Seeking Refuge in the Buffalo State Asylum
Updated: Aug 29, 2019
Located just outside of the City of Buffalo's immediate downtown area is Hotel Henry, previously known as the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane. This jaw-dropping 145-year-old property, built by America's leading architects, was once home to the enlightened treatment for people with mental illness. Today, it is still a sight to behold.
Located just outside of the City of Buffalo's immediate downtown area, I had the chance to delve into Buffalo's breath-taking architecture by partnering with Visit Buffalo-Niagara and the Richardson Olmsted Campus. Under the guidance of our knowledgable docents, well-versed in the history of the Complex from its inception up to the modern day, Sharon and Roseanne brought us back in time to a world that I would have otherwise not discovered.
As we drove up to the expansive building, I found myself remarking that this Richardsonian Romanesque state-of-the-art 'Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane' appeared to be a castle. In fact, I think that this National Historic Landmark just may have been my favourite building in the entire city, thanks to the fact that the jaw-dropping 145-year-old property, containing 51,097 square metres (550,000 square feet) of buildings, was once home to the enlightened treatment for people with mental illness, developed by Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride. He was the same man who helped design the large Medina red sandstone and brick hospital buildings — whose construction began in 1870 — with the well-being of its future patients always kept at the forefront of his mind.
Though currently situated in a busy neighbourhood of modern day Buffalo, during its inception, the site was located on what was once the outskirts of the city. This impressive piece of land was originally eighty-two hectares (203 acres) and reached all the way to the Scajaquada Creek. While the entire complex took twenty-five years to construct (with its completion coming in 1896), this lengthy period of time was due to ten-year setback in construction due to lack of funds; after this delay, the five women’s wards to the west were finally built. Once finished, the Campus consisted of a central administrative tower and five wards set back in a staggered fashion on each side, totalling eleven buildings. All of these were connected by short, curved, two-storey corridors (of which you can see the tiling of in a photo when you scroll further through this article). Patients were segregated by sex, males on the east side and females on the west, with the wards housing patients up until the mid-1970s.
The well-known American architect Henry Hobson Richardson, father of the Richardsonian Romanesque architectural style, spearheaded the design of the asylum's beautiful buildings whilst taking into consideration all of Dr. Kirkbride's needs, while the grounds were designed by American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. As you can imagine, the current name of 'Richardson Olmsted Campus' is a combination of the names of the two men who brought this idea to fruition, and who made a world of a difference to the lives of patients seeking assistance in the city of Buffalo and beyond.
The Complex itself operated as a self-sufficient community, featuring its own blacksmith, bakery, and a railroad line. There was a farm located on the northern half of the site, designed along with the expansive walkways and paths by Olmsted. In-patients helped with the farming and managed livestock as part of their therapy, as working and keeping busy was perceived to have curative benefits. This patient-conducted work was viewed as entirely therapeutic by its staff, with an early superintendent of the Buffalo State Asylum, Dr. Judson B. Andrews, claiming that “[e]mployment in an asylum is strictly a medical question and should be directed by the physician and prescribed [just] as medicine and diet are.” This occupational therapy also included working on looms and woodworking, among other activities, with a shop even being erected onsite to sell these handmade products.
When patients were not working, they could wander about their wards, measuring a whopping sixty-four metres (210 feet) in length, and four and a half metres (fifteen feet) wide, with stunningly spacious four and a half metre (sixteen foot) ceilings. In the collage below, you can see the original layout on the left (photo courtesy of the Buffalo Psychiatric Center) and the modern renovated space of the hotel on the right, which I took during my time there.
Even when wandering through these hallways today, you can clearly see that patient comfort was of the utmost importance when designing and constructing the wards, and the colour swatches of wall paint that you are shown prior to beginning your tour furthers this notion that brightness and light were seen as crucial to improving one's mental health. Of course, this knowledge has been cemented in the modern day.
These corridors were actually called 'day rooms', and patients were not only allowed, but encouraged to spend their days socializing in the naturally lit space. Rooms were smaller than typical, so that the people would prefer spending their time out in the hall conversing with others, rather than remaining cooped up their rooms. When walking through either the rehabilitated or unfixed sections of the Complex, you will find that the original maple floors are still intact today. This is just one of many testaments to the workmanship and quality of the building itself.
Patients also had a chance to frequent the Buffalo State Asylum's parlours, dining rooms, libraries, and music rooms throughout the various men's and women's wards; enjoy the Complex's well-maintained and stocked patient library (which housed over one thousand books); and attend religious services held each Sundays in the chapel, on the fourth floor of the Towers Building. During the week, this space was transformed into a spot for entertainment programmes involving music, jugglery, pantomimes, shadow pictures, short comedies, and dialogues and plays. Even a baseball field was eventually added to the property, in order to provide further active recreational opportunities for the patients, in addition to the exercises that already took place (including workouts in the on-site gyms and meandering along the outdoor pathways).
Toward the end of the tour, we were brought into one of the dilapidated, unoccupied buildings that remain adjacent to the resurrected central structure and home to the Hotel Henry (more on the lodge later). Upon entering this locked up area, everyone in the tour group had to put on a hard hat before embarking deeper into the once-useful hallways of the women's ward. Unfortunately, only those who nab tickets for the extremely popular — and rarely held — photography tours are allowed to take photos in section of the expansive property. However, in the collage above, containing two photos courtesy of the Richardson Olmsted Campus, you can see the state that these buildings are in.
These halls that have been since stripped of their glory and abandoned for half a century, eerily reminded me of my explorations through Camp 30 in Bowmanville, Canada. The corridor that we meandered through had caught on fire during (likely) the late 1970s or 1980s, charring the towering ceilings black and peeling the paint even further into flaky coils barely clinging to the plaster. This fire, along with the graffiti you can find interspersed throughout the space, was the result of squatters breaking into the property during the period of time when it was not in use and had been more or less forgotten by the city.
Though extremely creepy to see graffitied 'warning' signs intended to frighten off any other person who may break into the space, it certainly adds character to the otherwise useless building. That is, it's currently not being used, but will hopefully be rehabilitated to its former beauty and incorporated into the hotel the main building is being utilized for today.
Flash forward to the present day, and this $101.86 million CAD ($76.5 million USD) stabilization project has allowed for the central buildings to be turned into the Hotel Henry — officially called 'Hotel Henry Urban Resort Conference Center' — named after the architect who designed the structure, Henry Hobson Richardson. Today, you can book a night in a rehabilitated (not 'restored', as they were not resurrected exactly as they once were) patient room, wandering through the halls that are now a delicate mixture of the clean and open-air constructs of the modern day, fused with the intricate detailing and sturdy construction of America's past architecture.
Regardless of how you choose to wander the interior of the Campus, you're bound to find yourself falling head-over-heels for both its exterior and interior architecture. To see it all for yourself, you can book your public tour with the Richardson Olmsted Campus by clicking here, or make a reservation to stay at the Hotel Henry by clicking here.
To read more of our posts on the city of Buffalo, click here.
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