Friday, May 15, 2020

Book Reviews Reloaded: Buffalo State Hospital

This article first appeared on East Niagara Post on March 1, 2016. It is repeated here as I work to put all my book reviews in one place. They will be posted on Thursdays or Fridays and only be altered from the original in that I will add publisher information and pages. Hopefully, by revisiting these reviews, other people might find a book they'd like to pick up for their own enjoyment.

Buffalo State Hospital -- Museum of disABILITY
People Ink Press
164 Pages

Standing sentinel over the City of Buffalo are the intriguing and mysterious twin towers of the Richardson Complex. How many of us have driven past Buffalo State College and wondered about the green-roofed spectacles on the back side of the complex? Abandoned to the elements for two decades, this regal edifice has many secrets that keeps bringing our attention back to the remains of the Buffalo State Hospital.

Dr. James Boles introduces us to the publication, explaining the mission of the book series being published by the Museum of disABILITY. They bring us the stories of how we used to care for the less fortunate and the disabled. In Boles’ own words, “The past is quickly forgotten, often denied, and there is much easy criticism of previous efforts….Early philosophies can seem dated and perhaps harsh, but at the time the care was given it was often the best available.”

Douglas Platt details the history of the Buffalo Psychiatric Hospital, as it was first known, all the way through its eventual decommissioning in 1994. As more patients entered the institution, new buildings had to be erected. In the early days, the hospital was self-sufficient, with a farm to provide for the patients and other workshops to keep the inmates busy and furnished.

Probably the best part of the book is the third section, which is composed of personal recollections of neighbors, employees, and even one patient.  Their inside views of the closed off world of the Buffalo State Hospital provide a unique look at the ever-changing attitudes towards the disabled and socially impaired. Treatments progressed from isolation, to lobotomies, to restraints, to drugs, to talking with the patient.

Chapter 3 features the photography of Ian Ference. With a simple camera lens, Ference captures the desolate beauty of the crumbling edifice. With each piece of peeling paint and collapsed hallway, the memories of those footsteps, once fading into dust, come back. With them comes the stories of the people who lived, worked and died within the complex. Each photograph is haunting, with stories too numerous to be confined to simple words. 

The next chapter continues the art of the complex, this time through the eyes of Char Szabo-Perricelli. Through her photographs and her words, she preserves what has been left behind so future generations can take up the task of possibly bringing it back to its former glory. Sometimes, these photos are the best form of preservation that we have to work with. She is “forever looking beyond, beneath and behind the obvious physical and verbal goings-on around me…”

What’s next for the Richardson buildings of Buffalo State Hospital? Reilly Sullivan attempts to answer that question. Various entities with an interest in the future of the complex have different concepts for that very future, and they sometimes seem to work in conflict with one another. The preservation of this historical landmark is vital to Buffalo, as well as  Erie, and Niagara Counties.  Is it destined to become a boutique hotel, or a museum dedicated to the plight of the patients who lived there? It dominates a neighborhood that, at one time, almost exclusively served the hospital. The complex defined several generations in that neighborhood. Simply letting Mother Nature slowly consume it is not the answer. 

The Museum of disABILITY has gathered a great deal of information on the Buffalo State Hospital and delivered it in book form to us, the readers. It is only the tip of the iceberg for the stories that must be ingrained into each stone, board, and nail that make up the institution. This book only makes us eager for more photos and more stories. That is what makes this a great book to read. Delivered in a way that is easy to read and enjoy, the stories told by former workers and neighbors will grab your attention. 

Craig Bacon loves local history. Each city, town, and village has great stories waiting to be told.