Tucked on the western edge of New York State, often overlooked for the nearby Canadian city of Toronto and the attraction of Niagara Falls, the former boomtown of Buffalo is reaffirming its spot on the map. Buffalo, the second most populated city in the state behind New York City, reached its most populous and prosperous times in the late 19th to early 20th-centuries largely thanks to the business brought by the Erie Canal. Steel and grain were major industries for the city and fortunes were made in banking as well. However, like most boomtowns, Buffalo eventually went bust. But now, the city is making a comeback.
This city on the edge of Lake Erie is leaning on the foundations of its past to build a more prosperous and productive future. New businesses are being courted with programs like 43 North which invests $5 million a year in promising startups. The arts and food scenes are thriving and the wonderful historic architecture of the city is being preserved and adapted for modern use. Communications Manager of Visit Buffalo Niagara Brian Hayden notes that “what is exciting and new isn’t to the detriment of what’s old and classic.” Untapped Cities spent a few days exploring the city and discovered that there is so much more Buffalo has to offer than wings. Here are some of our favorite things to do:
Where to Stay: The Richardson Hotel
For nearly fifty years, the looming towers of the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane towered over an abandoned site while residents wondered what the fate of the historic location would be. The buildings on the campus were designed by renowned architect Henry Hobson Richardson in his signature Romanesque Revival style, a style that would come to bear his name, Richardsonian Romanesque. The landscaping on the over 200-acre campus was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the man responsible for iconic green spaces like Central Park, as well as several parks in Buffalo and their connecting parkways (more on this later!). Construction began on the campus in 1872 and it opened as the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane in 1880. In 1927 half of the campus was given over to Buffalo State College but the asylum continued to operate through the mid-1970s. By 1975 the site was mostly vacant and only a few administrative personnel remained.
Today, the campus is down to 42-acres but the site is getting a new life through various adaptive-reuse projects. The first of these projects to be completed is The Richardson Hotel (formerly known as The Hotel Henry Urban Resort and Conference Center). Opened in the spring of 2017, the hotel occupies the Tower Building and two of the first flanking wards. Since the site was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1986, the hotel maintains much of the building’s original architectural features.
Employing the Kirkbride Plan, the main structure had an administrative building at the center flanked by two wings – one side for men and one side for women – which were further separated into tiered wards based on conditions and illnesses. The Asylum used the design to bring the outside in, as exposure to nature was seen as an essential part of treatment. Painted blue ceilings that mimic the sky inside are soaringly high and there are rooms on only one side of the hallway so there is always natural light. The hotel rooms occupy the amount of space that would equal about two patient rooms. You may also notice that all of the door frames are rounded instead of square. A fun story from the restoration that we heard while touring the building is that when plaster was removed from the walls it was discovered that the brick underneath was also curved.
Since the site had been abandoned for so long, tantalizing the community with mystery, the adaptive-reuse projects aim to bring the public in. The hotel uses its wide hallways and stunning grounds to host seasonal markets, art shows, and yoga classes that all are welcome to attend, not just guests of the hotel. The Richardson Center Corporation, the non-profit spearheading the re-use, offers tours of the Richardson Olmsted Campus which bring the public into some of the unoccupied buildings and teach them about the campus’ history.
In addition to the hotel, which occupies one third of the campus, the site will be home to the Lipsey Architeture Center Buffalo and other exciting projects spread throughout the eleven remaining unoccupied buildings on the campus. Hotel Henry is located in the heart of Buffalo’s Museum District, steps away from cultural destinations and Delaware Park, making it the perfect home base for a visit to the city.