2 In Travel Stories

Exploring Buffalo, New York: The Richardson Olmsted Complex

“Have you ever confused life with a dream? Or stolen something when you have the cash? Or thought your train moving while sitting still? Maybe I was just crazy. Maybe it was the 60s. Or maybe I was just a girl… Interrupted.” – Girl Interrupted

The Richardson Olmsted Complex, Buffalo, New York by Stephanie Sadler, Little Observationist

The Richardson Olmsted Complex, Buffalo, New York by Stephanie Sadler, Little Observationist

The Richardson Olmsted Complex, Buffalo, New York by Stephanie Sadler, Little Observationist

On the week of Halloween, it seems appropriate to write about what has in the past been rumoured to be “the most haunted” building in Buffalo, New York: The Richardson Olmsted Complex. Though under its current state of renovation – as it transforms into a brand new hotel, an architecture center and a conference center, this is a reputation the current team are trying to shake, instead presenting it as somewhere inviting and inclusive. And it is nice to see my hometown embracing its history and reviving places like this so they are open and accessible to visitors. In fact, the city itself is in the midst of a revival and there is much to see there as Jorge wrote about in his latest post.

The Richardson Olmsted Complex, Buffalo, New York by Stephanie Sadler, Little Observationist

The Richardson Olmsted Complex, Buffalo, New York by Stephanie Sadler, Little Observationist

The Richardson Olmsted Complex, Buffalo, New York by Stephanie Sadler, Little Observationist

The Richardson Olmsted Complex, Buffalo, New York by Stephanie Sadler, Little Observationist

This abandoned mental hospital has always been a place of fascination to me, having seen its recognisable form from a distance many times. But I had never actually walked up close to it until our most recent visit. It is ominous yet simultaneously majestic, eerily beautiful somehow with pointed towers, Romanesque architecture, barred windows and a derelict state which combine to trigger a sense of trepidation as well as a deep curiosity about its history.

The Richardson Olmsted Complex, Buffalo, New York by Stephanie Sadler, Little Observationist

The Richardson Olmsted Complex, Buffalo, New York by Stephanie Sadler, Little Observationist

The Richardson Olmsted Complex, Buffalo, New York by Stephanie Sadler, Little Observationist

The Richardson Olmsted Complex, Buffalo, New York by Stephanie Sadler, Little Observationist

Originally called Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane, construction began 187o and was completed in 1896. It was an “experimental” hospital with patients on its grounds until it closed in 1974. While it is now basically on the campus of Buffalo State College, it was originally in the middle of nowhere, on about 200 acres of farmland. The idea, innovative in the mental health field at the time, was to integrate the landscape with the medical treatment. Patients would work the land as a form of therapy and the food grown would be served in the hospital. Over the years, the grounds grew smaller and smaller as the expanding city closed in around it.

The Richardson Olmsted Complex, Buffalo, New York by Stephanie Sadler, Little Observationist

The Richardson Olmsted Complex, Buffalo, New York by Stephanie Sadler, Little Observationist

The Richardson Olmsted Complex, Buffalo, New York by Stephanie Sadler, Little Observationist

The Richardson Olmsted Complex, Buffalo, New York by Stephanie Sadler, Little Observationist

There were separate wards for men and women and some spaces for recreation such as a library and a chapel as well as laundry rooms and the like where patients would work. Wards were connected by curved hallways with walls 5-feet thick – curved to prevent beds being added to this space which was a common practice at the time. The administration area was in the middle and had four floors, then there was a section on each side with three floors, then it dropped to an area with two and finally the single floor spaces on the ends which is where the most violent patients were allocated beds.

The Richardson Olmsted Complex, Buffalo, New York by Stephanie Sadler, Little Observationist

The Richardson Olmsted Complex, Buffalo, New York by Stephanie Sadler, Little Observationist

The Richardson Olmsted Complex, Buffalo, New York by Stephanie Sadler, Little Observationist

The Richardson Olmsted Complex, Buffalo, New York by Stephanie Sadler, Little Observationist

A lot of information exists about the original planning, construction and architecture of the building itself as well as the efforts of the community to save it after it closed and the current plans for regeneration of the space. However, there is little information that I could find about what happened in between: what sort of treatment took place here (besides some notes I’ve found about shock therapy and various other outdated practices that were normal at the time), whether patients were happy, whether they abused as some accounts do suggest, who they were as individuals, what their lives were like before they were admitted and why they ended up here, etc.

The Richardson Olmsted Complex, Buffalo, New York by Stephanie Sadler, Little Observationist

The Richardson Olmsted Complex, Buffalo, New York by Stephanie Sadler, Little Observationist

The Richardson Olmsted Complex, Buffalo, New York by Stephanie Sadler, Little Observationist

The Richardson Olmsted Complex, Buffalo, New York by Stephanie Sadler, Little Observationist

There are a few comments from neighbours on various blog posts. They talk about hearing screams at night and seeing patients call out for cigarettes from the caged porch areas, and a few from those who worked there directly with the patients and in general administration, but I’ve found nothing that truly goes into depth to tell the real story of this place. There is something secretive about it, which I suppose makes it all the more intriguing.

The Richardson Olmsted Complex, Buffalo, New York by Stephanie Sadler, Little Observationist

The Richardson Olmsted Complex, Buffalo, New York by Stephanie Sadler, Little Observationist

The Richardson Olmsted Complex, Buffalo, New York by Stephanie Sadler, Little Observationist

The Richardson Olmsted Complex, Buffalo, New York by Stephanie Sadler, Little Observationist

This National Historic Landmark is in fact soon to be transformed into an “urban resort hotel and conference center” – the Hotel Henry which is, apparently, filling up quickly with reservations along with the Buffalo Architecture Center which will launch in 2017.

As much as I would have loved to during our visit, we weren’t able to enter the building. But, this blog post from the Kingston Lounge has some stunning photos of the interior (well worth a look and interesting comments too!), and here’s a photography project called Thorazine Dream and another called Fortress and a selection of historical photos. Further reading? Here’s a 450 page report to keep you occupied for a while, though mainly on the history of the architecture itself and its redevelopment.

The Richardson Olmsted Complex, Buffalo, New York by Stephanie Sadler, Little Observationist

The Richardson Olmsted Complex, Buffalo, New York by Stephanie Sadler, Little Observationist

The Richardson Olmsted Complex, Buffalo, New York by Stephanie Sadler, Little Observationist

I did find this video with a few interesting interviews by Jessica Schwarztrauber – the most personal stories I’ve come across.:

If you have stories or memories of this place, please do leave a comment. I’d love to know more.


Note: This is not a sponsored post, but Visitor Services Coordinator Corey Fabian Borenstein from the Richardson Center Corporation reached out to share some information on the current redevelopment of the Richardson Olmsted Complex:

“Today, the Richardson Center Corporation (RCC) is working to transform the Richardson Olmsted Complex into a vibrant hospitality venue and cultural amenity for Buffalo through one of the largest historic preservation projects in the nation. This massive reuse project starts with Hotel Henry Urban Resort Conference Center and the new Buffalo Architecture Center, both opening in 2017. This first phase of redevelopment will serve as an anchor to save the buildings and create a return on investment for years to come. The RCC is excited to welcome visitors, architectural tourists, community members, and all others interested in the past, present, and future of this 140-year-old National Historic Landmark.”

For more information, visit: https://richardson-olmsted.com/

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2 Comments

  • Reply
    ChicAvantGarde
    November 2, 2016 at 11:04 am

    Wow….Amazing history and story – the photos are superb! That building looks so foreboding. I feel very sad for those that were left to fend for themselves in the midst of their mental illness. Very sad indeed. Thank you for sharing this.

  • Reply
    Michael Woolf
    November 2, 2016 at 1:26 pm

    Hi Steph

    A very close parallel is what used to be known as Colney Hatch — now a facy apartment complex in North London. An extract from local history:

    Colney Hatch Asylum
    What is now Princess Park Manor was until 1993 a hospital for people with mental disabilities called Friern Hospital. When it was built the hospital was known as The Middlesex County Pauper Lunatic Asylum at Colney Hatch. When it was opened in 1851 Colney Hatch was the largest asylum in Europe. The building had six miles of corridor and the front was nearly 1,884 ft. long and occupied 14 acres. There was a large farm on what is now Friern Village, and workshops for tailoring and other trades. The patients were involved in the cooking and cleaning of the hospital. The first patients arrived on 17 July 1851.
    The asylum was built for 1000 patients, but as the population of Middlesex grew the asylum became overcrowded. Extensions were built between 1857 and 1859 so that 2000 patients could be housed. By the 1860s the hospital staff were unable to cope with all the new patients, and sadly they had to resort to the straitjacket, and other methods of ‘restraint’.
    By the 1880s conditions at Colney Hatch, together with the general fear and prejudice against mental disorders, made the asylum unpopular with local people. The word ‘Colney Hatch’ (like Bedlam) had became a general word in London for anything unusual or irrational.

    I remember that usage very well when I was a kid. It was als still an asylum iuntil at least the 1980s — a grim place.

    Very interseting Steph. I’m sorry it didn’t actually become part of thu university as, it seems to me, a natural transition from lunatic asylum to institution of higher learning!

    Yrs

    Mike

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