Thursday, September 18, 2008

Buffalo State Hospital - the H. H. Richardson Complex



In stark contrast to the majority of locations featured on this blog, the H. H. Richardson Complex, a grand Kirkbride building in Buffalo, NY, is not in danger of being demolished or left to rot. A National Historic Landmark, the building is currently being stabilized and has recently been secured against intruders. Better still, budget is already in place in order to restore the gorgeous Romanesque building to her former glory. The Richardson Center Corporation is overseeing the restoration.

Buffalo State Hospital's original main building complex features a central Administrative building crowned by two 185-foot-tall towers, copper roofed with dormer windows. The masonry is of red medina sandstone, and is one of the earliest examples of H. H. Richardson's trademark style, Richarsonian Romanesque. The central Administrative building is flanked on either side by two sandstone ward pavilions, connected by curved connector hallways. These hallways served a dual purpose - their curvature made it impossible to place beds in the connector hallways, which was a common practice at overcrowded hospitals of the era. At the same time, it allowed a greater level of supervision, as doctors and nurses could easily traverse the entire length of the complex, while orderlies and patients could be confined to a single ward. This notion conformed to the hospital hierarchy of the day, and was touted by John P. Gray, superintendent of Utica State Hospital and an adviser to Richardson, as one of the innovative features of the Buffalo asylum's design.


Hallway of the innermost brick ward, second floor.

The original plan for the hospital was to build the remaining ward pavilions - a total of five on each side - in the same sandstone. However, the outer three wards on either side (the pavilions to the west were for female patients, and those to the right for male) were constructed of brick when the budget fell short. The wards were constructed en echelon; the Administration building had four stories, and on either side, the next two wards had three stories, the following two had two stories, and the final ward (reserved for violent patients) had a single story. In the 1960s, the Male brick wards were demolished in order to build an ugly, utilitarian modern building for the psych center.


A dormitory at the end of the second story of the inner brick ward.


A cast iron stairway in the brick wards. The stairs in the sandstone wards have a higher degree of ornamentation.


The first floor hallway of the center brick ward. This floor contains dozens of discarded wheelchairs.


The top floor of the connector hallway between the two sandstone pavilions.


A door on the second floor of the brick wards. Note that there is a mesh window for the orderlies to look in upon the patients. Like most of the hardware in the hospital, the doorknob is missing.


View of the violent ward of the Female Wing from the attic of the center brick ward. The violent wards were a single story tall, and their footprint was very different from that of the rest of the hosptial.

One feature of the Buffalo State Hospital Kirkbride which differentiates it greatly from many other Kirkbride buildings is the single-loaded main corridors. More expensive from a construction perspective, the southern-facing windows in these corridors provided a maximal amount of light, which was in keeping with Dr. Kirkbride's Moral Treatment plan. Each main corridor is bisected with a smaller corridor to the north, each of which was double-loaded. Bathroom and shower facilities, as well as coatrooms and storage, were placed in these extensions. The footprint of the Topeka State Hospital (now mostly demolished) appears to have been based upon this design.


Another brick ward hallway.


Ornate fireplace in the Administration building.

The majority of the complex is in remarkably good shape, especially considering its long abandonment. The most significant damage is to the hallway connecting the inner and center brick wards. In order to get from one to the next, one must carefully pass over a "bridge" of swaying, uncollapsed floor.


At some point between 2004 and 2008, someone placed a radiator grill over the collapse bridge.


Two geriatric chairs in a corner of a dayroom in the sandstone wards.


A coatroom in the brick wards.


Some medical equipment remains in the pitch-black depths of the single-story violent ward. The EEG machine in the background was manufactured by Medcraft, the same company which designed the B-24 Glissando ECT machine, the standard in electroshock therapy from the 50s through the 70s.


Shower stalls with privacy walls in the sandstone wards. In many similar hospitals, the showers would be communal, with no such walls in place. Here there are walls, but no doors - ensuring that the orderlies could keep a watch on patients even as they could not view each other.


Hallway in the sandstone wards. Note the brightness here as a result of the 12-foot-tall windows in the single-loaded corridor.


An original sandstone fireplace featuring a medieval "Green Beast" motif. Sadly, at some point this particular example was painted over in the ward colors of the time.


Detail from an unpainted "Green Beast" fireplace.

At some point, while the sprinkler system was still functional, a fire broke out in one of the patient rooms on the outer sandstone ward. The result is that the smoke clung to the upper reaches of the walls until the sprinklers kicked in, causing the soot to run down. The result is actually rather stunning, although certainly nearly disastrous. Fortunately, the structural damage is minimal - the room in which the fire originated is fairly charred, but outside of that, no serious damage was done.


Soot runs down the walls, the paint now peeling.


A patient's bed in the fire-damaged ward.


The sprinklers did not kick in here, and the heavy soot near the 16-foot-high ceiling is evidence of the amount of smoke generated in the fire.


Sunset through the windows in a dormitory inside the fire-damaged ward.


Sunset inside a solarium which was later converted to a dormitory. Note the 16-foot ceilings and the ornamental pillars.


The twin towers after dark.

For another perspective on this rare architectural treasure, visit the Pasilalinic-Sympathetic Compass.

ADDENDUM, 8/22/08

Monica Pelligrino Faix, Project Coordinator for the Richardson Center Corporation, has sent me the following official statement to post up on the Kingston Lounge:

The Richardson Center Corporation is working on the rehabilitation of the Richardson Olmsted Complex. Future plans envision public access to the Complex, although the organization cannot do so at this time because the buildings remain the property of the NYS Office of Mental Health. This board is undertaking a monumental task to stabilize and secure the buildings for future uses. One use will be an Architecture and Visitor Center for Buffalo and the region; planning for the remaining uses are underway as part of the master plan process being led by Chan Krieger Sieniewicz. Part of the long term plan for public access and reuse is to protect the buildings from vandalism, and therefore security patrols and closing up the buildings have increased. Please feel free to contact me directly at monica@richardson-olmsted.com, or visit our website, www.richardson-olmsted.com, for updates on our progress

I would urge my readers to remember that the Richardson Complex is actively being preserved, and that significant activity is already underway to ensure that these wonderful structures remain for future generations to enjoy. Anything which wastes the time or resources of the people working on the preservation efforts directly takes away from the resources available for preservation. Please enjoy the publicly accessible areas around the buildings and grounds legally and respectfully; I have no doubt that, in the not too distant future, the site will again be open for tours.

34 comments:

sympathetic compass said...

Fantastic writeup that certainly trumps mine, and that burn bed photo, along with the other burn/soot photos are incredible.

stephenjames716 said...

how did you get into the facility? I would love to document this building with photography much like you have.

Anonymous said...

the stairway picture is beautiful!

Frank Jump said...

these images are beautiful and haunting.

Anonymous said...

Hauntingly Beautiful, this complex needs to be preserved. Recently drove by at night it is an amazing landmark that this city needs to take advantage of.

Brind said...

Fantastic photos. These are some of the best I've seen of this place. I haven't seen much that actually compares to the feeling of being in there, but these photos came close

Newburgh Restoration said...

Excellent! How did you get these pictures?

Carolina Eclectic said...

I'm blown away by this place. Its amazing!

Anonymous said...

My grandmother was a patient at the hospital for almost forty years. I have driven by the hospital thousands of times,frequently wondering what it was like inside, what was her experience living in that massive poignant structure. Thank you for letting me see a part of my grandmother's life.

Anonymous said...

I grew up around that area and the hospital always loomed large on the horizon of the neighborhood, always a mystery to me. I was always dying to get in and still am as an adult. I don't know how you managed to gain access, but your pics are stunning and a rare glimpse inside the mysterious walls of this old structure. Thank you for demystifying this beautiful building for those of us not fortunate enough to explore it in person. What a great job you've done and a great website. I hope you can share more of this beautiful building in the future.

Anonymous said...

And when they finish the monumental task of stabilizing these significant works of architecture, they can get in their vehicles and head over, en masse, to Kings Park Psychiatric Center (Long Island, N.Y.) and tackle that astounding site, as well. It is adjacent to a beautiful nature park and a gem of a property, if anyone can ever figure quite how to refurbish it. Congratulations on all your efforts to deal with Buffalo State Hospital. Any effort to preserve these masterpieces (regardless of their respective histories) is a work of American Preservation History in progress. Thank you for showing us these spectacular photographs. Posted by: Chris in South Portland, Maine, U.S.A.

whoinsamhill said...

I'm not sure I can tell you what you've done here, meaning you probably know. It is one thing to preserve/restore the "Buffalo State Hospital - the H. H. Richardson Complex" original, say, physical perfection. But what you've done is preserve and make beautiful the bottom part of its cycle of birth, decay, and now potential rebirth as a museum? The hauntingness of decay? You've preserved that.

Ladybird said...

How intriguing! Beautiful photos, love the colors and texture of the decay. Also, it is great how the windows were built to let in a great deal of light. Creepy to see the old wheelchairs and medical equipment...not a building I'd want to wander through alone!

I found your post via twitter @designsponge wow. RT @juliarothman gorgeous and creepy photos of an abandoned hospital

sarah said...

I love the outside of the building and had been trying to imagine the rest. It's so great to be able to see inside! Buffalo has a sad history of letting its architectural landmarks degrade past the point of salvation. I hope they can rescue this one!

aworldof said...

wauw! I really love the sight of such an abandoned building! I can imagine it was really exciting to walk through it? Or are you used to this kind of places?
Anyway, great inspiration to put in my inspi-archive, thanks.

Anonymous said...

From the Buffalo News: On April 10th, a two-alarm fire caused an estimated $200,000 in damage to the main "towers" building. The Richardson Center Corp., a non- profit organization charged with the complex’s rehabilitation and re-use, issued a statement, saying: “This morning’s fire at the Richardson Olmsted Complex was unfortunate. We are saddened about the building damage but are glad no one was hurt. Work to seal up the building will take place, and we will continue to advance the first phase of redevelopment.”

Anonymous said...

There is no building like this in the world and it's an incredible testament to another era of medical treatment. I used to play there as a kid in the 80's after it had closed. There were many buildings there that have since been demolished. I loved to ride my bike through the little archway between the big buildings. I always wondered what the inside looked like, but the area was well policed even then, so the unknown gnawed away at me. Thank you for unveiling the mystery of this stunning one of a kind historic place.

This place has been imprinted in my mind forever since I grew up near it and always found it fascinating. It shaped my and curiosity and penchant for old buildings, which I explore and photograph if possible.

Jen said...

The patient beds are startling sad. It is humbling to think such a formidable structure that once changed the lives of its patients forever by taking away their freedom has since been abandoned and left to rot (until recent development) like no one's business. How insignificant those patients' personal anguish through painful confinement amounted to in the end with the passing of time...

Anonymous said...

i think the issue of "taking away their freedom" is a very complex issue and not entirely accurate. The state supported efforts of the asylums during the Kirkbride era had (in my opinion) a much more humane intention than the current state of our mental health care system. I do think that advancements in pharmaceuticals have created a vast improvement in the tools available to successfully treat patients, (not available when this building was built) but unfortunately the best opportunities for care for the mass population are now available within our prison system. We have returned to criminalizing the mentally ill in this country and I am saddened by the reflection of this on our society.

Velvethead said...

No longer viable buildings.
They've served their purpose.
They are too far gone. Who is going to repopulate a property with such a nefarious past? No one is.
Let them gracefully fall to ruin or simply knock them down and move on.

Anonymous said...

looking at these photos brought back memories when l worked ward 20...the violent ward then..in the early 60's....they were good memories...l loved working there and helping the patients...l will always treasure the memories

e1232cd0-ffee-11e0-af5b-000bcdcb8a73 said...

I love old buildings & seeing pictures of the inside of this building is very special for me...its where my grandparents met. My grandfather worked there and my grandmother was put there as a temporary patient while my great grandparnets vacationed in Bermuda or someplace like that... Such sweet people right??

mandi said...

Sorry if this comment is repetitive but my computer is showing it right no matter how many times i leave the page and return....so i love old buildings and my family means the world to me. its amazing to see the place where my grandparents met...my great grandparents made my grandmother go there for an abortion while they went to Bermuda or someplace like that. While a patient there she met my grandfather, who worked there...They dated 4 months & then got married. But do i wish that i could have seen what it looked like back then... that would truly be amazing, just the work that goes into restoring a building like this, i'm envious. i wish i could see it progress.

sex shop tienda said...

It won't truly have success, I suppose this way.

water coolers said...

Great report mate!! I really impressed to watch the historical gallery show. It is awesome and really interesting to learn about historical view. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I just discovered that my husband's father was a patient at that hospital for three years from age 15 to 18 years in the early 1950's. Sadly, at age 24 years of age he committed suicide. After looking at the photos of the inside of the building I was quite amazed at how beautiful it really must have been in its operational days. However, on the other hand from the photos of the building it tends to radiate an aura of deep sadness!

urgent care houston said...

Cool pics dude! I truly inspired to see the awesome review. It's very talented historical gallery show. Keep it up though!

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Buffy37 said...

What memories these sad photos evoke. I worked there in the mid-fifties, before the mass release of patients when they were given their "rights" and thrown out on the streets. I, too, admired the beauty of the place, even though I didn't appreciate it for what it was at the time. I often wonder what happened to the poor women that I "cared" for who had absolutely no ability to care for themselves, and were totally disconnected from reality - also in Ward 20, as someone mentioned in above notes. I remember that the buildings seemed so sturdy, handsomely tiled or painted, and it is difficult to see the amount of decay that has been allowed to happen.

whoinsamhill said...

@Buffy37 Your comment suggests to me we here in the U.S. once cared more for our people. Capital is still marching on. The care center my niece nurses at will close so the new company can open one a year from now sans medicare patients. A Utah company just laid off 130 staff and is requiring the remaining doctors and nurses to spend 80% of their time documenting their patient's progress---as opposed to actually spending time with their patients.

bonnie said...

We are trying to locate the patient records of Gerard Bouchard, probably in the 40's. His parents died leaving him to fend for his siblings, might have been too much for him and he went in there, we fear, never to be seen again. We would like to find out what we can. Doesn't seem like he got help, he wasn't that bad, probably needed rest and care himself. I cannot imagine the horrors of that place. Write me please at wonniebite@yahoo.com Bonnie

De Roeder said...

The bright teal is an interesting twist on institutional green.

Anonymous said...

I worked on Wards 4 and 5 on the men's side in 1967.
Many of the older men were committed by their family's for various reasons. Some were voluntary,
some court ordered, many had no desire to leave.
Like anywhere else, there was god and bad. The nursing staff was very professional. The ward supervisors were a mixed bag, some with very high
concern for their patient's well being others not so much. I took patients to the movie theater on the
grounds , played softball and they had all kinds
of craft therapy shops.
The Children's unit was probably the best run
section at that time with very dedicated staff.