Historic Structures

State Lunatic Asylum (Buffalo State Hospital), Buffalo New York

Date added: March 19, 2010 Categories: New York Hospital Richardsonian Romanesque

The Buffalo State Hospital is a monumental structure which was designed for strictly utilitarian or institutional purposes. The exterior presentation of the Administration Building has strength of massing and aesthetic scaling to material. The wards, although themselves not innovative in design, were part of an over-all design which was well conceived and well-landscaped.

The building was designed in the summer of 1870, following a very informal competition. The final design was probably settled in 1871. Excavation began in June, 1871. The cornerstone was laid on September 18, 1872. By 1880, the Administration Building, Male Wards A, B, C, D, and E, and all service buildings were completed. Female Wards were completed between 1890 and 1900.

The general plan was determined by Dr. Joseph P. Gray, head of the existing State Lunatic Asylum in Utica, N. Y. According to tradition, the plan was based on the scheme of similar French institutions. It also followed closely the plan of older buildings of the Connecticut State Hospital in Middletown, designed by Sloan and Hutton and begun in 1867. State legislation of May 23, 1869, enabled Gov. John T. Hoffman to appoint five commissioners to select a site for a state asylum for the Department of Mental Hygiene in the Eighth Judicial District, Western New York. To secure the site location, the City of Buffalo, in April 1870, offered to donate 203 acres of land valued at $60,000, and a perpetual supply of water. After April 27, 1870--the date on which the State approved the site--the governor appointed a board of ten managers. The first officers, serving several years or more, were James R. White, M. D., President; William F. Rogers, Secretary; Henry Martin, Treasurer, Standing committees--executive, auditing, and grounds--were also appointed. After a board meeting on August 25, 1870, a map of a ground plan of the project was presented and adopted. On March 3, 1871, the board accepted the designs of Richardson and Gambrill. On May 15, 1871, the survey of grounds was laid out and improved from plans of Olmsted and Vaux and Company, landscape architects. The main building was formally opened November 15, 1881. Before 1900, Male Wards A and B were occupied by female patients. The original name of the hospital was the State Lunatic Asylum. By 1870, Richardson was already associated with William Dorsheimer, the District Attorney for the District of Northern New York. Richardson and Gambrill had completed the design of a Buffalo house for Dorsheimer, 1868-69. Research on the Dorsheimer House suggests that Dorsheimer's acquaintance with Olmsted in 1868--when a committee of which Dorsheimer was a member hired Olmsted to design a public park system for the city of Buffalo--was a significant factor in Richardson's recieving commissions not only for the Dorsheimer House, but also for the State Hospital in Buffalo and the New York State Capitol in Albany.

A main central pavilion (160' x 170') is flanked by receding wards. The whole complex is V-shaped in plan. The wards have irregular H- or T-shaped plans. The distance between the outer pavilions is 780 feet.

The 3-1/2-story Administration Building, on raised basement, contains offices, reception rooms, dining room, and other service areas. All ward buildings have similar H-shaped or T-shaped plans with two dormitories, two parlors, two nurses' rooms, two baths, two washrooms, and two clothes rooms. In both the male and female wards, Wards A and B are three-story structures; Wards G and D are two-story structures; and the Wards E are one-story structures. Tramways are located in the basements.

The original landscaping and plantings were planned by Olmsted and Vaux in 1876. Olmsted assisted Richardson in siting the complex in 1871. The original property of 203 acres was farm land. The original farm buildings were located in the northwest corner of the property. The Scajaquada Creek runs through the northeast corner of the property. Since the original planning for the State Hospital, the State College of New York at Buffalo has been built to the north and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery to the east.

The Mechanical Building is located 200 feet to the north of the Administration Building. This building contains the heating plant, engineer's station, laundry, shops, etc. The kitchen wings--three-story structures--are attached by curving corridors to the north sides of Wards B, Two greenhouses are located about 100 feet to the interior of the open V-shaped plan from Wards E. An engineer's house and women's house are sited to the north and west of the Mechanical Building.