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Editorial: Building on the past at Richardson Olmsted Campus

“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 …”

Indeed.

The observation came from Jessie Fisher, executive director of Preservation Buffalo Niagara during a recent interview about the Richardson Olmsted Campus.

Once referred to as the “asylum,” it has now won the most prestigious award given by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The campus shares the 2018 Richard H. Driehaus Foundation National Preservation Award with adaptive reuse projects in Memphis and Oklahoma City.

Few may have imagined receiving that honor, first given in 2012. Even Henry Hobson Richardson, the famed architect who designed the 19th century masterpiece, could hardly have anticipated the building’s enduring influence. It was in Buffalo where he developed his Richardsonian Romanesque style. The project also drew other design geniuses influential in Buffalo: legendary landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux.

The campus opened in the late 1800s as the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane. When the state psychiatric center moved out in the 1970s, the complex fell into disrepair.

It took an all-volunteer board led by late Buffalo News Publisher Stanford Lipsey to save what then appeared to be a doomed complex. In 1997, then-Gov. George E. Pataki’s administration planned to sell off the vacant National Historic Landmark.

Instead, determined individuals took charge and wrested $100 million, mostly in state funds and private donations. It would take years to get only a portion of the complex stabilized and restored. But in April 2017, InnVest Lodging Services opened the 88-room Hotel Henry Urban Resort Conference Center and a restaurant in the twin towers building and the two buildings alongside. As a fitting tribute, the Lipsey Architecture Center will also be part of the campus. Its opening date has not been announced.

The project reused 160,000 of 463,000 square feet on the 42-acre site. With that, the complex returned to the tax rolls for the first time in decades.

Paul Hojnacki, president of the Richardson Center Corp., acknowledged the honor from the National Trust. Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown spoke in a statement of witnessing the aptly-described “rebirth” of Richardson’s “towered masterpiece.” And, yes, as the mayor noted, the prestigious award bolsters the city’s growing reputation among architectural enthusiasts as a world-class tourism destination.

The Richardson Olmsted Complex is just one of many buildings that draw architectural enthusiasts to Buffalo. Prominent among them are several structures designed by Frank Lloyd Wright: the Darwin Martin House, Graycliff and several posthumously designed structures such as the Fontana Boathouse, Filling Station and Blue Sky Mausoleum. Others include Louis Sullivan’s Guaranty Building, the Central Terminal, the Brisbane Building, Eliel and Eero Saarinen’s Kleinhans Music Hall and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, designed by Edward B. Green and later complemented by a new wing designed by Gordon Bunshaft.

Many of these buildings fell into disrepair and came close to ruin. Efforts such as those made by the Richardson saviors ensured that Buffalo’s legacy of architectural excellence continued, reaping honors that will serve this rebounding city for years to come.

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