Originally the Buffalo State Hospital, the H. H. Richardson Complex was the largest commission of architect Henry Hobson Richardson’s prolific career, which sadly ended with his death before its completion.
A gorgeously daunting specimen of the popular style named “Richardsonian Romanesque” after the architect himself, the complex was surrounded by grounds designed by renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, and consisted of 11 buildings, all connected by curving corridors. The style was both elegant and imposing, with two towering spires giving it the appearance of a fortress.
The Buffalo State Hospital was built in 1870 and was a product of the Kirkbride Plan, an effort by early mental health advocate Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride to erect enormous “sanctuaries,” designed with deliberate detail meant to promote rehabilitation. The trademark architectural aspects of his “Moral Treatment” method live on in a handful of both restored and abandoned structures, including the Hudson River State Hospital and Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum.
Despite all of Kirkbride’s efforts, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and the stigma of mental illness could not be simply erased with a therapeutic setting. A glut of patients in the 20th century created the exact environment the doctor was trying to move away from. The curved corridors designed specifically to discourage beds in hallways soon became packed with patients, the system of keeping them separated by gender and degree of illness completely broke down. As occupancy soared over the building’s capacity by thousands, Buffalo State College began horning in on the real estate, claiming half of the property and consuming most of the scenic grounds.
In 1974, the patients were moved from the now outdated Kirkbride building, and a portion of it was kept as an administration and storage area while the rest was abandoned. As with any asylum, the dark history of the complex and its former inhabitants attracted ghost hunters and thrill seekers looking to sneak into its decaying walls and give themselves a decent scare. In 2008, the Preservation Coalition took legal action to preserve the building, and the state of New York allotted $100 million to its restoration. 2013 brought the announcement of a plan to repurpose a section of the complex into a hotel and event center, with the long neglected grounds getting a makeover as well. The hope is that the newly resurrected architectural treasure will become a cultural hub for the city, while retaining its historical value.
Know Before You Go
It adjoins the Buffalo State Campus and there are many places to park. Bicycle paths leading north to the Erie Canal Bicycle trail begin nearby. There isn't a dedicated bicycle path that connects to downtown Buffalo, making the Hotel Henry a good starting point for a west to east ride of the Erie Canal Bicycle Trail.
The date in roman numerals on the cornerstone of the main building is based on the Mason's Calendar, not the Christian Calendar.