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Richardson and Olmsted's Picturesque Masterpiece: The Buffalo State Asylum

The Buffalo Psychiatric Center (originally the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane, then the Buffalo State Hospital) is the product one of the greatest artistic collaborations in the nation’s history. It is a work of one of the greatest architects America has produced, Henry Hobson Richardson, and the founder of the profession of landscape architecture in the United States, and its greatest practitioner, Frederick Law Olmsted.

Olmsted The Asylum, planned from 1871 to 1875, was produced with each man in his prime: Olmsted (left) and his partner Calvert Vaux had recently designed New York’s Central Park and Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, and were at work on their seminal Buffalo park and parkway system. Richardson, of gargantuan physiognomy and talent, would be propelled by his Buffalo work to the front rank of American architects.

Richardson died in 1886, too soon to see the project through to completion. The western pavilions, erected in the 1890’s, followed his design. Outbuildings, including the Women’s Kitchen, summerhouse, greenhouse, and a male staff dormitory (destroyed), were designed by Buffalo’s own man of eminence, E.B. Green. A laundry building (destroyed) and a magnificent powerhouse (altered beyond recognition) were also designed by Richardson.


While the importance of Richardson (left) and his contribution to the work is generally appreciated locally, Olmsted’s is not.  This is largely due to the depredations the landscape has suffered over the last 75 years, itself partly a function of the failure to understand the artistic inseparability of the landscape and buildings in this, one of the greatest works of the Picturesque built in America. Indeed, the work is locally known as the Richardson Complex, acknowledging the architecture alone.

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Richardson Park, Now and Forever

It is not often that a community gets $100,000,000 to spend on civic improvements. That happened four years ago, the state legislature approved, and the Governor Pataki signed, a budget bill that allocated funds for the restoration of the Richardson Olmsted Complex, a 100-acre National Historic Landmark with buildings by H.H. Richardson, landscaping by Frederick Law Olmsted, and even some buildings by Buffalo’s preeminent local architect, E.B. Green.


We cannot squander the opportunity before us. We have the resources in hand to create a magnificent amenity for the entire region: a picturesque 100-acre park by America’s most revered landscape architect (left, Olmsted's planting plan of 1877), designed hand-in-hand with the beloved founding father of American architecture to host a sublime monument of the Picturesque movement in architecture.

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