A curvy, graveled path, framed by small blocks of granite cobblestone and met by native plantings, encircles a nine-acre green space.
Benches, old-fashioned streetlights, a Medina sandstone pedestrian bridge and a meadow all add to the bucolic ambience in a place where respite and recreation beckon.
The Richardson Olmsted Complex’s reconstructed South Lawn has been in the works for a while, but today the public will get its first official look at the area.
The $5 million project reverses decades of neglect and is a harbinger of next spring’s groundbreaking for a hotel, event and conference space, architecture center and new northern entrance, scheduled to open in the spring of 2016 in the iconic Towers Administration Building and the two buildings that flank it.
“The South Lawn landscape is contemporary, but it’s also referential to Frederick Law Olmsted, so it’s a combination of a new, exciting place that at the same time is reflective of our history,” said Monica Pellegrino Faix, executive director of the Richardson Center Corp.
“I didn’t think in my lifetime I would see anything even like the South Lawn being done over there. It’s wonderful, it’s great,” said Francis R. Kowsky, a distinguished professor emeritus of art history at SUNY Buffalo State and the author of the recent book “The Best Planned City in the World: Olmsted, Vaux, and the Buffalo Park System.”
The improved landscape is the result of deliberate planning by the Richardson Center Corp., an all-volunteer state agency led by former Buffalo News Publisher Stanford Lipsey. The agency was established in 2006 by then-Gov. George E. Pataki to oversee the site’s redevelopment, which preservationists had long urged, with $76.5 million in state funds.
A Cultural Landscape Report was commissioned to provide a comprehensive history of the National Historic Landmark, where Olmsted collaborated with architect Henry Hobson Richardson. The study identified existing conditions and reviewed historic features, which informed decisions on how to be respectful to the history of the site while guiding where change could be allowed.
Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s landscape design for the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane, which opened in 1871, had fit into the 19th century philosophy for mental hospital design. The outdoors played a central role in rehabilitation, so the pastoral South Lawn was complemented with a working farm on the northern side.
Too much greenspace had been lost and too many buildings added to the site to attempt a complete restoration. The drive from Richmond Avenue to the Towers building was also in a different location.
So, a rehabilitation that incorporated the past with present needs was pursued. Two parking lots used by Buffalo Psychiatric Center were moved farther east, which allowed more greenspace to be reclaimed and allowed the entrance road to curve into and direct attention toward the Towers’ Administration Building.
Kowsky said Olmsted’s presence remains vivid.
“There are elements inspired by Olmsted’s work ... the winding paths, the plantings of the trees and the framing of the view of the building are all sympathetic to his philosophy and aesthetic,” Kowsky said.
He also embraces the South Lawn’s new mission.
“The Richardson building is no longer a psychiatric building, it has a new purpose, so why not develop a different landscape adapted to that new use? Since a historic restoration was not possible, this is something that suits the new purpose rather well, I think,” Kowsky said.
Chris Mendel, a landscape architect and associate at Philadelphia-based Andropogon Associates, which was in charge of the landscape design, appreciated that the greenspace was originally created with residents in mind.
“I think it helped to face the park toward Forest. It kept us grounded in the idea that this place is a public space,” he said.
Working on the project was particularly gratifying, Mendel said. “It was a dream come true. As a landscape architect originally from Buffalo, and working on the landscape from a guy who invented my profession, it was a huge honor.”
Only native species were used in the planting of trees and shrubs – maples, oaks and birches, and elderberry, juniper and dogwood among them – complementing the two large oak and ash trees believed to be older than the Richardson-designed buildings.
Sustainability was a guiding principle. The gravel from the torn-up parking lot was reused in granulated form, and stone and soil were also recycled. Rain gardens, including one by the bridge, were created to capture rain water. Some 125 trees, which are expected years from now to provide a dense canopy along Forest Avenue and elsewhere., were planted
The fence from the two entrances between Richmond Avenue and Abbotsford Place was removed, repaired, repainted and reinstalled. Also, a tattered tennis court and the remains of a building foundation on the lawn farther west were taken out, and the area regraded and reseeded.
“It’s another important milestone in the progress of the rebirth of the Richardson Olmsted Complex,” said Howard Zemsky, president of Richardson Center Corp. “We’ve worked collaboratively with the Buffalo Psychiatric Center to relocate their parking lots so we could rehabilitate this former Olmsted landscape design. We are proud that it will serve the neighborhood and the broader community.”
Today’s event, which runs from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., will begin with a ribbon-cutting, and will include live music, kite flying, a scavenger hunt, crafts, face-painting and lawn games. Tours addressing the past, present and future of the complex will be offered continuously, with a focus on the grounds. Food trucks will be on the scene.
Faix is hoping for a big turnout.
“The grounds seemed off limits before,” she said. “We want people to feel that they can come in and enjoy them.”