Climbing the spiral staircase lined in whitewashed bricks, I grip the handrail tightly, wondering about the multitudes who preceded me. I am exploring Buffalo’s Hotel Henry, but very nervously, for this building, now magnificently repurposed, was a lunatic asylum for almost a century and brings evocative memories of that time.
Hotel Henry’s Past
Although apprehensive, I’m enjoying my exploratory tour for the Henry has been magnificently repurposed. It is the result of three geniuses — how many hotels can boast even one? The first is Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride who in the mid-1800s developed a revolutionary idea for the care of mentally ill patients: Treat them in attractive therapy centres filled with natural light and wide-open spaces and surrounded by lovely landscaped grounds. It turns out his philosophy is also relevant to 21st-century hotel guests like me.
Kirkbride’s approach resulted in many architecturally stunning asylums and one of the most impressive was the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane, designed by the second of our trio of titans, Henry Hobson Richardson. It was constructed in 1871 in a grand, sprawling style complete with madcap towers and turrets and operated for almost a century before closing. It reopened in 2017 after a $100 million renovation as the stunning new Hotel Henry. Now I am exploring deep in his masterpiece that led to the Richardsonian Romanesque architectural style. The hotel is a National Historic Landmark.
The third titan was Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect who laid out the 200-acre grounds (now 42 acres) of the hospital, as well as nearby Delaware Park. The North Garden continues the tradition of local urban agriculture with flowers, vegetables, and herbs grown for both the 100 Acres Restaurant and events kitchens.
In the late 1800s, Buffalo was one of America’s wealthiest cities, thanks to its location at the western end of the Erie Canal. In addition to Hotel Henry, there were many other examples of grand architecture, for in that era Buffalo rivalled New York as America’s leading city.
But as railways replaced canals, Buffalo’s star eventually faded and the Richardson complex fell into disrepair. Not long ago the city had a run-down, hang-dog look, but that’s now a fading memory as Buffalo is undergoing a major rejuvenation with a revitalized waterfront, great cuisine, culture to rival the best and rediscovery of its grand architecture, as exemplified by the Hotel Henry.
Hotel Henry’s Present
The hotel, located north of downtown in the city’s Museum District, has quickly become one of Buffalo’s premier destinations, attracting guests, conferences, weddings and special events. And, as I am discovering as I wander its spacious, art-filled corridors, it’s exciting just to explore.
Hotel Henry is part of an 11-building cluster that formed the original asylum. Five of the buildings are still to be refurbished (three were torn down); they have been stabilized, but otherwise are littered with broken bricks, fallen plaster and other debris. I look forward to returning in five years to see how they will have been transformed. Together with the hotel, this complex is called the Richardson Olmsted Campus, perhaps fittingly, as the State University of New York campus is located immediately to the north.
Much of the hotel’s charm, I discover, comes from its intriguing shape, which occupies three of Richardson’s original 11 buildings. Its centerpiece, the main administration building with its two copper-topped, 180-foot towers, is joined to two flanking buildings, the east and west wings, which once housed male and female patients, respectively. Curved, high-ceilinged, second-floor hallways lead from the central building to the two wings and the 88 spacious, airy guestrooms and suites with 16-foot ceilings.
The design is contemporary and sophisticated but retains the original open spaces with some of the widest hallways and highest ceilings I’ve ever seen in a hotel. Clearly, the features that made it a revolutionary healing place also make it a comfortable, unique resort. I am delighted that historic details are preserved, including original tile and wood flooring, interior cornices and window locks and shutters.
As I wander, I’m immersed in art for the Henry has more paintings and sculptures than an art gallery. Well, OK, it is an art gallery featuring a permanent collection and also offering a series of exhibitions, which present exceptionally well in the grand, historic spaces.
I occasionally become disoriented while wandering the 15-foot-wide corridors across all four unconventional storeys with their bizarre nooks and spiral staircases. There’s even a grand staircase that leads nowhere — it was curtailed to prevent patients from wandering from floor to floor.
Room 125 attracts me for this is where scenes from The Natural were filmed. I imagine myself meeting and chatting with Robert Redford.
The central block houses the second-floor reception area, the breakfast nook, lounges and the 100 Acres restaurant, which takes its name from the 100 acres originally set aside for patient farmland. That evening I gaze at the sprawling hall-type setting of the restaurant while sipping a Perfect Mistake cocktail as the chefs prepare my pappardelle.
At the next table is a group of municipal administrators from Cleveland, a reminder that conferences and group meetings are a target audience of the hotel, whose full name is Hotel Henry – Urban Resort & Conference Center. It offers more than 20,000 square feet of meeting spaces equipped with modern visual and acoustic technology.
I offer a silent toast to Buffalo’s reawakening.
Things to Do in Buffalo (By Bike!)
In the morning I mount a rental bike and set out to explore, for the Henry is situated in the heart of Buffalo’s Cultural Corridor a cluster of museums and galleries at the north end of Elmwood Village, one of the coolest neighbourhoods in the country.
Heading northeast I come to two large art galleries. The first, Burchfield Penney Art Center, is a large modern building dedicated to the art and culture of western New York offering a wide selection of art and works from the Buffalo and Niagara region. I enjoy seeing the collection of Charles E. Burchfield, the esteemed watercolorist and landscape painter.
I roll across the street to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, which opened in 1862, and has become one of the best galleries in North America. It is located in a glorious building on the shore of Hoyt Lake in Delaware Park. Curatorial fellow Andrea Alvarez leads the way, “We’re a smaller gallery but can hang with the big ones,” she says. “The AK has important works by important artists.” We pass paintings by Monet, Van Gogh, Degas and Pissaro. Alvarez stops in front of Jackson Pollock’s enormous Convergence. “This was painted on a barn floor, and Pollock dropped a match, which was accidentally absorbed into the paint,” she says. We search, but can’t find it. Entering the original wing, I’m overwhelmed by the number of tall Roman-style columns. “Only the US Capitol in Washington has more columns than here,” says Alvarez proudly.
Next, I cycle into Delaware Park, which was designed by Olmsted and Vaux between 1868 and 1870. It is like a trip through history. I stop on the shore of a picturesque lake crowded with boats. Olmsted predicted that Delaware Park was destined to be great and he was correct as it has been named by The Guardian as one of the top ten parks of the world. I imagine the celebrations and fireworks exploding over the lake during the 1901 Pan American Exposition when Buffalo was in its heyday.
Rolling northeast through the park I reach the 23.5-acre Buffalo Zoo, which was established in 1875 and is the third oldest in America. Wandering past tigers and chimpanzees I reach the Reptile House and am drawn to the yellow-banded poison dart frog. A wannabe Indiana Jones, I am fascinated to learn the frog’s sweat is used in poison blow darts by Amazon Natives.
Heading back through Delaware Park I reach the Buffalo History Museum where I am again embraced by history. This gorgeous building surrounded by cherry blossoms in spring was built for the 1901 Pan-American Exposition, arguably Buffalo’s zenith, attended by eight million and, sadly, where President McKinley was assassinated. Whereas all other exposition buildings were torn down, this building was preserved and became the history museum, today housing more than 100,000 artifacts, over 200,000 photographs and 20,000 books.
With the sun sinking low, I pedal slowly south along the tree-lined Elmwood Avenue and the vibrant Elmwood Village, which is legendary for its locally-owned shops, galleries, coffee shops, bars and restaurants. After a day of cycling I search for a cold ale; I’m not alone on the avenue bustling with pedestrians. It takes resolve, but I pass by Thin Man Brewing Co. and Forty Thieves Pub and head for Coles, one of the most historic pubs in the city (established 1934). Sipping a locally-brewed Flying Bison amber ale I gaze at the boat suspended from the ceiling and listen to my bar neighbour describe the Elmwood Bidwell Farmer’s Market, ranked best in the city, and regret I won’t be there for another morning to savour the excitement and rush of the market.
Wiping foam from my lip, I’m happy to be staying at such an unusual hotel and seeing Buffalo striving — successfully — to regain its gloried past.
Photos via trivago unless otherwise noted. Feature photo by Drew Brown, courtesy of Visit Buffalo Niagara