H.H. Richardson’s Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane

By Steve Cichon

Scarce few landmarks on the 1880 map are recognizable in today’s Buffalo.

We no longer call it the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane, and it’s no longer alone in the most rural outstretch of the city before Elmwood Avenue extended that far north, but H.H. Richardson’s Romanesque Medina sandstone masterpiece remains one of Western New York’s most identifiable landmarks.

Until the $102 million in renovations that made the opening of the Hotel Henry possible, it seemed that for nearly 150 years, no matter what was happening at the rambling series of buildings — whether it was cutting-edge and humanitarian treatment of the mentally ill or attempts to preserve the history of the architectural treasure — was chronically underfunded.

An early visit from a state official, in a August 1885 article in the Buffalo Courier, gave the Forest Avenue facility top marks for the care that was provided.

1978 photo.

Dr. Andrews is often more anxious to get rid of a patient than anybody else can be, and it is his interest as it is that of a private practitioner to have as many recoveries as possible.

Patients whom the superintendent deems to have recovered, or those who are incurable, are discharged under bonds.

The asylum statistics show a very large percentage of recoveries in the course of a year.  Dr. Andrews is, moreover, a good Christian man of broad sympathies, whose heart is in the work, and along with his staff makes a constant study of the welfare of every patient.

The Buffalo State Insane Asylum is one of the best managed and best adapted institutions for the treatment of the insane that I have ever visited.

More than 100 years later, News Critic Anthony Bannon was using the pages of Gusto to ask the question of whether the sprawling building could be saved from the ravages of decay.

By 1983, patients hadn’t roamed the halls of the complex in a decade, and though place was still a state-owned facility, it was suffering from neglect and disrepair.

Although support from each level of government is possible, the buildings are owned by the state and the state must bear final responsibility, (said preservationist John Phelan).

The greatest danger is a lack of commitment, a loss of energy, Phelan observed. “Much of what has been lost, many of our buildings, have been lost because of a lack of energy to preserve them. It is an attrition process that goes on inevitably.”

“If the community doesn’t generate positive energy, it is as great a danger (to a building) as the freeze-thaw cycle.” In this instance, though, Phelan “assumes that all parties will work in good faith to find a solution.” I regard these buildings as world class building in the community, for which it would be incomprehensible that the things necessary for their preservation would not be accomplished for our future.”

Part of that future was realized and secured with the 2017 opening of the Hotel Henry inside the Richardson complex, but that’s not the end of the story.

“We are ecstatic about the position we are in,” Paul Hojnacki, president of the Richardson Center Corp., told News reporter Mark Sommer weeks before the Henry opened. “Because we are doing about a third of the complex, we have a lot of work left ahead of us. It’s going to be a real challenge.”

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Steve Cichon

Steve Cichon writes about Buffalo’s pop culture history. His stories of Buffalo's past have appeared more than 1600 times in The Buffalo News. He's a proud Buffalonian helping the world experience the city he loves. Since the earliest days of the internet, Cichon's been creating content celebrating the people, places, and ideas that make Buffalo unique and special. The 25-year veteran of Buffalo radio and television has written five books and curates The Buffalo Stories Archives-- hundreds of thousands of books, images, and audio/visual media which tell the stories of who we are in Western New York.