A rendering of the new glass atrium that will mark the entrance to the hospital-turned-hotel.

In Buffalo, a hospital by some of the best-known designers of the 19th century, left for dead in the 20th, is being revived as a boutique hotel. The landmarked Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane, by Henry Hobson Richardson along with Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, is adding an 88-room hotel and conference center, as well as fresh landscaping, as the Rust Belt city bets that its architectural heritage can attract tourists.

The redesign, led by Deborah Berke Partners and finalized last month, will also relocate the hospital’s main entrance to a new atrium, whose glass walls will provide a modern contrast with the building’s dark sandstone exterior. “We wanted to do something clearly of this time, not some fake-it-old version,” Berke says. “It will also be transparent, to highlight Richardson’s work.”

Expected to break ground early next year, the hotel, which will cost $56 million, is part of a multi-phase, $81 million project, which is mostly being paid for with state funds allocated last decade. But private investors, spurred by tax credits, are expected to contribute $19 million. The hotel’s lobby will be located inside the hospital’s main building, whose twin towers, and their screwdriver-head-shaped green tops, are fixtures of Buffalo’s skyline. Berke’s design team, which includes Goody Clancy and local practice Flynn Battaglia Architects, will also create meeting rooms, a restaurant, and a ballroom inside the five-level space. 

There will also be galleries for the Buffalo Architecture Center, a nonprofit that educates visitors about Buffalo’s historic buildings, like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Darwin Martin House and Louis Sullivan’s Guaranty Building. Olmsted and Vaux, of Central Park fame, created Buffalo’s park system, including nearby Delaware Park.

The hotel rooms, meanwhile, will be fitted into three-story wing sections that flank the main building, in spaces where patients once stayed, though the bulk of the wings, which stretch out in long V shapes, will remain empty for now. Begun in 1872 but abandoned in the 1970s, the complex was a so-called Kirkbride hospital, named for Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride, who advocated for roomy, sunny hallways, so patients could socialize. Hallways will be kept wide and “furnished in a way to encourage people to sit there with a laptop or meet for a cup of coffee,” Berke says. InnVest Lodging Services, which runs the nearby Mansion, a hotel inside an 1869 house, will be the hotel operator.

Kirkbride also believed patients should grow their own food, and when Olmsted and Vaux laid out the property it stretched over 203 acres and included farmland. Today, at 91 acres, the property is far smaller; Buffalo State College took over a parcel in the 1920s and continues to have its campus across the street today. Similarly, modern structures dot the grounds of the hospital, which was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1986 and is owned by the state of New York, including a red-brick high-rise built in the 1960s. Parts of a wing were also demolished around the same time, which later resulted an “endangered” rating for the site from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Shielding that building from the windows of the new hotel was one of the challenges facing Andropogon Associates, a Philadelphia firm that re-landscaped nine acres on the south side of the former hospital this summer. Two parking lots came out, and about 100 trees went in, including sycamores, maples and birches, says Chris Mendel, a firm associate. An ash that Olmsted had planted was kept, he added. Andropogon, which has worked on Central Park, is also at work on a parcel on the north side, next to the new entrance, including creating a 35-seat dining area in the ruins of an old greenhouse. “It’s taken a while, but the project is finally achieving escape velocity,” says Mendel.

And for Christine Krolewicz, the assistant project manager with Richardson Center Corp., the nonprofit overseeing the rehab, the momentum is coming just in time. This year, they doubled the number of tours of the building from last year, to 30 from 15, and still, every one sold out, many to people from Europe. “Locally, we are trying to embrace what we do have left,” says Krolewicz, “and trying to preserve it.”