I always say, why stay in a hotel when you can stay in a story? It’s the kind of philosophy that has led Henk and I to sleep in a spherical treehouse, play Tarzan and Jane in a tropical hideaway, and more recently, check ourselves into a former insane asylum, now a chic boutique hotel in Buffalo known as Hotel Henry. The good news is that you don’t have to be crazy to stay here, unless of course, you are crazy about architecture…
UPDATE October 2022: Hotel Henry fell victim to the pandemic and was forced to close in 2021. But the good news is that it will be reopening as the Richardson Hotel. In the meantime, read about this historic property and what you can expect should you visit.
History of Hotel Henry
Hotel Henry is actually part of what is known as the Richard Olmsted Campus which dates back to 1880 when the 100-acre property was opened as the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane. Which seems like an odd place to choose for a boutique hotel, unless you are a fan of architecture – and Buffalo is well-known for its architectural heritage, including this particular location which is one of the State’s most iconic landmarks.
An Iconic Architectural Landmark in Buffalo
The Hotel Henry building was originally designed by Henry Hobson Richardson (hence the new name “Hotel Henry”) who was one of the most prominent architects of his day, along with Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan. But what makes this particular building of his so noteworthy is not its Romanesque style and signature 185-foot tall twin towers, but the fact that Richardson worked on the design in collaboration with Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride, a pioneer in his approach to caring for mental health patients. Kirkbride believed that patients would benefit more from an environment that was comfortable, airy and beautiful, with an opportunity to enjoy the outdoors where they could rehabilitate and find meaningful work caring for the property.
Designed for Better Mental Health
Richardson took this approach and incorporated the thinking into his design for the hospital’s interior spaces, which included soaring ceilings, huge windows and brightly-lit, extra-wide corridors where patients were encouraged to socialize as part of their healing process.
NOTE: These wide hallways are part of the current hotel design still, and function not just as airy corridors for hotel guests, but as art galleries as well, with rotating exhibitions of modern art installations decorating their walls.
The fourth floor was actually the largest space in the Towers building, and was originally used as an entertainment venue for the patients, with musicals, concerts, and plays taking place here. Today the fourth floor continues to serve as an event venue, with weddings being the most popular (perhaps a former asylum is appropriate for 2 people who are crazy in love, after all!) In fact, on ‘wedding weekends’ you’ll often see local entrepreneurs drop by to offer carriage rides to guests who are staying at the hotel.
Curvilinear Corridors and Beautiful Grounds
The design of the Richardson buildings as well as the surrounding grounds were meant to be an alternative to the crowded, depressing mental institutions of the past. Even the corridors connecting the main building’s wings were designed on a curve to prevent them being used as makeshift dorms for extra beds/patients. You can still see beautiful mosaics and some of the original decor in these corridors today.
The exterior grounds and gardens of the complex were given the same care, and were originally designed by Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architects who designed Central Park in New York City and San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.
Hotel Henry Today
The idea to repurpose the former insane asylum into the 88-room boutique hotel it is today was an ambitious one that began years ago. It took the investment of several hospitality partners, the State of New York and over $100 million to bring the Hotel Henry Urban Resort Conference Centre to life in 2017. But the results are well worth the money and effort that went into this rebirth.
The main Towers building and adjacent wings that serve as the boutique Hotel Henry were redesigned by architects Deborah Berke Partners, and include the addition of a glass curtain wall at the main entrance on the north side. Just inside on the ground floor, the Lipsey Buffalo Architecture Centre is set to open in the spring of 2019, a fitting tenant for such a significant architectural landmark.
One floor up is the Hotel’s foyer which includes a casual dining area and one half of the original staircase (the full staircase was cut in half to allow more access through the foyer).
Taking these stairs up to the second floor brings you to the actual reception desk of the hotel, which offers communal areas directly opposite where guests can get work done in the business centre, or just relax and enjoy the artwork on display there.
Rooms at Hotel Henry
It took a little bit of modification to incorporate ensuites into each room at the Hotel Henry, but with the expansive corridors, there was plenty of room to steal a little space from them in order to retrofit modern bathrooms into the design of each room. Eighteen-foot ceilings and tall windows give a wonderful sense of space to the guest rooms, and modern decor and amenities mean that guests lack for nothing they might need during their stay.
I couldn’t help but smile, though, when I noticed the names on the bathroom lotions and potions: their descriptions took on a slightly different meaning knowing that this was a former mental health institution!
Dining at Hotel Henry
The dining space at Hotel Henry is as unusual as the hotel’s history, because rather than having a formal dining room, tables are a spread-out affair, taking advantage of the hotel’s many nooks and crannies to create a meandering dining area on its first floor. Here, the on-site 100 Acres Kitchens serves on-trend dishes, sourcing all of their ingredients locally from partner farms or their own kitchen garden, (which is a nice nod to the working farm that was part of the original 100-acre property.) Henk and I only had the opportunity to enjoy breakfasts here, but the options were tasty, affordable, and all the baked goods were made fresh in house daily.
Henry’s Happy Hour!
There are a couple of places for cocktails at Hotel Henry, including the Lounge, a luxe room with sleek, sexy decor, as well as the smaller and more mingle-friendly bar where Henk and I enjoyed a few drinks shortly after arriving. (You gotta love a good Happy Hour, as nothing says ‘grownup getaway’ like a classy cocktail to start the weekend!)
Art is Everywhere at Hotel Henry
Part of the vision for the reinvention of Hotel Henry is that this Urban Resort forms part of Buffalo’s ‘Cultural Corridor’ and as such serves as a venue for local and regional art. You can actually take a self-guided tour of the current exhibitions on display throughout the hotel with a map and descriptions provided at the reception desk (the art exhibitions are open to the public, not just to hotel guests.) It’s a great way to get creatively ‘lost’ in the building, as you wander through the various corridors discovering the latest art on display.
Albright-Knox Art Gallery is Steps Away
If art is one of the reasons you are visiting Buffalo, then Hotel Henry’s location is a perfect base for you, as it is literally steps away from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. Head over to this respected gallery and enjoy the exterior sculptures before heading inside to admire works by modern art masters like Robert Motherwell, Robert Indiana and Jackson Pollock to name a few.
Art, Chic Rooms, Locavore Dining and…Ghosts?
Many people may find the history of Hotel Henry too ‘unusual’ for their taste, and there is always local talk that the site is haunted. Rumour has it that ghosts of previous patients are still present on the Olmsted campus, which over time deteriorated from Kirkbride’s original vision and became just another overcrowded institution that employed somewhat barbaric ‘treatments’ for its patients. And there is definitely some sense of isolation here, since many of the buildings surrounding Hotel Henry remain shuttered, awaiting their own renaissance.
None of this bothered Henk and I, though, and we found the history of Hotel Henry fascinating, not freaky. The reimagining of Richardson’s building into a chic boutique hotel seemed like a great way to rejuvenate this Historic Site, and we honestly enjoyed a very relaxing weekend stay in our well-appointed room. And with its proximity to the Albright-Knox, and vibrant Elmwood Village, Hotel Henry was a perfect base to explore Buffalo, which has undergone its own cultural rebirth in recent years.
Call us crazy, but for Henk and I, staying in a reimagined former asylum that is now a boutique hotel seemed like the perfect place to experience a reinvented Buffalo, too! And we’d highly recommend it.
Special thanks to Visit Buffalo Niagara who hosted our stay at Hotel Henry.
Jane Canapini is a member of the Travel Media Association of Canada and the North American Travel Journalists Association. She established GrownupTravels.com in 2014 to share information and tips based on personal experience so her readers could get the most out of their travels.