Share this article

print logo

A peek into the future; A rehabbed portion of the Richardson Olmsted Complex will temporarily open for national preservation

Efforts to reuse Henry Hobson Richardson's landmark psychiatric hospital are taking a significant step forward.

After decades of disrepair, a rehabbed portion of the mammoth Medina sandstone and brick facility, now known as the Richardson Olmsted Complex, will temporarily open for the National Preservation Conference in October, providing a glimpse into its future.

The plan is to turn the tower building and two buildings flanking it, equaling close to one-third of the complex, into a boutique hotel and conference center, architecture center and possible Visit Buffalo Niagara satellite location. Construction is planned to begin by 2013, with the hotel and other entities opening in 2014.

Visitors entering the iconic patina-capped tower building, last occupied in the early 1990s, will see repaired and replaced plaster walls, now painted taupe and salmon; repaired 16-foot-tall ceilings and ornamental crown moldings; and refurbished maple floors, interior woodwork and grand staircase. The area covers two hallways, an entryway, three rooms and a curved connector -- about half the first floor.

"It looks great. I never thought it would be looking that good in my lifetime," said Frank Kowsky, a Richardson scholar and retired Buffalo State College art history professor who toured the building recently. "It's only limited to the ground floor and the staircase, but it's quite something."

The work reflects progress made by the Richardson Center Corp., the nonprofit agency established by Gov. George E. Pataki in July 2006 to chart a course of action for the National Historic Landmark.

"The renovation sets a high standard for future work," said Monica Pellegrino Faix, project coordinator. "Watching the progress has been exciting, from the plaster details to the original wood floor, and we are thrilled to show off the site to the public and investors."

Faix said it cost about $600,000 to rehab the tower building, including updating mechanicals. It's part of $13 million spent to date, with about $10 million for stabilization and $3 million on preconstruction costs.

The cost for the "baseline plan" being pursued is about $53 million, with $14 million eligible for historic tax credits.

Stanford Lipsey, The Buffalo News publisher who is chairman of the all-volunteer Richardson Center Corp. and Richardson Architecture Center, said saving the architectural gem was a difficult undertaking but would be a huge benefit to Buffalo and Western New York.

"There's no question about the period architecture we have, and it's superb. Now that we have the Louis Sullivan Guaranty building and Frank Lloyd Wright's Darwin Martin House Complex, this is the third jewel in the crown," said Lipsey, who was instrumental in lobbying then-Gov. Pataki and Western New York legislators to secure $76.5 million in state funds to stabilize and rehabilitate the complex.

"Now we finally can start looking for people to occupy this place, and to not only preserve the building as a landmark, but to make it economically viable so we can go ahead in the future and have some kind of assurance that this place will continue on," Lipsey said.

Barry Alberts, of City Visions Associations of Louisville, Ky., the project's development consultant, envisions a boutique hotel with about 100 rooms.

"We have begun to talk quietly to investors and operators, and there is pretty strong interest in this project from lots of different entities. Every day we get more positive indications that this is a really good project," Alberts said. "There are a lot of hotel properties that like historical buildings, and buildings with interesting histories."

He said having the hotel near a college and art museums has considerable appeal.

Howard Zemsky, president of the Richardson Center Corp., said the project is continuing to move forward in a positive direction.

"We continue to make progress on executing our plan, and finishing this space will only enhance the interest we will get in the project. We have good interest in the marketplace, and we're excited about that," Zemsky said.

The former Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane, with eight sandstone and three brick buildings, was started in 1870 and completed more than two decades later. It was the largest project by Richardson, and his first in a style that came to be known as Richardsonian Romanesque.

The buildings have been largely stabilized and sealed from the elements in recent years, although more work remains, Pellegrino said.

Foit-Albert Associates is the architectural firm responsible for stabilization, which currently includes closing masonry openings in the brick wards and carrying out asbestos abatement in the two ward buildings on either side of the tower building.

The grounds were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and business partner Calvert Vaux, who developed Buffalo's interconnected park and parkway system, as well as New York's Central Park.

Next spring, parking spaces for Buffalo Psychiatric Center will be relocated to the west side of the Nicholas J. Strozzi Building to allow the nine-acre South Lawn to be landscaped with "Olmstedian elements," and make the road more curvilinear.

Pellegrino said full restoration is not possible since the Strozzi Building is on the site of the original roadway.

To reserve limited space on a public tour between Oct. 15 and Oct. 23, email info@richardson-olmsted.com.

email: msommer@buffnews.com