It took great vision and imagination by noted architect Henry Hobson Richardson to create his architectural masterpiece in Buffalo. More than a hundred years later it took just as much vision and imagination to save it.
The result will be revealed April 30 with the opening of the Hotel Henry Urban Resort and Conference Center at the Richardson Olmsted Complex.
It wasn’t easy, and it required more than $100 million, most of it in state funds, along with some private donations. To that, add in the countless hours of volunteer effort along what was a difficult road.
The complex was Richardson’s largest architectural commission and where he developed his Richardsonian Romanesque style. His genius was complemented by the work of legendary landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux.
Richardson’s showpiece reached its low point in the summer of 1997, as News staff reporter Mark Sommer wrote. As difficult as it is to fathom today, that’s when the Pataki administration decided that it would be best to sell off the vacant National Historic Landmark. The idea at the time was to save millions on maintenance while making the property available for private investment.
It took the fortitude and determination of individuals, foremost among them the late Buffalo News Publisher Stanford Lipsey, to save the complex. They cared deeply about their community and were willing to push politicians and dig into their own pockets. Without them the historic complex would have been lost.
It opened in the late 1800s as the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane. After the state psychiatric center moved out in the 1970s, the complex fell into grave disrepair. An all-volunteer board led by Lipsey wrested millions of dollars from the state to stabilize and eventually restore the complex.
The state Dormitory Authority had failed in its duty to maintain the complex. The buildings had fallen into such disrepair that the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed the complex on its list of the 11 most endangered buildings in the United States.
The Preservation Coalition of Erie County went to court to force the state to act, and in November 2002, the State Supreme Court ruled that the state was obligated to maintain the buildings.
Lipsey had already persuaded the Pataki administration to spend $7 million to stabilize the buildings. Howard Zemsky, a former Richardson Center Corp. board member who now leads Empire State Development Corp., noted Lipsey’s “singular level of passion and commitment and determination, which then translated itself into extraordinary philanthropy on this project.”
Lipsey and his wife, Judith, gave $5 million for the Richardson Complex’s renovation. As Sommer wrote, the 88-room hotel will be in the main Towers Building and adjacent buildings, about one-third of the complex. The hotel will be home to the 100 Acres restaurant. An architectural museum will open in December.
Indeed, a remarkable accomplishment.