor Anthony Masiello asked Frank McGuire, head of The McGuire Group, to convene a committee of citizens and government agencies to once again tackle the difficult problem of finding a new use for these historic buildings. (An earlier effort in 1992 involving preservationists from around the country resulted in the 430 page book, Changing Places: Remaking Institutional Buildings.) The National Trust for Historic Preservation, which regards Richardson's buildings as one of the country's foremost endangered landmarks, also agreed to help. Out of these discussions, an exciting reuse plan has emerged.

With the cooperation of Muriel Howard, president of Buffalo State College, negotiations are seriously under way between the college, the Buffalo Board of Education, the Buffalo Psychiatric Center, the city, and the state to transform Richardson's celebrated edifice into the new home of the Olmsted School and certain Buffalo State education programs. (The BPC would continue its inpatient and outpatient services at this location.) If these plans are approved, the community can look forward to a solution that is sure to draw national acclaim. Richardson's newly lighted towers have come to personify the prospect of a resplendent future for this great American landmark.

Francis R. Kowsky is professor of Art History at Buffalo State College and the authr of books and articles on 19th century American architecture. His book Country, Park and City: The Architecture and Life of Calvert Vaux (Oxford University press, 1998) recounts the life of Frederick Law Olmsted's brilliant partner.

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