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Origins of Buffalo’s mental health treatment

Part 1 of a series

Caring for the mentally ill in an institutional setting began in the Buffalo in the late 1800s at what was once the Buffalo State Asylum at Forest and Elmwood avenues. As part of our Mental Health Reporting Initiative, WBFO senior reporter Eileen Buckley explores the origins of the massive Richardson Olmsted Complex, built as a place of healing for the mentally ill.

Credit WBFO News photo by Eileen Buckley
Standing on the lawn in front of the large, iconic Richardson Towers off Forest Avenue in Buffalo, N.Y.

Standing on the lawn in front of the large, iconic Richardson Towers, visitors to the Hotel Henry were enjoying a sunny day taking photos. Those towers now symbolize renovation and renewal of Buffalo’s historic past.

“It was originally built in 1872 as the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane and the word Asylum then had a very different meaning then it has now,” said Corey Fabian Borenstein, the manager of Visitor Experiences at Richardson Olmsted Campus. "Asylum was a safe place - a good warm place that you could take you loved ones. Today when you hear insane asylum it sounds a little scary, but that was absolutely not the intention behind that building.”

In the late 1800s Buffalo was one of America's wealthiest cities, with its proximity to Lake Erie and fresh water and electricity from hydropower. It helped elevate Buffalo as a site for the asylum project designed then by architect Henry Hobson Richardson, who at the time was an unknown later to become one of the nation's most prominent architects and working with leading landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.  

Credit WBFO News photo by Eileen Buckley
Richardson complex originally built in 1872 as the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane.

The psychiatric center on the Richardson Olmsted Campus was designed specifically to be part of the cure for mental illness. Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride created a plan for psychiatric hospitals across the country.

“He was a doctor in the mid-19th century. Dr. Kirkbride wrote this incredibly influential book, it has a very long titled about the design of an asylums and it just changed the world. Prior to him coming along the treatment for the mentally ill was very poor. It was very much kind of ‘lock them in the dungeon’ - throw away the key mentality and he came along and was one of the first people to say we can do better. There are ways we can help these people, we can, maybe not fully recover. It was the age before psychiatric medicine, but there’s a way we can help them live happier more comfortable lives,” explained Fabian Borenstein

“How did Buffalo get this? Why were we selected for a psych center?” asked Buckley.  

“It was pretty fierce competition to have the asylum built here in the 1870s. There were about four or five different cities in Western New York that competed for the bid. We ended up winning because we offered a perpetual supply of free water to the asylum, which was critical back then,” replied Fabian Borenstein.

Credit WBFO News photo by Eileen Buckley
The former psychiatric center, on the Richard Olmsted Campus, was designed specifically to be part of the cure for mental illness

With massive buildings, high ceilings and plenty of sunshine, the campus stretched out on 200 acres of land. It provided a pastoral-style environment with open spaces, rehab programs, farming, therapy and art.

“When it was first built it was in response to Dorothea Dix, to have a more humane place for people with a mental illness,” remarked Dr. Celia Spacone, the former executive director of the Buffalo Psychiatric Center.

“They wanted a safe harbor for people who had a mental illness - to fresh air, and exercise, sunlight. Those things were good and certainly weren’t harmful, but they really didn’t have effective treatments to help people then return to the community,” said Spacone.

“Imagine the 1890s - they had absolutely no medicine that could help you in any way. The best that you could have was coming here and having the calm environment and that you have a lot of care and very dedicated one-on-one attention, hopefully make your life a little more pleasant,” Fabian Borenstein reflected.        

Credit WBFO News photo by Eileen Buckley
Inside the Hotel Henry today, restored to the way the former psych center hallways reassembled in the late 1800's.

The original psychiatric center was built for 660 patients. It then expanded in the 1900s. Tour guide Fabian Borenstein showed off the former men’s section with plaster dust and materials everywhere.

“Where are you taking me into now on the campus?,” asked Buckley.

“We are going to into the second male patient, wing building. It is the first untouched building - we have the three core buildings that are redeveloped into Hotel Henry and the restaurant and architecture center. This is the first one that we haven’t touched, so you will get to see what it looks like when you leave a building by itself for 40 years," Fabian Borenstein explained.

Credit WBFO News photo by Eileen Buckley
Looking inside a former pysch center room in the former men's ward on the Richardson Olmsted Campus.

"The patient bedrooms were very small to encourage people, ‘You’re only supposed to be sleeping in there. You’re not supposed to be sulking in your room. You’re supposed to be out here or outside doing something - getting active, being well,” responded Fabian Borenstein. “According to Kirkbride plan, patients were arranged first by gender, so all the male patients were in the eastern wing and the female patients were in the western wing. After that, patients were organized according to severity of their condition.”   

By 1927 some of the psychiatric grounds were taken over for Buffalo State College. Meanwhile, the number of patients was increasing dramatically. Soon, the grand plan to give them a peaceful refuge would vanish.  

In Part 2: Overcrowding and inadequate funding created problems at the psychiatric center.

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