Against all odds, Richardson Complex on course to re-embrace its neighbors - The Buffalo News
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Against all odds, Richardson Complex on course to re-embrace its neighbors

Large panels of transparent glass rising 33 feet to an outdoor terrace have been designed to dramatically announce the Richardson Olmsted Complex’s new northern entrance.

The entryway, at the end of a stone piazza, will also reveal three wooden arches and Medina sandstone hidden by the former service entrance, while illuminating a double-sided stairwell that reaches from the lower level to the main floor.

Groundbreaking for the contemporary entrance, along with roads, footpaths and agrarian landscaping, is expected next spring, with completion in 2016, along with a previously announced boutique hotel, event and conference center, and accompanying architecture center.

“My favorite part of this is that it is contemporary, and how at the same time it highlights what is so beautiful about the complex,” said Monica Pellegrino Faix, executive director of Richardson Center Corp.

“The other thing that’s cool is the outdoor terrace that will allow hotel guests to come out and stand above the entrance.”

Regreening of the South Lawn along Forest Avenue – intended to reflect Frederick Law Olmsted’s original design, which required the relocation of two Buffalo Psychiatric Center parking lots away from the complex – is expected to be completed next week. The aesthetic improvements will herald a new parklike setting for a neighborhood long used to a dormant and unwelcome site.

A public meeting to discuss the changes occurring to the buildings and grounds will be held at 6 p.m. today in the Burchfield Penney Art Center, 1300 Elmwood Ave.

The dramatic progress at the Richardson Olmsted Complex – one of many rusting projects now in motion in Buffalo that critics said would never get off the ground – comes seven years after Richardson Center Corp. was established by then-Gov. George E. Pataki to oversee redevelopment, with $76.5 million in state funds available.

That was seven years after the National Trust for Historic Preservation, in Washington, D.C., listed the Richardson Olmsted Complex as “one of the nation’s most endangered sites.”

“I would say this project falls in that improbable project category, like the Darwin Martin House,” said Howard A. Zemsky, the Richardson Center’s president and a former president of Martin House Restoration Corp.

“The Richardson was considered improbable at best and impossible at worst, and the fact that we have come as far as we have is very gratifying.”

The modern-looking entrance wasn’t intended to imitate Henry Hobson Richardson’s design of the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane, in collaboration with landscape designers Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. The project would be the largest by the little-known Richardson, who was 31 when construction began in 1870. He was destined to be America’s first architect to achieve international fame and be grouped with Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright as the Big Three of American architecture.

“When we look at a building like this, Richardson is a god, a deity, and I am a mere mortal, so the idea was not to try to mimic him and build off what he did, but really be respectful of it,” said Stephen Brockman, who designed the entrance for Manhattan-based Deborah Berke Partners architects.

Just as the towers are lit from the outside, Brockman said, he wanted to show light as “a giant lantern” inside the entry that illuminates the stairs, which he referred to as “the filament.”

“We tried to come up with a 21st century solution to a late 19th century building,” Brockman said.

The state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation gave its support for removing a partly boarded-up stone wall addition to make way for the glass entrance. It will serve as the main entrance to the hotel being developed by INNVest Lodging, which operates The Mansion on Delaware Avenue.

There will be 150 parking spaces found in two lots to the west – “parking orchards” with plantings intended to make the lots appear smaller, while recalling the site’s original, therapeutic landscape – and parallel parking along a new entry road yet to be built off Rockwell Road.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to reveal so much of the interior architecture here that has long been hidden from public view, and to infuse it with a new spirit,” said Peter T. Flynn of Flynn Battaglia Architects, the project’s executive architect. Flynn has an extensive history of working on historic landmarks, including the Guaranty Building, Roycroft Campus and St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Flynn, who lives within “a stone’s throw” of the National Historic Landmark, said he’s also excited to use the building and beautified grounds as a nearby resident.

The first floor of the main building, the Towers Administration Building, will house a cafe, architecture center and amenities for guests and the public. The upper three floors will contain the hotel lobby and event and conference spaces. The hotel’s 88 guest rooms will be located in the two adjacent stone buildings.

Others on the design team are Boston-based historic preservation firm Goody Clancy; Andropogon Associates, a Philadelphia-based landscape architecture firm; and construction manager LP Cimenelli.

Richardson Center board member Barbara A. Campagna, who was chief architect at the National Trust for Historic Preservation for five years, praised what she said had been the board’s thoughtful deliberative process.

“I have found our preservation process to be one of the best, if not the best, I’ve ever gone through. We’ve been incredibly diligent,” said Campagna, who also oversaw restoration of the Federal Reserve Bank in New York City and for several years was the preservation architect consultant for Central Park. “Some people will say we’ve been working on this for seven years, but that’s not a lot of time to me, given that the complex has been endangered basically since the 1970s. We’ve done it the right way.”

Paul Goldberger, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and former architecture critic at the New Yorker magazine and the New York Times, said while in Buffalo in April to speak at the Society of Architectural Historians annual conference that he once doubted that there would ever be progress at the Richardson Olmsted Complex.

“There were things that I thought 10 years ago were impossible that are beginning to happen,” Goldberger said.

“Neighborhood revival is one, and so is the Richardson Olmsted Complex, which I thought would be fantastic to preserve but that we’d all be dead before it could happen. And now it is going to happen.”


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