“H.H. Richardson’s Prescription for a Troubled Time” by Thomas H. Yorty photos by Dellas
During the Middle Ages, when war and religious unrest threatened fledgling western civilization...
During the Middle Ages, when war and religious unrest threatened fledgling western civilization and society strove against feudal uprisings, disease, and plague, Romanesque architecture offered a reassuring message: the world is not falling apart. With simple, static design utilizing circles, triangles and squares, Romanesque buildings communicated stability and strength, simplicity and peace. Romanesque churches embodied and recapitulated geometric shapes to evoke unchanging principles and eternal verities. Their rounded arches and thick walls of stone appeared imposing and immovable, a welcome sight to a society in flux.
Similar ebbs and flows of stability and strife characterized late 19th century America. Modernity’s industrial development, urbanization, science, and technology signaled a reordering of social life. Labor strikes by the overworked, underpaid, largely immigrant employees of America’s burgeoning heavy industry often erupted into full-fledged street-riots. Armed battle between workers and police or militia was not uncommon. A rising establishment feared the unification of disenfranchised factory workers and immigrants under the banners of socialism or anarchism, and it contributed to violence and unrest. The wild popularity of Herbert Spencer’s social Darwinism and its slogans, “might makes right,” and “survival of the fittest,” foretold the loss of simple, innocent, communal lifestyles to an industry and technology driven society shaped by men like Jay Gould, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and John D. Rockefeller, with power, privilege and unimaginable fortunes.
To this society, Henry Hobson Richardson, a New Orleans-born, Paris-educated, New York-based architect, brought the stability of Romanesque architecture. In 1870, at the suggestion of the great landscape architect Fredrick Law Olmstead, Richardson was chosen as chief architect for the Buffalo Psychiatric Hospital. The mental health facility in Utica, N.Y. could no longer handle the increasing population of mentally ill persons consigned to live in the state’s prisons and poor houses, so a group of Buffalo and Utica officials lobbied the state legislature in 1864 for funding to build a major upstate facility. In 1869, when funding was approved, the Buffalo State Hospital organization was formed, and in 1871 Richardson broke ground on the project.
Prior to this, Richardson’s work was primarily in ecclesiastical design and, for a time, he even took to wearing medieval monastic garb of a cassock and rope-belt to work in his studio. Yet, the economic depression of the 1870s forced Richardson to turn to better-funded civic projects. Creating public buildings enabled Richardson to grow as an architect while he kept faith with his ecclesiastical aesthetics and philosophy. As one 19th century pundit mused, “It is wholly impossible to measure the revolution that would be caused in modern society by a general renunciation of faith in unseen things.” And yet, in Richardson’s America, such renunciation was popping up everywhere. A brave new world was emerging. It was, therefore, precisely to this new, fast moving, uncertain era that Richardson’s Romanesque designs were speaking.
This is evident in his design for the hospital–a seminal building that started the Romanesque revival. Twin towers rise from the building’s central structure, where wide hallways and large windows take advantage of Richardson’s decision to situate the building so that it would receive the maximum amount of daylight possible. The bright interior dispelled notions of a dungeon asylum, made sound medical sense, and exemplified Platonic ideals. At the time, people already believed sunlight was good for the mentally ill, a theory more recently corroborated by discoveries of serotonin levels in the body. In addition, Plato, whose philosophical ideals underpin Romanesque design, used light to illustrate his theory of personal transformation. The cave allegory in “Plato’s Republic” depicts a prisoner who is freed by finding his way through the darkness of the cave and into the light of day. In the light, he realizes the innate ideals of what is right, good and beautiful. This realization ultimately leads the seeker to the source of truth and reason. Richardson’s design for the hospital embodies Platonic notions of truth, reason and transformation.
The Buffalo Psychiatric Hospital quickly became known abroad as the most impressive building in America, and initiated a nationwide neo-Romanesque revival. Richardson’s selection of Romanesque themes was “just what the doctor ordered” for a society uncertain of its future and immersed in social, political and economic turmoil.
Today, people who see the Buffalo State Hospital may call it “spooky,” “scary,” “dungeon-like,” or reminiscent of a grotesquely oversized haunted house. But, it’s a building that also inspires awe and admiration. There is an almost seductive attraction about the building–you want to look at it not only because it is immensely pleasing to the eye, but because the tense and dynamic elevation of the towers portends something dramatic, if not simply remarkable.
It is perhaps no small irony that the building today evokes such diametrically opposed feelings from the ideas of order and transformation that it was intended to convey over a century ago. Indeed, one docent of the facility suggests that Richardson had a gift for evoking mystery in his buildings by his use of solid, roughly articulated masonry facades. The observer approaching the building is invited to speculate about what might be inside. It is this quality of mystery that may have held much of the appeal of Romanesque design for Richardson.
It is also ironic that except for long staircases winding to the top, the foreboding towers are completely empty. Discovering this is like discovering that the fearsome, larger-than-life Wizard of Oz was just a very ordinary man from Kansas, hiding behind a screen. But the way the building is seen today may be tied as much to developments in mental health as to architectural forms. Psychotropic drugs developed over the past fifty years, have enabled outpatient treatment and have negated the need for massive buildings and vast acreage to house and occupy mental health sufferers. Consequently today, places like the Richardson’s hospital take on a “dark age” aura of antiquated treatments for the mentally ill.
Richardson’s Buffalo Psychiatric Hospital seen through the lens of changes in society and culture will always be a building that, at the very least, invites us to reconsider what it is that gives solace, reassurance, and hope in uncertain times. While his attempt to prescribe the architectural forms of antiquity may not be compelling for the uncertainties of our time his commitment to the ideals of beauty, goodness and truth surely is.