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The Richardson-Olmsted Complex: The Story of the Downspouts

Author: Robert Creenan

The Richard-Olmsted Complex is showing off a latest, and very intriguing, stage of its ongoing renovation efforts. The downspouts, the copper pipes that drain water from the roof of a building, have been moved from inside the building’s brick walls to the exterior. While this might not immediately appear to be groundbreaking news, the story behind the renovation is fascinating.

Henry Hobson Richardson, the architect of the former Buffalo State Asylum, originally planned for the downspouts to be installed on the outside of the buildings, as the risk of them bursting due to freezing/thawing temperatures would do far less damage than if run inside the walls. Unfortunately the Board of Managers opted to put the pipes in the walls, going against the architect’s wishes – a decision that would later be viewed as a terrific design flaw (see photo by Joe Cascio below).


As Richardson himself said in a report from 1876…

I respectfully beg that your board will examine the work with a view of making careful comparison of the buildings in their present condition with the original drawings. The gutters and conductors – so important a matter in a building of this character – require, in my opinion, a different treatment from that adopted, which is also contrary to the specifications and detail drawings.  Instead of delivering the water inside the buildings, as they now do, they should, in my opinion, deliver it outside, either by outside conductors, or by preference directly from the eaves upon the ground, as shown on the drawings.

As a result of the downspouts being placed inside the walls, the freeze and thaw cycle caused by Buffalo winters would often result in leaks, thus wreaking havoc on the brick masonry during the asylum’s 40 years of vacancy.

When the Richardson Center Corporation was established in 2006 as the Richardson-Olmsted Complex’s steward, one of the first efforts they made was addressing the deteriorating downspouts and masonry, by setting out to put them in their originally intended place. That goal was finally achieved over the course of 2015.

Ultimately, we’re lucky that that damage that was incurred wasn’t worse, as the complex was thankfully deemed salvageable. But another few years, and who knows if this architectural wonder would have been beyond repair.

Hiding the downspouts within the walls was probably considered a futuristic design advancement that would help to highlight the magnificent structure. Instead, it partially caused the demise of the complex. One would think, that with all of the building and design knowledge that Richardson possessed, that he would have been able to sway the poor decision from being implemented in the first place. Then again, the Board of Managers probably looked at the Medina sandstone and felt that the materials used was overkill anyways – obviously they didn’t take into consideration the vulnerable brick masonry. Plus, they assuredly never thought that these types of asylums would ever go out of fashion… and sit empty for 40 years before being converted into a luxury hotel.

Flynn Battaglia is the Executive Architect team, working with Deborah Berke Partners and Goody Clancy. Flynn Battaglia is also the Project Manager for the Architecture and Engineering Team.

Photos:  Joe Cascio | Info sourced by the Richardson Center Corporation

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