I’ve seen Buffalo blossom over the last five years. I grew up just an hour from the city and my visits there usually consisted of a quick run to one of its malls and a liquor store or two before heading back home. I never visited the downtown area at all. There seemed no reason to go there.
On one visit, I managed to get completely lost as I tried to get to the Anchor Bar, the creator of the original Buffalo chicken wings. I’d been to the location in the center of the city and thought I knew where I was going. While driving, I couldn’t help but notice some of the amazing architecture scattered throughout the downtown. I soon learned that the greatest hits of the best American architects were right here, including Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Frederick Law Olmsted and Henry Hobson Richardson.
That was the beginning of my love affair with Buffalo. It started with its architecture and then spread to its history, its cuisine, its museums, its lakeside spaces and its proud citizens. Every time I return to Buffalo, my appreciation for it deepens. There’s always something new happening and always something traditional and unique that I discover from its famous pizza and delicious sponge candy, to Friday night fish frys and neighborhood taverns.
As the renaissance of the city charges ahead, old spaces are taking on new life. My latest hotel stay was at the Hotel Henry Urban Resort and Conference City. During one of my visits, I drove by the building, then abandoned and empty, but majestic nonetheless. It was home to The Richardson Olmstead Campus. A collection of buildings designed by H.H. Richardson, one of the legends of America’s architect scene, with grounds and gardens from Frederick Law Olmsted, who became famous for his work all across the U.S. including New York City’s Central Park. The complex was that spread over 93 acres.
For more than 140 years, the site was home to the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane. The main building was stunning, built in 1870 in Romanesque style using brick and Medina red sandstone. In 1973, the site was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Then in around 2008, the first rumblings started about restoration, including stabilizing the buildings and repairing the roof.
Fast forward to 2013. Phase one plans were announced to turn part of the complex into a hotel/event space/conference center. In June 2017, the Hotel Henry opened and welcomed its first guests. There was a great deal of anticipation. This was an iconic Buffalo structure that was very much of the local skyline. It was once a sad building with an uncertain future and now here it is a hub for the community that is filled with Buffalonians and out-of-town visitors. Its transformation was nothing short of remarkable.
I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about sleeping in a space that once housed psychiatric patients. But during a tour of the hotel, any hesitations melted away. This may have been a hospital for the mentally ill, but it was a unique one that had different ideas about treatment, thanks to Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride. He created a space that was just about housing the sick. Its focus was on treatment and wellness, and the design emphasized that.
The corridors are wide and filled with natural light. Patients once sat in front of the windows to feel the warmth of the sun and look out at the beautiful grounds and gardens surrounding the hospital. Patient rooms would have been two small to transform into hotel suites, so two rooms were combined. There’s not a shred of hospital feeling to these modern spaces. The color palette is neutral and warm, soft shades of gray and blue. My room featured a headboard with the spectacular roofline depicted above it and a cozy throw was draped across the bed. Elsewhere, local art adorns the walls – conversation pieces that make guests stop and look.
The rooms are lovely and they spark a desire to cocoon because of their comfort. But that would mean you’d miss out on one of the Hotel Henry’s best features – quiet sitting areas tucked away that make perfect spots for enjoying a glass of wine with a friend, reading a book or just relaxing. If you feel sociable, you can sit at the bar, dine at 100 Acres – the onsite restaurant – or wonder through the Buffalo Architecture Center on the lower level.
Just a short walk away, you can visit the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, one of the most under-rated museums in the U.S., home to an impressive modern art collection and works of the great masters and most well-known Impressionist painters. Across the street, Burchfield Penney Art Center, part of Buffalo State College, is a beautiful modern showcase for the artists and art of Western New York that is well worth a visit.
Hotel Henry has so much going for it. In some ways, it represents the rising of Buffalo itself. It’s well suited to that purpose. Like the city, it experienced dark times, but its beauty and uniqueness never faded away entirely. It’s always been there. It just took fresh eyes and new ideas to let it shine as part of Buffalo’s incredible and unstoppable resurgence.
Michele stayed as a guest of Hotel Henry and Visit Buffalo Niagara. As always, her thoughts and opinions are her own. Photos courtesy of Michele Sponagle and Hotel Henry.