It may be hard to believe now, but the Richardson Olmsted Complex was going to be put up for auction in the summer of 1997.
The Pataki administration wanted to sell the National Historic Landmark's deteriorating and vacant hospital buildings and unused land to save millions on maintenance and make it available for private investment.
"It should be done," Sen. Dale Volker of Depew, a Republican member of the Senate mental heath committee, said in May 1997. "We're never going to use some of those buildings."
That didn't happen, of course. It took a lawsuit by preservationists, the persuasion of an architecturally minded publisher, the efforts of volunteers, a lot of taxpayer money and a private hotelier to find a new purpose for the site.
On Friday, InnVest Lodging's 88-room Hotel Henry Urban Resort and Conference Center becomes the first tenant at the Richardson Olmsted Complex in nearly a quarter century, with its opening day set for April 30.
The project, under the direction of New York City architect Deborah Berke Partners and local firm Flynn Battaglia Architects, puts the property on the tax rolls for the first time.
"This was an extraordinary, monumental effort," said Howard Zemsky, a former Richardson Center Corp. board member who now leads Empire State Development Corp. "It's a testament to the conviction of the people who made this happen, and a whole community that supports projects like this."
Key court ruling
The hotel will be in the main Towers Building and the buildings that flank it, occupying one-third of the complex's 463,000 square feet. The 100 Acres Kitchens at Hotel Henry also will open, with an architectural museum expected to open in December.
The complex – with the buildings designed by architect Henry Hobson Richardson, and the grounds by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux – is considered one of Buffalo's most acclaimed architectural masterpieces. The Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane – later the Buffalo Psychiatric Center – opened in 1896.
With changes to psychiatric services, use of the complex ended in 1974, with the exception of the Towers Building, which remained open until 1994.
Buffalo Public Schools considered putting its Olmsted school at the site, and SUNY Buffalo State also considered using the buildings. But both ideas were shelved. With the buildings in disrepair, the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed the complex on its list of the 11 most endangered buildings in the United States.
Frustrated by the failure of the state Dormitory Authority to take action, the Preservation Coalition of Erie County went to court – and won.
"There had been 10 years of besieging public officials to do stop-gap repairs to plug leaks, fix downspouts and even to cut the grass," recalled Tim Tielman, who was executive director.
In November 2002, the state Supreme Court ruled in the preservationists' favor, citing the little-used Public Buildings Law.
"That established that New York State had to maintain its historic landmarks, and it really changed the public perception of these buildings as savable," Tielman said. "It also set in motion Buffalo getting 100 million for the repair of the Richardson and other historic buildings."
'Made everybody believe'
The Pataki administration agreed to spend $7 million to stabilize buildings shortly before the decision was rendered, but it took Buffalo News Publisher Stanford Lipsey, who was also involved in restoring the Frank Lloyd Wright's Darwin Martin House, to persuade the governor to go all-in on saving the historic complex.
Monica Pellegrino Faix, the Richardson's executive director, recalled a story told to her by Judith Lipsey, Stanford's wife, after she and her husband were driving away from a ribbon-cutting for the Martin House.
"Judi said she thought they could rest and have a little time to themselves, but Stan said, 'Now, we have to do the H.H. Richardson Complex,' Faix said. "When he got his sights on something, he wouldn't let go of it. He made everybody believe that this could happen, when no one believed it before him."
Zemsky, who worked closely with Lipsey on the Richardson and Darwin Martin House projects, praised his late friend.
"Stan brought a unique, sort of singular level of passion and commitment and determination, which then translated itself into extraordinary philanthropy on this project," Zemsky said, noting the couple also gave $5 million for the Richardson's renovation.
Eight of the complex's 11 buildings remain to be developed.
"Stan liked to say 'the beginning is the beginning.' And here we are at the beginning, with much more to do," Faix said. "We can learn a lot from his simple phrase."
Money and experts
With Pataki's backing, the State Legislature in 2004 authorized $100 million to rehabilitate the complex, later reduced to $76.5 million after $16.5 million was used to help fund the Burchfield-Penney Art Center, and $7 million went to the Martin House project.
Lawmakers two years later created a not-for-profit board to oversee its turnaround, and another to create an architecture center, both of which Lipsey chaired. The state funds were first released in increments starting in 2007.
The newly created board brought the Urban Land Institute – experts in architecture, urban planning , land use and economic development – to Buffalo to help decide what should occur. To expedite the process, board member Howard Zemsky loaned the not-for-profit the $115,000 needed to bring the group in when government dollars were still tied up.
After meetings with various stakeholders and the public, the panel of experts made recommendations in May 2006 that turned into the blueprint the board has largely followed over the past 11 years.
Among the recommendations were reclaiming green space by consolidating parking away from the complex; restoring or rehabbing as much of the grounds as possible; putting a hotel into the renovated buildings; changing the site's name from the H.H. Richardson Complex to the Richardson Olmsted Complex; and stabilizing some of the buildings for future use. All came to pass.
"When you look back at that five-day panel process, here we are 11 years later cutting the ribbon on a project that's remarkably similar conceptually to what they imagined," Zemsky said.
Comprehensive studies commissioned by the board helped bring these goals to fruition.
"Every meeting we always moved the ball down the field," board member Paul Ciminelli said. "There was always progress."
A recommendation to put in housing hasn't happened, but board members say that remains a possibility.
Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz joined a line-up of speakers Thursday who praised the Richard Olmsted Complex's staff and volunteer board for making the building's opening a reality.
"When people walk through the doors and look at this place, they are not going to realize what it was," Polancarz said. "They're just going to realize what it is."