By Corey Fabian-Barrett (Borenstein)
The first time I stood in front of the Richardson Olmsted Campus in Buffalo, New York, it wasn’t hard to imagine the bustling hospital it had once been. It was a bitterly cold day in early 2016, and the site was alive with construction workers, plasterers, architects, and experts of all stripes, all working toward one goal: bringing the 145-year-old National Historic Landmark back to life. But the Richardson Olmsted Campus, winner of a 2018 Richard H. Driehaus Foundation National Preservation Award, wasn’t always so vibrant.
Originally built starting in 1871, the landmark was designed by great American architect Henry Hobson Richardson and the famed landscape team of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. Under its original name of the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane, the site served as a state-of-the-art hospital for almost a century, incorporating Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride’s system of enlightened treatment for people with mental illness. With Richardson’s copper-topped towers and a massive wingspan more than a mile around, the buildings quickly became an iconic part of Buffalo’s built environment and a focal point for the surrounding neighborhood.
The site operated as a hospital until 1974, when the last patient moved into a more modern facility. For the next 40 years, the site would remain largely unused. Owned by the state and inaccessible to its community, the 500,000-square-foot landmark slowly decayed.
By the time I stood shivering in front of those iconic towers in 2016, the campus had already come a long way from those dark days. In 2006 the nonprofit Richardson Center Corporation formed with funding from the state of New York and a mission of finding new uses for one of Buffalo’s most recognizable buildings. The work began with a historic structures report, cultural landscape report, and master plan for the site’s future. By 2012 all 13 of the historic buildings had been stabilized. In 2013 the renewed South Lawn greenspace opened, giving the public access to this landscape for the first time. And in 2014 construction began on the first rehabilitation project: the three center buildings, including the iconic towers building. I joined the team at the Richardson in 2016, and I can attest that none of these accomplishments came easily to our beloved, but complicated project.
First and foremost, the history of the site is delicate. The Richardson served as a hospital for people with mental illness for almost a century, and we recognized the importance of showing respect for the people who lived, worked, and received treatment onsite. Any reuse plans needed to respect and honor the site’s history, as well as overcome an abundance of disrespectful rumors about the former hospital being haunted.
Second, the unique architecture presented its own challenges. As a Kirkbride hospital, our site follows a very specific plan dating to 1854, which featured buildings with massively long wings attached to each other by curved, connecting corridors. A 210-foot-long corridor punctuated by small patient rooms runs the full length of each building. To many potential development partners, this peculiar design was simply wasted space. Our challenge became finding new uses for the building that could complement and take advantage of the unique structures.
Did I mention that our site was also designated a National Historic Landmark in 1986? It was, and so the Richardson team became experts in navigating the ins and outs of rehabilitating a landmark with our partners at the state historic preservation office.
Another challenge was the Richardson Center Corporation’s decision to act as the developer. Nonprofits don’t typically act as real estate developers, so we took a definite step outside our comfort zone, especially with a project of this scale. Fortunately, we had two big helping hands: our passionate and active volunteer board of directors, which regularly stepped up to ensure the project’s success, and financial support from New York state. Rehabilitation of the Richardson has been made possible by a true public-private partnership—without funding from the state and the historic tax credit program, it would not have been possible.
It would have been easy to unilaterally decide the future of the Richardson, but we valued the insights of our neighbors, believing firmly that anything we did at the Richardson had to be something our community was excited about and believed in. Practically every person in the area has some connection to the site, so community support was critical. We organized a community advisory group and held a series of public meetings to ensure that our neighbors’ voices were heard in the reuse process. From these meetings, we understood that the Richardson needed to be a mixed-use site open to all. We continue to use our community’s foundational vision of “live/work/play” as we think about the site’s future.
Each choice we made throughout the rehabilitation process has helped create a vibrant community space with an exciting future. One of our earliest choices was to approach reusing the site in phases—it was simply too big to tackle all at once—and we’re thrilled to see this approach not only working at our site but also inspiring the reuse of other large purpose-built structures across the country.
I’m happy to report that the Richardson Olmsted Campus is now thriving. The site features a new hotel, a conference and events center, and a restaurant—and an architecture center is on the way. We already welcome thousands of visitors each year, and we are eager to begin imagining new futures for the remaining 350,000 square feet of space at the Richardson. We provide tours to keep the history of the site alive, and we still hold those public meetings to make sure that ongoing reuse is headed in the right direction. Our site will always have its unique challenges, but we’re lucky to have a supportive community and so excited to see what the Richardson Olmsted Campus becomes next.
Corey Fabian-Barrett (Borenstein) is the historian and manager of visitor experiences at the Richardson Olmsted Campus. Read more about the other recipience of the 2018 Richard H. Driehaus Foundation National Preservation Award.