Walking through the Richardson Olmsted Complex inspired New York City architect Deborah Berke this week.
It wasn’t always that way.
“When I first walked through when we were going after this job, the condition was heartbreaking because it is a great work of American architecture,” Berke said. “It’s socially important, architecturally important, and the fact that it was let go like that was sad.”
Back in Buffalo three years later – and looking over the progress as the design architect for the Richardson project – Berke liked what she saw at one of the most highly anticipated restoration projects in the region.
A new slate roof with copper flashing extends over the Towers Building. Red sandstone, shipped from India, covers the scarred stone in an elevator shaft where patients were once transported in the former psychiatric center.
Interior walls are freshly plastered and painted. A curved connector hallway – stripped to its wood frame – is being restored, with naturally lighted hallways springing to life and hotel rooms with 15-foot ceilings taking form.
They’re among the telltale signs showing the once-moribund and deteriorating National Historic Landmark appears on track to reopen in April 2017.
The $70 million, 88-room Hotel Henry Urban Resort and Conference Center is the centerpiece of the project at 400 Forest Ave. in the Elmwood neighborhood.
“So this is good news,” said Berke, who will become dean of the Yale University School of Architecture in June.
She called it “an honor” to work on restoring the Richardson complex.
“Richardson was obviously one of the great American architects,” Berke said. “Buffalo is very fortunate in its architectural history. It was a rich and vibrant city when it was a good time to be one.”
The Richardson Olmsted Complex opened in 1880.
The 180,000-square-foot space – designed by famed architect H.H. Richardson, with the grounds designed by landscape architect titans Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux – will also include a 3,000-square-foot Buffalo Architectural Center later that year.
“We are extremely excited about saving this majestic old building, and giving it a 21st-century program and revitalization,” said Berke of Deborah Berke Partners. “I think all of Buffalo should be very proud that years and years of hard work by a lot of dedicated people made this possible.”
The project centers on the Towers Building, also known as Building 45, where a public gathering space including the restaurant and architecture center will be on the first floor, with the hotel lobby on the second. Event and conference activities will be on the third and fourth floors. The two wings, Building 10 to the east and Building 44 to the west, will house the hotel rooms.
“When I go through the building, I’m really amazed at the skill that the design team has used to create a hospitality venue, while still preserving the sense of place,” said Monica Pellegrino Faix, Richardson Center Corp.’s executive director.
Preserving the past
Inside Building 44, original features are being protected and restored. They include decorative encaustic tile, pocket doors, a sandstone fireplace, colored glass transom lights and a curved cove ceiling, but also plaster walls and corridors.
Those are the kinds of details the National Park Service and the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation want preserved. So does Flynn Battaglia Architects, the local firm designated as executive architect for the Richardson project.
The firm has worked on several of Buffalo’s architectural gems, including the Guaranty Building, Erie Community College City Campus, the Roycroft Campus and Asbury Delaware Church, now known as Babeville.
The Richardson-designed building was once part of the nationwide network of Kirkbride hospitals that started in the 19th century to help people with mental ailments.
“Kirkbride believed light and openness and space would be good for the patients, and be restorative,” Flynn said. “So we hope what we are doing is historically interesting, and offers restorative qualities for the people who stay here as well.”
The largest room is on the Tower Building’s fourth floor, in the former chapel of the one-time Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane. The space, which has been structurally reinforced and now has upgraded mechanicals, will double as a ballroom and main conference space that can seat 350.
Berke came to Buffalo on Wednesday to give the Louise Bethune Lecture at the University at Buffalo’s School of Architecture and Planning.
She cited the challenges of adapting the former psychiatric center into a modern hotel. The buildings didn’t naturally lend themselves to becoming public spaces or guest rooms. And the thickness of the walls, the wide width of the hallways and the buildings’ size relative to the amount of usable space posed major challenges.
Solutions followed. Former patient rooms were combined to make contemporary hotel rooms. Space for the bathrooms in some cases was expanded slightly into the corridor, and made to resemble an armoire-like piece of furniture.
A new north entrance for the Towers Building rises above the lower level used for the architecture center and kitchen. Now, a modern, glass entryway with a dual stairwell will lead guests to the main floor.
Started under Pataki
The Richardson Center Corp. was formed in 2006 by then-Gov. George E. Pataki to come up with a plan for the Richardson complex. The State Legislature approved some $76 million for the 463,000-square-foot West Side site, spanning 42 acres.
M&T Bank’s $16 million in historic tax credits proved critical. And the public offered input at 10 public meetings.
The money has been used to stabilize buildings, restore 600 windows, renovate the South Lawn, update mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems and install a five-story elevator shaft. The funds will also pay for new electric, water and gas services, a new landscape and circulation system on the north side of the site and other costs for the hotel and architecture center.
The slate roof and copper flashing was paid for in part by a Save America’s Treasures grant that Sen. Charles E. Schumer and then-Sen. Hillary Clinton secured.
Innvest Lodging Services announced in January 2013 that it would operate the hotel. After 10 years, there’s just one more year remaining before the Richardson Olmsted Complex reopens.
Richardson Center Corp. board member and architect Kelly Hayes McAlonie is excited about the Richardson’s transformation.
“The hotel is going to be beautiful, and the rooms will be exquisite,” McAlonie said.
Public tours starting this month at the Richardson buildings, announced Friday, will be held through September.