Defying the odds, years of effort now paying off at Richardson Complex - The Buffalo News

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Defying the odds, years of effort now paying off at Richardson Complex

The improbability of rehabilitating the historic Richardson Olmsted Complex is fast fading away as reports of progress continue to flow in. Architect Henry Hobson Richardson would be proud. So, too, would landscape designers Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux.

The massive complex, dating back to 1870, served as a state psychiatric hospital until the mid-1970s, when it began its descent into disrepair. In the coming years it will gain a new life as another treasure that is making the region an architectural destination.

A recent story by News staff reporter Mark Sommer detailed work on the new northern entrance to the H.H. Richardson masterpiece, which is anchored by twin Romanesque towers.

Regal in description, the complex’s new northern entrance sits at the end of a stone piazza and will reveal the original exterior of the building, including three wooden arches and Medina sandstone. They were hidden by a service entrance built later in the life of the complex. The rehabilitation work is correcting a wrong.

The new north entry will be the second front door to the complex, one more accommodating to vehicles, with a new roadway and access to parking. The historic main entrance to the south will be maintained.

The new entry solves a problem that now sees visitors walking into the basement. It satisfies the desire to allow visitors to access the building through a graceful and elegant entrance. But it also is done in a way that is respectful of the history of the complex and continues to highlight what is special about the building.

Groundbreaking for the new entrance, along with roads, footpaths and landscaping, is expected next spring. Completion is set for 2016, along with a previously announced boutique hotel, event and conference center and architecture center. The regreening taking place on the South Lawn along Forest Avenue is in keeping with Olmsted’s original design.

The restoration project was once considered inconceivable, given the desperate disrepair of the complex and its vast size.

A volunteer board of local and national members established by then-Gov. George E. Pataki has spent seven years working to reverse the state of neglect. The stabilization and turnaround efforts required a huge investment, with $76.5 million in state funds available. What is re-emerging as a result of a public-private partnership is the grand vision by building and landscape architects whose work is still revered.

The improvements herald the return of a new park-like setting to a neighborhood that has endured the antithesis of curb appeal for decades. Those already drawn to the historical aspects of the site, even in its state of severe disrepair, will be gratified to see it restored to some of its previous splendor.

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