Shortly after learning about the massive, Victorian-era psychiatric hospitals built according to a set of architectural dictates known as the Kirkbride Plan, Stephen Brockman, senior principal at New York-based Deborah Berke Partners, found himself joining an ambitious restoration of one of them. “It was a weird coincidence,” he says, “and it offered the exciting opportunity to be a part of exploring a different reality for an amazing and historic property.”
Of the dozens of so-called Kirkbrides—named for Philadelphia psychiatrist and mental illness advocate Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride, who believed that expansive, light-filled architecture could play a critical role in healing the mentally ill—one of the most significant is the former Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane (more recently renamed the Richardson Olmsted Campus), a castle-like compound spread across 93 acres that was built in 1870 and designed by a young Henry Hobson Richardson (whom the hotel is named after), with grounds by Frederick Law Olmsted.
The transformation of part of the long-abandoned hospital into the 88-room Hotel Henry Urban Resort Conference Center comes courtesy of, along with Brockman and his team, local firm Flynn Battaglia Architects, which served as the architect of record, with Boston-based Goody Clancy handling exterior renovations and preservation. More plans call for an architecture museum to be added as part of the complex (which together will make up one-third of the site), while the remaining 10 buildings may soon be filled with residences and institutional tenants, although nothing is confirmed as of yet.
“With historic buildings, our approach is always to have a light touch,” says Brockman, “and we really didn’t want to screw this one up.” Fit and finishes in the hotel are mostly neutral and subdued, he points out, in deference to the building’s robust proportions and materials. The lobby, for example, takes advantage of the property’s long, wide corridors and original wood floors by offering a series of “warm, color-soaked nooks” done in yellow paint at their ends, says Brockman. “They get beautiful direct light and are perfect for settling in with a drink or a book.”
“This is a big, macho building,” he adds, “that is almost impervious to the little moments of change we’ve created for it. It almost doesn’t matter where the furniture is since we’re really celebrating the space and its history.” For instance, rather than occupying a defined area, 100 Acres restaurant spans the entire first floor, with a variety of modern red and Windsor-style black chairs and simple wooden tables. Similarly, guestrooms are “pure and uncluttered,” according to Brockman, with a gray and white palette, and a storage trunk, pegs, and hangers in place of armoires and dressers.
In an effort not to mess with Kirkbride’s ordered, rectilinear plan, the designers created the guestrooms by ingeniously combining three former patient rooms and then constructing cabinet-like bump-outs into the corridors for the bathrooms. Rooms are single-hung along the 15-foot-wide corridors, and feature huge windows on the other side, wall-to-wall carpeting dappled with green and blue hues, and, above the bed, striking photos of the building’s architectural elements.
The only instance where the team made a “conscious effort to insert a stark contrast to the Richardson building,” Brockman says, was in the new entrance that is essentially a glass-and-steel box affixed to the exterior. Inside, guests find the restored original dramatic double staircase done in wood and set against brick walls. “[The atrium] acts as a note,” explains Brockman, “that says, ‘we’ve transformed this entire building, but the DNA is still there.’”