Inch by inch, the historic Richardson Olmsted Complex is coming back to life. Only a few years ago, this architectural treasure was crumbling into ruins at the hands of a neglectful state. Today, a chastened state government is funding the renewal of one of Buffalo’s gems, and last week the public was invited to have a look.
The event was the public unveiling of the re-landscaped South Lawn of the Richardson Olmsted Complex, so named for the architect of the 19th century masterpiece, H.H. Richardson, and of the building’s landscape, Frederick Law Olmsted.
The new lawn, featuring a curving graveled path, native plantings, a Medina sandstone pedestrian bridge and old-fashioned streetlights, is already drawing praise. “I didn’t think in my lifetime I would see anything even like the South Lawn being done over there. It’s wonderful, it’s great,” said Francis R. Kowsky, a distinguished professor emeritus of art history at SUNY Buffalo State.
This is a huge undertaking and a critical one for Buffalo. Richardson remains one of this country’s premier architects, along with Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, both of whom also built in Buffalo. It was a sin against history that the building was allowed to deteriorate to the point where demolition might have soon been the only option. Buildings by Richardson are thriving in other cities – Boston’s Trinity Church is but one example – and add to the fabric of civic life, not to mention the local economy.
Pressured by former Assemblyman Sam Hoyt of Buffalo and others, then-Gov. George E. Pataki took on the task. Recruited to oversee that work was then-Buffalo News Publisher Stanford Lipsey, who is passionate about protecting Buffalo’s historic architecture.
Lipsey and an all-volunteer board began that work seven years ago, and it has been challenging. But last Saturday, the project reached a milestone. The South Lawn was reimagined, referencing Olmsted and his partner Calvert Vaux, while directing its energy toward the building’s new purposes.
Those purposes include a boutique hotel, an event and conference center and, perhaps most intriguing, an architecture center, along with a new northern entrance. Completion is expected in 2016.
The new lawn contributes mightily to the neighborhood, where green space has been hard to come by. And while the new lawn belongs to the Richardson Olmsted Complex, the project’s managers want the public to make use of it. “The grounds seemed off limits before,” said Monica Pellegrino Faix, executive director of the Richardson Center Corp. “We want people to feel that they can come in and enjoy them.”
Worth every penny of the $5 million it cost.