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abandoned places

Archive for August 2012

The Yonkers Power Station, Knocking at the “Gates of Hell”

The abandoned Yonkers Power Station looms over a modern MetroNorth stop.

Take a northern train to Yonkers and watch New York City’s urban sprawl give way to the unspoiled undulations of the Hudson River Valley.   You’ll be reminded once again that Manhattan is an island, bounded and formed by three rivers, and there is, in fact, a world outside of it.

One of the stranger stops along the Hudson line can’t be missed; it’s dominated by a sight nearly as impressive as the station you came from.  Abandoned since the late sixties, the old power plant at Glenwood may be decidedly more ghoulish than Grand Central Terminal, but it’s almost as grand—they were dreamed up by the same architects.  Once, the imposing brick edifice embodied New York City’s ever-increasing industrial prowess, but today, the riverside relic stands as a monument to obsolescence, caught in a destructive contest with the tides.

The Yonkers Power Station was completed in 1906 to enable the first electrification of the New York Central Railroad, built in conjunction with the redesign of Grand Central Terminal.  The plant served the railroad for thirty years, but it soon became more cost-effective for the company to purchase its electricity rather than generate its own.  Con Edison took over in 1936, using the station’s titanic generating capacity to power the surrounding county.  By 1968, new technologies had replaced Glenwood’s outdated turbines, and the station was abandoned.

Glenwood Power Station

45 years later…

The Hudson River once delivered raw materials to the powerhouse, but now its waters collect in stagnant pools on the lowest level.  Rust has consumed the factory from the inside out; in places, the corrosion is almost audible.  Joints creak, bricks topple, ceilings drip, commingling with the constant suck of viscous mud underfoot.  Most of the machinery was carried out long ago, leaving only a hulking shell rimmed with staircases, walkways, and ladders—harrowing paths to nowhere.

Avant-garde or artsy-fartsy?  Aslop’s design for the station’s “preservation.”

Some of the rusted-through steps threaten to crumble at the slightest touch, giving way to a thousand foot drop through decaying metal that could land you muddied and bloodied on the swampy first floor.  I can’t say it’s worth the risk, but the Grand Canyon views from the plant’s highest reaches can sure ease your mind after a nail-biting ascent.  Photographers, urban explorers, and filmmakers flock here; it’s the grandeur in this decay that draws so many, and makes this place worth saving.

In 2008, Jim Bostic of the Yonkers Gang Prevention Coalition and councilwoman Patricia McDow alleged that the abandoned building was the site of brutal gang initiations, involving some 300 individuals at a time, where savage beatings and sexual deviancy took place on a shocking scale.  They called for the immediate demolition of the Glenwood Power Station, referring to it by its well-established nickname, the “Gates of Hell.”

A flyer put out by McDow for a “townhouse” meeting. “Tear them down and build our children.”

The stories were thrilling, hysterical, and ultimately hard to believe.  No evidence was found and no witness stepped forward that could verify the widely-publicized allegations, and the Yonkers Police Department denied having knowledge of any gang-related activities at the site.

The initiative gained the support of a number of locals, but many remained skeptical of McDow, who’s been criticized in the past for overlooking the rising tide of violent crime in her district.  Demolishing this historic structure would have little to no effect on neighborhood violence, but as a symbolic gesture, it could appeal to voters.

The powerhouse was spared from the whims of city politics, but it’s technically still at risk; landmarking efforts have failed since a proposal was first put forth in 2005.

It’s been four years since the Glenwood Power Station made headlines as the “Gates of Hell,” but not much had changed there until recently.  A new owner spruced up the grounds, removing overgrowth on the lot and clearing ivy from the buildings’ exteriors.  It’s a sign of good things to come, though no plans for renovation have been released at this time.

I came to Yonkers a few months prior to the cleanup, unaware that the space had already been booked for a post-apocalyptic webseries shoot.  The crew was friendly and professional, but their presence proved a distraction.  As a buxom actress screamed “There’s no way out!” for the fifth time, the Yonkers Power Station was stripped of its mystery, seeming to wear its decay with reluctant resignation.  Today, it’s a creepy backdrop for zombie films, the subject of gruesome rumors, but it was designed to inspire pride, not fear.

Sites like these are quickly becoming a contentious part of the post-industrial American landscape, scattered remnants of a period of enormous change—a revolution that’s led us, for better or worse, to where we are now.  In Yonkers, one such building wades on the banks of the Hudson, its skeleton blushing to shades of orange.  It’s an eyesore, a piece of history, and a community threat; also a nice spot to play hooky, take pictures, or build a shopping mall.  No one can seem to agree on these “Gates.”  So what the Hell should we do with them?

-Will Ellis

Photos can’t capture the jaw-dropping proportions of the place.

Glenwood Power Station

Walls reduced to rubble on the southern half of the generator building.

Glenwood Power Station

Lockers were the only hint at a human presence.

The switchboard/operating gallery overlooked the turbine room.

Glenwood Power Station

You’re off the train, but you’ve still gotta Watch the Gap on these staircases.

Glenwood Power Station

This basement room had the deepest water, anyone for a swim?

Glenwood Power Station

Continuing down the hallway. On the lower right, you can see a metal barrel that’s almost completely rusted through.

Glenwood Power Station

Turning a corner into a darkened vault, a row of valves.

Glenwood Power Station

A bicycle wheel found in the deepest recesses of the powerhouse. The mud was thickest here.

Not much to see in the site’s smaller substation building…

…though this floor was still filled with materials.

Glenwood Power Station

A view of the substation and the generating building’s iconic smokestacks.

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Legend Tripping in Letchworth Village

Ruins of Letchworth Village.

Letchworth Village rests on a placid corner of rural Thiells, a hamlet west of Haverstraw set amid the gentle hills and vales of the surrounding Ramapos.  A short stretch of modest farmhouses separates this former home for the mentally disabled from the serene Harriman State Park, New York’s second largest.  Nature has been quick to reclaim its dominion over these unhallowed grounds, shrouding an unpleasant memory in a thick green veil.  Abandonment becomes this “village of secrets,” intended from its inception to be unseen, forgotten, and silent as the tomb.

Owing to its reputed paranormal eccentricities, Letchworth Village has become a well-known subject of local legend.  These strange tales had me spooked as I turned the corner onto Letchworth Village Road after a suspenseful two-hour drive from Brooklyn.  Rounding a declining bend, I caught my first glimpse of Letchworth’s sprawling decay—some vine-encumbered ruin made momentarily visible through a stand of oak.  Down the hazy horseshoe lanes of the boy’s ward, one by one, the ghosts came out.

This map gives a sense of scale.  Most of these buildings still stand, altered or abandoned.

By the end of 1911, the first phase of construction had completed on this 2,362 acre “state institution for the segregation of the epileptic and feeble-minded.”  With architecture modeled after Monticello, the picturesque community was lauded as a model institution for the treatment of the developmentally disabled, a humane alternative to high-rise asylums, having been founded on several guiding principles that were revolutionary at the time.

The Minnisceongo Creek cuts the grounds in two, delineating areas for the two sexes which were meant never to mingle.  Separate living and training facilities for children, able-bodied adults, and the infirm were not to exceed two stories or house over 70 inmates.  Until the 1960s, the able-bodied labored on communal farms, raising enough food and livestock to feed the entire population.

1933 photo of Letchworth Village’s Girl’s Group

Sinister by today’s standards, the “laboratory purpose” was another essential tenet of the Letchworth plan.  Unable to give or deny consent, many children became unwitting test subjects—in 1950, the institution gained notoriety as the site of one of the first human trials of a still-experimental polio vaccine.  Brain specimens were harvested from deceased residents and stored in jars of formaldehyde, put on display in the hospital lab.  This horrific practice has become a favorite anecdote of ghost-hunters and adolescent explorers.

The well-intentioned plans for Letchworth Village didn’t hold up in practice, and by 1942, the population had swelled to twice its intended occupancy.  From here, the severely underfunded facility fell into a lengthy decline.  Many of the residents, whose condition necessitated ample time and attention for feeding, became seriously ill or malnourished as a result of overcrowding.  At one point, over 500 patients slept on mattresses in hallways and dayrooms of the facility, meagerly attended by a completely overwhelmed staff tasked with the impossible.

Having discontinued the use of the majority of its structures, and relocated most of its charges into group homes, the institution closed down in 1996 as old methods of segregating the developmentally disabled were replaced with a trend toward normalization and inclusion into society.  The state has made efforts to sell the property, with mixed results.  Most of the dilapidated structures were slated for demolition in 2004 to make way for a 450-unit condo development, but the plan has evidently been put on hold.  Ringed with ballfields and parking lots, shiny Fieldstone Middle School makes use of nine buildings of the former girl’s group, an island of promise in a landscape of failure.

Letchworth Village

The hospital laboratory, a rumored supernatural hotspot.

Today, the rest of the neglected campus retains a kind of elegiac beauty.  With its meandering walkways, pleasant natural setting, and evocative decay, it’s a peaceful spot for small town dog owners and amateur photographers alike, but by night a new breed of visitors descends upon these grounds.

Embarked on by the young and curious, a moonlit pilgrimage to a haunted location promises a brush with the unknown and an affirmation of courage—it’s a ritual that’s become commonplace at Letchworth Village.  Pervasive graffiti and piles of beer cans and snack packaging mark the most popular hangouts.    Much of the writing alludes to the institution’s allegedly horrific past, or warns of its vengeful spirits.  Is it all just for teenage kicks, or are these acts of remembrance?

Within a crumbling fieldstone facade, one of Letchworth’s most impressive structures has been reduced to an ugly black skeleton.  It’s the most evident of an outbreak of arson attempts that plagues the property, but not the most successful—some blazes don’t leave a trace.  Perhaps without knowing it, these amateur arsonists, vandals, and spiritualists are quickly scouring away a shameful memory, absolving a collective guilt with paintballs, matchbooks, and pentagrams.

An unmarked grave in The Old Letchworth Village Cemetery

In a little-known and easy-to-miss cemetery about a mile from the facility, amends are being made more constructively.

Off Call Hollow Road, a new sign has been erected pointing out the “Old Letchworth Village Cemetery.”  Down a seldom-traveled path, an unusual crop of T-shaped markers congregate on a dappled clearing.  They’re graves, but they bear no names.

Few wished to remember their “defective” relatives, or have their family names inscribed in such a dishonorable cemetery—many family secrets are buried among these 900 deceased.  Here, in the presence of so many human lives devalued, displaced, and forgotten, the sorrow of Letchworth Village is keenly felt.

As part of a movement taking place across the country, state agencies and advocates funded the installation of a permanent plaque inscribed with the names of these silent dead, and a fitting epitaph: “To Those Who Shall Not Be Forgotten.”

More than ghost stories, bursts of cool air, shadows and slamming doors, we fear our capacity for cruelty and our willingness to overlook those who most needed our care and understanding.  Letchworth Village isn’t a house of horrors, but it has become a thing of the past, and a symbol of these failings.  Now, its ruins are vanishing—any moment, they’ll powder to dust, dirt, and ash.  Who will mourn when the village crumbles, and what will remain?  Soot-black foundations, half-remembered histories, and nine hundred numbered graves, poignant reminders of an all-too-recent injustice.

-Will Ellis

Letchworth Village

Each of the six groups of buildings included eight small dormitories.

Letchworth Village

The hospital, north of the boy’s group, is known as Letchworth Village’s most haunted building.

Evidence of last night’s joyride on the hospital lawn.

Letchworth Village

Inside, vines invade a crumbling hallway.

Letchworth Village Fire

A dayroom library fueled the flames of an arson attempt.

Letchworth Village

A small basement nook of unknown purpose, this was the only door of its kind.

Letchworth Village

A storage area in the basement of Letchworth Village.

Letchworth Village

An adjacent room was filled with hospital plasticware, some overflowed into this darkened hallway.

Letchworth Village

A renegade paintball game left a gruesome mark on this room.

Letchworth Village Morgue

Cold storage.  The first room I came across in Letchworth Village, a morbid introduction.

Letchworth Village

Moments after taking this photo, a group of young explorers entered through a side door.  I gave them quite a scare.

Letchworth Village

A dining hall is brought to light as its ceiling crumbles.

Letchworth Village

Inside a typical dormitory, some cubbies had four beds cramped within.

Letchworth Village

The top floor of Stewart Hall has been thoroughly razed, but the bottom remains mostly intact.

Letchworth Village

Fire damage visible on the lower floor.

A strange camera malfunction lasted the entire time I was in this building and stopped the moment I stepped out. It’s the closest I came to a paranormal experience.

Letchworth Village

Many of the cheaply made service buildings were in a similar state.

Letchworth Village

Plastic foliage survived a blaze that threatened to take down a two-story building, most recently used for storage.

Even in broad daylight, the place is eerie.  Here, an ominous administration building.

Better late than never, a monument to Letchworth’s dead.

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For more abandoned state institutions, check out Creedmoor State Hospital’s Building 25.

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