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

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.

Imagine a “Richardson Park” with not one, but two of Olmsted’s patented tree-bordered meadows: one stretching the length of three football fields along Elmwood Avenue, the other a lush, sun-drenched greensward for the impossibly romantic pile of Richardson’s Administration Building. Imagine, too, a “pastured pleasure ground” stretching along Forest Avenue with, as Olmsted envisioned, “groups of trees and large open spaces of turf.” (Today, these landscapes are dominated by parking lots, including two, the length of football fields, along Elmwood Avenue.)

Richardson_park_final_site_plan Envision, as Olmsted did, the area to the north of Richardson’s buildings as an expanse of fields and treed lawns stretching to a cluster of agricultural buildings. Where a massive parking lot now encroaches, baseball fields for a recreation-deprived West Side could sprout. Imagine playing or watching America’s pastoral game against the skyline of Richardson’s castle. Finally, imagine the Buffalo Psychiatric Center and Buffalo State College seamlessly woven into the surrounding community, with an Olmstedian path system offering shortcuts between the neighborhood to both institutions and beyond. A ring road, precisely one kilometer in length, would tie everything together.
(Click on image above for conceptual plan) We have not yet begun to imagine what could go into the range of buildings by Richardson and Green, but we already can see, as Olmsted did in his Public Parks and the Enlargement of Towns, a scene crowded by people of all walks of life, gathered together in the common pursuit of recreation, “each individual adding by his mere presence to the pleasure of others.”

People attract people, and it is not hard to imagine that the repaired and stabilized Richardson buildings, to say nothing of the bordering neighborhoods, would attract interest and private investment with such a public amenity outside the door. This vision of amenity-driven development is something which Olmsted, Richardson, and above all businessman and politician William F. Dorsheimer would have recognized. It was Dorsheimer, then the local district attorney, who brought Olmsted to town in 1868 to design a park system for the city as a means of civic advancement.

It’s center would be Delaware Park, but Olmsted saw an easy way to expand its effects if the existing Forest Lawn Cemetery and the projected State Hospital could be contiguous with it. Olmsted thought of it, Dorsheimer made it happen. Dorsheimer engineered an offer of over 200 acres of land for the State Hospital on the condition the hospital commissioners located the institution where Olmsted and Dorsheimer wanted it. In late 1869, at a meeting held in the offices of the Buffalo Parks Commission, of which Dorsheimer was a member, the hospital commissioners accepted the offer.

In early 1871, Dorsheimer further engineered the selection of the young H.H. Richardson to design the complex in collaboration with Olmsted. Richardson designed the buildings, and Olmsted sited them within his landscape to maximum effect. It was city-shaping on a majestic scale: together with Delaware Park and Forest Lawn, the hospital grounds constituted over 800 acres of artfully designed meadow, forest, lake and stream.

That majesty is diminished today
. Much of Olmsted and Richardson’s (and Dorsheimer’s) grand gesture has been lost, chipped away by decades of college expansion, highway building, and parking lots. The fields, meadows, and open space of the State Hospital have been reduced by half, mostly by Buffalo State College, which moved to the site in the 1930’s, occupying much of the former farmlands. Today, one tenuous tendril of Olmsted’s green vision remains to connect the Buffalo Psychiatric Center to Delaware Park and beyond: that piece of land at the corner of Rockwell Road and Elmwood Avenue. Olmsted designed it as the northern end of his Elmwood Avenue meadow, flanked by his ring road, paths, and dense stands of trees.

How can we summon forth that majesty again? Beyond creating a restoration corporation, all encroachments must stop, before we lose another square inch of this extraordinary legacy and potential economic resource. Second, undertake immediately the emergency repair and stabilization of spelled out in the most recent architect’s report (2004), plus the repair and stabilization of the two remaining but severely neglected E.B. Green buildings, the female patients’ summer house, and the remaining agricultural buildings.

How much would this cost? Shockingly little. According to an architect's report commissioned for the purpose, less than $8,000,000 for every building designed by Richardson himself. Throw in the others mentioned above and the restoration of Olmsted’s lost landscape, and a figure of $10-$12 million seems plausible. In order to restore the landscape, all the parking lots must be replaced by carefully designed and sited structured parking for existing and future uses, but this can be financed by parking revenues. To fully occupy and restore the building interiors would cost more, but considerably less than the $1000 per square foot (for 300,000 square feet of space) bandied about by some. The tens of millions of dollars remaining from the state appropriation will go a long way.

Richardson_park_se_isometric   What happens beyond the repair and landscape restoration? Worth examining is the former Hudson Valley Psychiatric Center, which has embarked upon a privately funded $300,000,000 project of apartments, lodging, and other private development while protecting the National Historic Landmark grounds and buildings by Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. A key component of this must be the elimination of surface parking lots and their repalcement by well-designed and carefulyy sited structured parking, and a parking plan that includes paid parking to manage demand and provide operational revenue. A bird's eye view of a Richardson Park concept appears at left. This concept mitigates somewhat the impact of the colossally unsympathetic, even arrogant imposition that Buffalo State College's Burchfiled-Penney Art Center represents.

Bpc2006wproposedbpac5 At left, is an existing conditions plan, with Buffalo State College's campus expansion highlighted in blue, while the footprint of the Burchfield-Penney building itself is in black.

We can redeem ourselves the trnsgressions of the lst 50 years by devoting ourselves to the cause of building Richardson Park. Olmsted and Richardson were giants. Restoring their vision, standing on their shoulders, we can be giants, too.