Hayes Hall is hard to miss. It stands out from South Campus with its eerie presence and aging nineteenth century architectural structure. Even the giant bell tower that never seems to tell the correct time is recognized as one of University at Buffalo’s most prominent landmarks. But unless you are an architecture major (the School of Architecture and Environmental Design currently resides in Hayes Hall), the historical significance of this mysterious building may be disguised.
Some say the building is haunted, others call it urban legend. There is no denying, however, that the building has a colorful history. The truth lies somewhere in Hayes Hall’s aging limestone walls.
As one of the oldest buildings used by the school, Hayes Hall’s architecture was designed with intentions other than educational. In 1865 the building was erected to house the mentally insane and serve as an almshouse, or poorhouse, for Erie County patients. Destitute people, insane inmates, hospitals, and a morgue once occupied the 154-acre spread of land that is now South Campus and other health-related facilities.
Even the first students to attend UB’s South Campus in 1920 had to share the land with inmates for six years until the mental hospital was finally moved to Alden, New York.
According to the archived County Hospital records, “The county continued to use the buildings for care of patients; when students first came to the site in the 1920s, they and the inmates commingled, separated by wooden fences.”
“There is a picture of two or three inmates that lived there while students were using the houses,” said Special Collections Assistant William Offhuas. “Inmates were still using the buildings when there were classes going on.”
But even before UB students had to share their campus with inmates, there were rumors of the old mental hospital being haunted by ghosts. Even today, students and faculty cannot understand the supernatural accounts that come from inside Hayes Hall.
“The building does have a ‘strange’ history, and there have been occasional reports of unexplained happenings from time to time over the years,” said Associate Professor of Environmental Psychology Gary Danford.
“One of my teachers told me that when she works at night in Hayes Hall she sees an old lady walking around,” said Thomas Mueller, a sophomore architecture major. “All I know is from what I have heard, not what I’ve encountered.”
Even Professor Danford has seen the older woman walking through Hayes Hall at night.
“I recall walking down the hall late at night and glancing into a room to see an old woman, with wispy shoulder-length gray hair and wearing 1920s-style informal clothing sitting at the secretary’s desk looking perplexed at the newly installed computer. I turned back to ask her who she was and how she had gotten into this wing of the building, but she was gone,” said Danford.
The history gets creepier. Parts of South Campus, particularly where Clement and Goodyear dormitories are located, were used as burial grounds for the hospital’s deceased. The corpses were supposed to be removed when the university bought the property, but many of these graves were unmarked during the cholera outbreaks in the mid-nineteenth century. Apparently the Buffalo Medical Journal claimed that during the cholera epidemic the mental institute tried to hide as many deaths as possible by not recording who died and where they were buried.
When workers broke ground in 1964 while constructing Clement and Goodyear Halls, several of these forgotten graves were unearthed exposing a skull, torso, and various other human bones. According to The Buffalo News, in July of 1983 more bones were found in a decaying casket about 300 feet from the first three caskets found in 1964. On July 18, 1994, remains were found on the northeast corner of South Campus, near Bailey Avenue just behind the bus stop.
“Every time they do some kind of renovation in that area, they dig up skeletons of the almshouse inmates,” said Offhuas.
With all these unmarked graves being exhumed and possibly more graves unidentified, it is plausible that much of South Campus is built on top of the old asylum’s cemetery. Maybe the “images” seen walking in Hayes Hall late at night are the ghosts of the mental patients who are trying to make their way from the physical to the spiritual world.
Hans Holzer, a parapsychology expert, defines ghosts as “the surviving emotional memories of people who have not made the transition from the physical state into the world of spirit.”
Believing in ghosts is a subconscious characteristic in many peoples’ lives, and even though Danford and Offhaus cannot conclude whether or not Hayes Hall is definitely haunted, it has not been ruled out.
“The former archivist here told me that Ellicott is even built on an Indian burial ground,” said Offhaus. “So, if the Ellicott Complex, a structure named after Joseph Ellicott—explorer, real estate speculator, and notorious Indian killer—stands on an Indian burial ground, wouldn’t this be enough to incur the wrath of an Indian spirit thirsty for retribution?”
Are the “images” seen in Hayes Hall really ghosts looking for retribution for disturbing their resting grounds?
“Most ghost stories have a small grain of truth,” said Holzer.
Perhaps the looming figures walking through Hayes Hall at night and the creepy creaking noises heard in Crosby, Goodyear, and Clement Hall are not just figments of your imagination after all. Whether you believe in any type of ghost story is your own personal preference. But, the next time you walk through South Campus alone at night, just remember you may be walking with ghostly company.