The Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane opened in 1880 and was considered to be, at the time, a state-of-the-art psychiatric treatment facility. In official publications, the city and the asylum promoted an image of a peaceful retreat for effective mental-health care, and they distributed photographs of the facility’s grand pianos, welcoming parlors, well-stocked libraries, extensive dining rooms and baseball field to members of the community. The reality of the patients’ experiences was much more grim: a search through The New York Times in the 1880s alone yields dozens of detailed accounts of abuse, cruelty and neglect toward the individuals in need of care. It’s no wonder so many claim that the asylum-turned-hotel is haunted, and I can tell you that the stories are absolutely true.
Construction on the Buffalo State Asylum–now known as the Richardson Olmsted Complex–began in 1872 on 203 acres of untended farmland in the middle of the city. The project, which incorporated the “most-enlightened” and “humane” principles in psychiatric treatment of the nineteenth century, was the collaborative effort of three designers and thinkers: Henry Hobson Richardson; Frederick Law Olmsted; and Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride. Richardson, the father of the Richardsonian Romanesque architectural style, incoporated Kirkbride’s theories on housing patients according to the “type” and “level” of their illness, and he designed a building with two central towers and five wings flanking the towers on each side. Olmsted, who also landscaped Central Park in New York City, planned the gardens outside, and the complex is considered to be “one of Buffalo’s most important and beautiful [landmarks].”
Buffalo State Asylum’s designs were rooted in Kirkbride’s idea that an individual’s physical and social environment could cause or cure mental illness. Richardson and Kirkbride planned wide hallways, high ceilings and hundreds of windows to let in natural light, and they designed dozens of spaces for patients to gather and socialize. Patients at the facility could read books in the well-stocked library downstairs, meet up for dinner in one of the expansive dining rooms on each floor, attend religious services on Sunday mornings, form baseball teams with other residents on their wing, learn an instrument in the music room and perform stage shows for patients in nearby wings.
According to one of the facility’s superintendents, “Employment in an asylum is strictly a medical question and should be directed by the physician and prescribed as medicine and diet are.” Work was viewed as therapeutic, and patients would maintain the complex’s extensive gardens and farm and harvest crops each year as a part of their treatment. Occupational therapy included working on looms, and a nearby shop sold the patients’ handmade rugs and blankets. Physicians designated different rooms for different trades, and within a few years, there was a woodworking shop, community store, bakery and sewing room. Buffalo State Asylum was a peaceful mental health care facility, and patients had access to the most enlightened and effective treatments available. At least, that was the idea, and that was the image physicians and psychologists projected to the public.
Newspaper articles from the time period tell a different story. “BRUTES IN AN INSANE ASYLUM: A Story of Cruelty from The State Asylum at Buffalo” was the headline in The New York Times on the morning of February 7, 1881. The article describes a pattern of severe physical abuse and “terrible cruelties” toward patients who were “too noisy” or “slow in entering the dining-room.” Stories of blackened eyes, near-drownings and forced sterilizations, as well as attempts to cover up the violence; one staff member even threatened to “pound [a patient] to death” if he reported the abuse to the superintendent. This was, from what I can tell, the first time The New York Times published a report on the abusive treatment in the Buffalo State Asylum, but these articles show up again and again for decades after.
In 1974, patients were transferred to the new Buffalo Psychiatric Center, and the former Buffalo State Asylum was abandoned. The building fell into decline and disrepair and, not surprisingly, “rumors [began to] abound that the castlelike structure is haunted by the ghosts of former patients who died there. They are said to roam the grounds frequently and to love most of all the tunnels that lay beneath the buildings, connecting them.” The Richardson Olmsted Complex, as it is now known, has been turned into a hotel and restaurant, and I’ve heard many stories of flickering lights, mysterious voices crying for help and objects being moved across the room, as well as freezing-cold hallways and staircases that lead nowhere–directly into another wall.
When my aunt and I visited Hotel Henry for dinner over Labor Day weekend, we decided to take a detour and explore the rest of the complex. If you keep walking downstairs–past the hotel rooms, through the empty corridors, down the grand central staircase and into the basement–you’ll find a curved wooden door built into the stone wall. The door is locked, and I don’t know where it leads–but as soon as I touched the handle, the room chilled, and one of the lightbulbs flickered on and off. So what do you think; do you believe in ghosts now?
The historic photos of the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane and the Richardson Olmsted Complex included in this post can be found at “The Long History of a Distinguished National Landmark.”