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Richardson Olmsted Campus receives top preservation honor

Buffalo's reputation for historic architecture just went up another notch.

The Richardson Olmsted Campus has won the most prestigious award given by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the nation's preeminent preservation organization. The Buffalo landmark shares the 2018 Richard H. Driehaus Foundation National Preservation Award with adaptive reuse projects in Memphis and Oklahoma City.

It’s the first time a Buffalo site has won the Driehaus Award since the National Trust initiated the honor in 2012.

“Through creative and meticulous restorations that reinvigorate older buildings, elevate the quality of public life, serve contemporary needs in their communities and educate and encourage others, these projects are outstanding examples of the power and potential of preservation to improve lives,” said National Trust President and CEO Stephanie Meeks in a statement.

The former Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane, with landscaping by Frederick Law Olmsted, is considered a masterpiece of Richardsonian Romanesque design by architect Henry Hobson Richardson. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1986, the highest listing a building can achieve.

The Richardson Olmsted Campus found new life in April 2017 when CityInn Buffalo opened the 88-room Hotel Henry Urban Resort Conference Center and a restaurant in the twin towers building and the two buildings that flank it. The Lipsey Architecture Center will also be part of the campus, but its opening date has not been publicly announced.

The project reused 160,000 of 463,000 square feet on the 42-acre site. In doing so, the long-dormant complex returned to the tax rolls for the first time in decades.

"As stewards of one of the most important architectural achievements in Buffalo, we are honored to receive this recognition from the National Trust," said Paul Hojnacki, president of the Richardson Center Corp.

"Those of us who witnessed the rebirth of Richardson's majestic, towered masterpiece as the Richardson Olmsted Campus recognized this was an extraordinary undertaking," Mayor Byron W. Brown said in a statement.

"I congratulate all those who believed in and supported the dream that this unique repurposed facility builds on Buffalo's past to reinforce our future," the mayor said. "This prestigious award raises the City of Buffalo's growing reputation as a world-class architectural tourism destination."

Pressure from preservationists and others in the early 2000s to stabilize the vacant and deteriorating building prompted the state, under then-Gov. George E. Pataki, to provide $76.5 million toward the rehabilitation. The Richardson Center Corp., chaired by the late Buffalo News Publisher Stanford Lipsey, was created to oversee the project.

“It seems hard to believe now, but there was a time when there were calls to demolish the 'eyesore' that this amazing building had become — mobilizing preservationists to fight hard to ensure that not only would the building be preserved, but that it would be put back into use for the community’s benefit,” said Jessie Fisher, executive director of Preservation Buffalo Niagara.

The organization, then known as the Preservation Coalition of Erie County, helped lead that effort.

“Thanks to the hard work of the Richardson Corporation and its people-centered, transparent redevelopment process, this building has become an asset to its neighborhood and the entire region and showcases the value and power of preservation,” Fisher said.

The National Trust chose the three award winners from among 50 nominated projects. A jury led by Paul Goldberger, a Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic, considered a wide range of criteria, such as the difficulty of the challenge, quality of the restoration work, uniqueness of the effort and impact on the community.

“While it was an especially difficult choice this year, the jury is delighted to recognize the awardees as superlative examples of preservation in action,” Goldberger said in a statement. “These three projects join their predecessors and each other on equal footing as innovative and transcendent preservation successes that we hope will spur more creativity in reuse all over America.”

The Crosstown Concourse in Memphis, once a vacant art deco-designed Sears, Roebuck and Company store in a distressed neighborhood two miles from downtown, is now a mix of apartments and shops and has become a catalyst for community revitalization.

The Douglass at Page Woodson in Oklahoma City, a schoolhouse built in 1910, underwent renovations and is now an attractive, classical revival apartment building with 60 affordable housing units and a community auditorium.

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