//
abandoned places

Abandoned

This category contains 45 posts

Inside Rockland Psychiatric Center

Rockland

An abandoned section of the former Rockland State Hospital, now known as Rockland Psychiatric Center.

In 1923, the New York state legislature passed a $50 million bond issue for the construction of new mental hospitals. After a disastrous fire at Ward’s Island in 1924, “where scores of mentally afflicted…were burned to death,” $11 million was set aside for a new campus designed specifically to relieve overcrowding at institutions in New York City.  The town of Orangeburg, NY was chosen for its proximity to the five boroughs, picturesque surroundings, and “salubrious climate.”

Rockland

The hospital once housed 9,000 people, including patients and staff.

With funding in place, the construction of the Rockland State Hospital for the Insane moved forward at a staggering pace. Townspeople looked on as the monstrous institution swallowed up tract after tract of farms, houses, and undeveloped land. As patients flooded into the new buildings by the thousands, escapes became a regular occurrence.  The “potential menace” of this “new and formidable population of undesirable outsiders” was a cause of great concern for locals.  Infrequent but grisly murders in the vicinity of the hospital were attributed to “mentally disturbed” escapees. But the real horrors were occurring on the inside, as many of Orangeburg’s citizens could personally attest to–the institution was one of the largest job providers in the county.

Rockland

Chipped plaster, masonry, paint, and wallpaper fill a water basin.

The real trouble started during World War II, when lucrative war industry jobs lured much of the staff away and a large number of Rockland’s male attendants left to join the armed forces. As the population soared to nearly 9,000, patient-to-staff ratios plummeted.  “The work is hard, disagreeable and frequently dangerous, and the hospital has found it next to impossible to recruit employees.” New hires during this period were often untrained and unqualified. From a 1940s Times article: “An employment bureau in New York City sent a number of applicants here, but most of them were found to be suffering from arthritis, cardiac ailments or “unnatural” temperament and had to be sent home. ‘Some of them should be patients,’ Dr. Blaisdell said.”

Rockland

A stash of nudie magazines hidden long ago in the basement of a kitchen area.

Like most all institutions operating during this period, the overcrowding and lack of effective treatment led to systemic abuse and negligence.  Until the development of antipsychotic drugs in the 1960s, shock therapy and lobotomy were the only treatment methods available for severe cases of schizophrenia and other mental illnesses. As the century progressed and the new drugs became readily available, most patients were able to live independently outside of the asylum system. Since the 1970s, Rockland Psychiatric Center (as it is now known) has predominantly been used as an outpatient facility. By 1999 it housed less than 600 patients.  Several new facilities were constructed in more recent years for outpatient care, but vast expanses of the 600 acre campus are entirely empty.  

Rockland

Mattresses piled up in a dayroom.

Today, a grid of overgrown streets divides a vast configuration of maze-like buildings known only by number.  These were separate wards for men, women, children, and other subsets of the population like the infirm, the violent, and the criminally insane. Others were workshops, auditoriums, power plants, administration buildings, staff housing… the list goes on and on.

Exploring the buildings can be confusing and perilous.  One ward’s heavy wooden doors had the nasty habit of slamming shut and refusing to open again, which can be a serious situation when there’s only one or two ways out. My solution was a series of improvised doorstops–beer cans, scraps of debris, whatever I could get my hands on–which doubled as a trail of breadcrumbs to give me a reasonable hope of finding my way out again.

One of Rockland’s most interesting features is the old four lane bowling alley.  It’s a heavily trafficked area full of tempting props.  Pins, balls, shoes, and trophies have been endlessly moved around, manipulated, and arranged into perfect triangles in the middle of the lanes. While I don’t blame fellow photographers for this sort of thing, it can be disappointing to walk into something that looks more like a stage set than a wild, unpredictable ruin.  I’ll take that over the mindless graffiti–some if which I removed with a little Photoshop magic in the images below.

Despite all the modern mischief making, the bowling alley represents the best intentions of the institution to provide quality of life to patients who spent their lives at Rockland.  These lanes must have been a welcome distraction from the monotony of asylum living.

Stay tuned for an upcoming post on the Rockland Children’s Hospital, which features an impressive collection of WPA murals.

Rockland

A well-preserved bowling alley was located on the ground floor of a recreation building.


Rockland

Blank score sheets could be found behind the ball return.


Rockland

The AMF bowling equipment may date back to the 60s or 70s.


Rockland

Bowling balls pile up at the end of the lanes from previous visitors.


Rockland

Compared to the bowling balls, the pins were scarce.  Many had been stolen over the years.


Rockland

Wood shelving used for bowling shoes, once arranged by size.


Rockland

Trophies for male and female bowlers.



A Wintry Return to the St. Nicholas Coal Breaker

The St. Nicholas Coal Breaker, mid-demolition

The St. Nicholas Coal Breaker, mid-demolition

The Pennsylvania coal region was once dominated by 300 breakers–mammoth factories that crushed and cleaned raw coal into the consumable commodity that fueled the Industrial Revolution. Today, a few modern plants meet the drastically reduced demand for the stuff. Of the old glory days when coal was king, only St. Nicholas remains.

The structure once held the distinction of being the largest coal breaker in the world, and its sheer size must have played a part in staving off the wrecking ball for the last 50 years. But according to the president of Reading Anthracite, the building’s owner, the place has become an “eyesore and a liability,” and its total demolition is imminent. A state-funded study to determine the cost of transforming the ruins into a historical attraction came up with a figure in the tens of millions.

With exterior walls removed, skeletal views of the plant's interior come to light.

With exterior walls removed, skeletal views of the plant’s interior come to light.

The demolition won’t happen in one cataclysmic, cathartic crash. Rather, the breaker is being dismantled piece by piece, and mined for valuable scrap metal along the way. The process is expected to last into next year, having been underway since Fall 2014. With a bit more of it gone every day, visitation has picked up as folks have poured into the region for one last look. Security positioned outside aim to ensure they respect the No Trespassing signs.

I took my “one last look” in February on a day that was way too cold to spend in an abandoned factory. Much of the metal siding had already been removed, opening up dollhouse views of the interior. Inside, light poured into corners that had been pitch black before. Elsewhere, panoramas of the surrounding landscape spread wall to wall and floor to ceiling.   

After 50 years of abandonment, the old St. Nicholas Coal Breaker still inspires awe and commands respect.  The interior of the breaker is noticeably free of graffiti. Visitors have stuck to more temporary means of commemorating their presence, tracing initials in the grime of a dusty control panel or chalking them up on a blackboard, avoiding outright acts of vandalism out of reverence for the building. It’s impressive not only for its physical size and beauty of design, but for the time and place in American history that it represents, a coal industry that employed 180,000 workers and enabled a young country to rise to the forefront of the industrialized nations.  As St. Nick falls, little remains to tether that heritage to the here and now.

Otherworldly views of the frozen coal fields outside the breaker.

Otherworldly views of the frozen coal fields outside the breaker.

Coal dust mingles with snow drifts where the structure is open to the elements.

Coal dust mingles with snow drifts where the structure is open to the elements.

Names scrawled in a dusty control panel.

Names scrawled in a dusty control panel.

Abandoned cemetery in the woods.88 control room in the upper reaches of the breaker.

A control room in the upper reaches of the breaker.

Empty shelves in a maintenance room.

Empty shelves in a maintenance room.

Enormous wooden molds for replacement parts litter this floor.

Enormous wooden molds for replacement parts littered this floor.

St Nicholas Coal Breaker Demolition Will Ellis Abandoned NYC-7

Construction vehicles stalled in the snow, seen through an upper floor of the breaker.

The conveyor, where raw coal began its journey through the breaker's machinery.

The conveyor, where raw coal began its journey through the breaker’s machinery.

Salvaged machinery strewn about the rear of the breaker.

Machinery salvaged from the breaker prior to demolition.

For more history on the St. Nicholas Coal Breaker, see the original post:

St. Nicholas Coal Breaker

The St. Nicholas Coal Breaker, pictured in April 2014.



Doing Time in the Old Essex County Jail

The Old Essex County Jail (Prints Available)

Many of the most remarkable abandoned buildings loom over their surroundings and dominate the landscape, but Newark’s Old Essex County Jail is barely there. Much of the structure is walled off behind a twelve foot barrier, and all that rises above it is difficult to discern through the overgrowth. On the grounds, the building remains obfuscated, half in ruins and only visible in parts, with an absence of any unifying architectural feature.  Inside, its footprint is no less disorienting, resulting from a series of haphazard additions made at the turn of the 20th century as the jail’s population increased. Unlike the comforting symmetry of asylum wards, the whole disordered mass seems to be governed by a bizarre dream logic, made all the more sinister by the fact that you can’t look the building in the face.

Doorway to the office wing

Doorway to the office wing

The jail is known as a haven for “crackheads,” and it’s absolutely filled with garbage and drug paraphernalia, some old, some new. When I first visited a couple of years ago, we had only been inside for a few minutes when the place started coming to life around us, first clanks and creaks, then voices and shadowy figures walking by in the hallways. It wasn’t my decision to leave that day before we came face to face with anyone, but I didn’t put up much of a fight. As sympathetic as I felt toward these unfortunates, I figured that anyone voluntarily residing in an abandoned prison cell was in a desperate situation with very little to lose.

In some areas, bars had been removed by scrappers.

In some areas, bars had been removed by scrappers.

A shaft between prison blocks held a matrix of toilets, one for each cell.

A shaft between prison blocks held a matrix of toilets, one for each cell.

The original building was constructed in 1837 and planned according to the “Pennsylvania system” of incarceration, which was characterized by solitary confinement and an emphasis on rehabilitation over manual labor and corporal punishment. It’s one of the lesser works of the distinguished British architect John Haviland, who is better known for the revolutionary design of Eastern State Penitentiary. Through the early 1900s the Essex County Jail expanded to a capacity of 300. It was replaced by a new facility in 1970 and subsequently occupied by the county’s Bureau of Narcotics until 1989, when the building was deemed unsafe. In 2001, a catastrophic fire destroyed much of the structure. Reports of the place being inhabited by the homeless go back to the 1990s.

Two years after my first trip to the Essex County Jail, I came back with the resolve to see things through and a new exploring buddy. It had rained overnight and the constant dripping sounded just like footsteps, but otherwise the place seemed deserted. Objects left behind by recent inhabitants overshadowed any artifacts from the building’s early history, with garbage middens clustered in almost every cell. An hour or so in, I had my first anticlimactic encounter with a squatter, who greeted me politely and went about his business. Over the course of the morning, two others walked past me without saying a word. As scary as the place was, there were no monsters or maniacs living here, just a few people looking for a place to be left alone, finding a bleak kind of freedom in the most unlikely of places.

Rickety staircases led up through four stories of cells.

Rickety staircases led up through four stories of cells.

The stench of human waste emanated from a few of the rooms.

The stench of human waste emanated from a few of the rooms.

It was unnerving to wander these rows, not knowing when you might find someone inside.

It was unnerving to wander these rows, not knowing when you might find someone inside.

Designed for a single occupant, each cell held a narrow bed and a toilet.

Designed for a single occupant, each cell held a narrow bed and a toilet.

Approaching an empty cell.

Approaching an empty cell.

An ornate stairway near the staff entrance differed from the stark verticals of the prison interior.

An ornate stairway near the staff entrance differed from the stark verticals of the prison interior.


The Sea View Children’s Hospital

Forested views from a lower floor day room at Seaview Children's Hospital.

Forested views from a lower floor day room at Sea View Children’s Hospital.

At the turn of the twentieth century, tuberculosis was the second leading cause of death in the city and a major world health concern known to disproportionately affect the urban poor. In New York City, two-thirds of the 30,000 afflicted were dependent on city agencies for treatment. Growing concern from charitable organizations spurred the establishment of New York’s first public hospital designed exclusively to treat tuberculosis, care for the “sick, poor, and friendless,” and keep the epidemic under some measure of control by isolating sufferers from general hospitals. If you were diagnosed with tuberculosis in the early 1900s, your prognosis was grim. Lacking a cure, the only treatments thought to ease symptoms were fresh air, rest, sunshine, and good nutrition. A pleasant view was also considered essential for staving off depression. For this reason, hospital planners settled on a privately owned 25-acre hilltop parcel in rural Staten Island called “Ocean View,” just across from the already established New York City Farm Colony.

The plot was surrounded by a vast expanse of forested land (known as the Greenbelt today) which enabled the hospital grounds to expand as necessary. When Sea View Hospital was dedicated on November 12, 1913, the New York Times called it “the largest and finest hospital ever built for the care and treatment of those who suffer from tuberculosis.” The Commissioner of Public Charities claimed it was “a magnificent institution that is vast, ingenious, practical, convenient, sanitary, and beautiful, the greatest hospital ever planned in the world wide fight against the “white plague.”  Though the new facilities effectively eased the suffering of tuberculosis patients and provided housing for the poor, little could be done to actually save lives in the long term. Most eventually succumbed to the disease.

A sapling takes root in the light-filled solarium on the top floor.

Saplings take root in a light-filled solarium on the top floor. (Prints Available)

Two window fixtures had vanished.

Two window fixtures had vanished, offering an unobstructed view of the surrounding woodlands.

Doorway into the open-air pavilions.

Doorway into an open-air pavilion.

Hospital beds, cribs, and equipment left behind in a day room on a lower floor.

Hospital beds, cribs, and equipment left behind in a day room on a lower floor. (Prints Available)

In 1943, the development of the antibiotic streptomycin at Rutgers University led to a series of breakthroughs in the treatment of tuberculosis over the next decade, and much of that research took place at Sea View Hospital.  The enthusiasm over these dramatic developments is captured in a 1952 report by the Department of Hospitals: “Euphoria swept Seaview Hospital.  Patients consigned to death at the hands of the White Plague celebrated a new lease on life by dancing in the halls.”  The transition was swift. By 1961, Sea View’s pavilions were practically emptied as patients miraculously recovered as a result of the new therapies. Today, a long-term care facility operates in several of the buildings and some structures have been repurposed by community agencies and civic groups, but much of the Sea View Hospital campus lies abandoned.

Past a fenced enclosure delineating the active section of the hospital, the grounds give way to the bramble-choked wilds of the Staten Island Greenbelt. The creepy ruins of the old women’s pavilions situated on the northern border are a popular detour on hikes from the neighboring boy scout camp. To the east lies the imposing Children’s Hospital, completed in 1938 and abandoned in 1974.  Its spacious, window-lined solariums are typical of earlier Sea View wards, flanked on either side by open-air porches which were occupied by recovering patients 24 hours a day during the height of the epidemic. In an otherwise clinical Landmarks Preservation Commission report published in 1985, the researcher notes that “the building rises from a deep slope… Wooded surroundings, particularly dense to the east and south of the building, enhance the sense of isolation.”  The view he’s describing is indeed one of New York City’s most surreal (pictured below in 2012).

My first view of the hospital three years ago,

The ominous Children’s Hospital, seen from a hilltop on the grounds of Sea View Hospital.

Reuse of the structure seems extremely unlikely given the large number of abandoned buildings within the active hospital complex that would make better candidates for restoration.  Area conservationists are fighting to keep the surrounding woodlands protected from developers by making it a permanent part of the Greenbelt network of natural areas, and the building itself is nominally protected from demolition as part of Sea View Hospital’s historic district designation. That doesn’t mean that the building won’t serve a purpose as it continues to crumble.  As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, Staten Island teenagers have a long history of voraciously exploring (and vandalizing) their local ruins. With the renovation of the Willowbrook State School in the 1990s, the later demolition of the Staten Island Monastery, and the impending restoration of the New York City Farm Colony, the isolated, under-the-radar Children’s Hospital may be next in line as the site of that requisite rite of passage. Only time will tell.

Passageway to the hospital wing.

There’s little to suggest the building was used exclusively as a children’s hospital in its last years of operation.

Restrooms had windows for observation.

Even the restrooms had windows for observation.

Drifts of plaster piled up near the dark room.

Drifts of plaster pile up on a table outside the darkroom.

An abandoned hospital staple--the upright piano.

The upright piano, an abandoned hospital staple.

“Dixie Cup for Dentures.” The name says it all.

A utility room in the attic held lockers and supplies, mostly empty.

A storage room in the attic had been pillaged.

A steep staircase lead to the upper reaches of the utility floors.

A steep staircase led to the upper reaches of the utility floors.

Lowers floors were boarded up, which always allows for the eeriest light.

Lowers floors were boarded up, which always allows for the eeriest light. (Prints Available)

The last room I came to was the most surprising--a dayroom piled with several feet of hospital records, files, and audio tapes.

The last room I came to was the most surprising–a boarded-up dayroom piled several feet high with hospital records.


9781580934282IN OTHER NEWS… my friend Oriana Leckert‘s book “Brooklyn Spaces” is out this week.  We’re a bit like kindred spirits, Oriana and I, but she goes more for the crowded, lively, and creative than the empty, eerie, and decrepit. The (50!) places profiled in the book show the authentic, human side of the global phenomenon that is “Brooklyn cool,” highlighting the heartfelt endeavors of a wave of culture makers that migrated to the borough for cheap rent and fashioned a network of bustling performance venues, art enclaves, and meeting places out of Brooklyn’s post-industrial landscape.  Her obvious passion for offbeat museums, community gardens, communal living spaces, and out-there artist residencies is beyond infectious. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy! And head to what I’m sure will be a raucous, sweaty launch party on May 30th.



Dredging the Archives + May 7th Library Lecture

Will Ellis_Abandoned NYC-1-3

The spooky Walloomsac Inn in Benington, VT is actually occupied as a private residence.

On Thursday, May 7th at 6:30 PM I’ll be presenting at the Mid-Manhattan Branch of the New York Public Library as part of their Author @ the Library series.  This will be the last book talk I’m giving for a while, so if you’ve missed out on past events and would like to attend, now is the time.  The best part is it’s totally free, open to the public, and there’s no need to register or buy a ticket.  Head here for more info.

Since its release at the end of January, the book has gotten a great response, particularly on the world wide web.  For the highlights, check out these bits in The New York Times, Wired, Complex, and Slate, who toured the Jumping Jack Pump House with me and captured it on video back in March.

I have some exciting posts in the works for you, but for now I wanted to share some images from the archive that haven’t been shown here before–places that didn’t warrant a full post for one reason or another, often because I couldn’t get inside, didn’t have time to poke around, or there just wasn’t a lot to see. Some of them are quite interesting nonetheless. Enjoy!

Will Ellis_Abandoned NYC-3

A striking abandoned house in Searsport, Maine.

Will Ellis_Abandoned NYC-1-4

Sea View Hospital, Staten Island.

Will Ellis_Abandoned NYC-4

La Guardia Men’s Shelter in Chester, New York…

Will Ellis_Abandoned NYC-9

…plenty of peeling paint inside, but not much else.

Will Ellis_Abandoned NYC-5

Ruined house in the Hudson Valley.

Will Ellis_Abandoned NYC-8

Raccoon peering into an abandoned asylum ward at Kings Park, LI.

Abandoned natural gas silos in Rossville, Staten Island.

These mammoth LNG storage tanks in Rossville, SI were abandoned immediately after construction.

Abandoned motel near Yosemite National Park.

Ghost motel near Yosemite National Park.

San Francisco's Fort Point. (not abandoned)

San Francisco’s Fort Point. (not abandoned)

Abandoned house in Queens.

An abandoned house in Queens, now demolished.

Brooklyn Navy Yard

A well-preserved surgeon’s residence at the Brooklyn Navy Yard Hospital.

Will Ellis_Abandoned NYC-6

An abandoned carriage house in Newport, RI locals call “the Bells.”



Murder in Mariner’s Marsh

Abandoned car in a pit

Mariner’s Marsh, on Staten Island’s North Shore.

At a bend in Staten Island’s North Shore where the Arthur Kill gives way to the Kill van Kull, there’s a strange, desolate landscape that’s equal parts industrial wasteland and pristine wilderness.  Here, an array of factories and freight lines are enveloped by a network of streams, swamps, ponds, and salt marshes, with place names like “Howland Hook” and “Old Place Creek” that wouldn’t feel out of place in a pirate story.

Mariner’s Marsh makes up 107 acres of the area, buffering a dense residential neighborhood from the sprawling New York Container Terminal with a wide expanse of green. Having endured a brief period of industrial use followed by 75 years of abandonment, the resulting wilderness is characterized by the vine-covered relics of factories that thrived on the spot 100 years ago. Even the Parks Department’s official signage describes the landscape as “eerie.” But the text rightfully avoids its darkest chapter, when in 1976 the tragic final act of a forbidden teenage love affair played out among the ruins of Mariner’s Marsh.

Ruin Bridge

A trail leads walkers under an old concrete structure.

The ruins date back to the early 20th century, when the land was occupied by the Milliken Brother’s Structural Iron Works.  Later, the foundry was converted to Downey’s Shipyard, which manufactured war ships, among other vessels.  The factories closed down in the 1940s and have sat abandoned to this day. Wood components of the buildings have completely rotted away, but concrete pylons, pits, and passages remain.  As the buildings deteriorated, the landscape transformed. Today, the former shipyard’s ten man-made basins function as reedy freshwater ponds. Elsewhere, the topography varies from pine and poplar forests to vine-gnarled swamps where wildlife and rare plants thrive.

Bird Blind

A weathered birdwatching blind.

Doll Head

The requisite creepy doll head.

Mariner’s Marsh was acquired by the Parks Department in 1997, but it’s been “closed to the public during environmental investigation” for nearly a decade.  The investigation in question took place in 2006 under the direction of the EPA, which found that a small area of the park contained a high concentration of hazardous materials stemming from its industrial age. Though it appears that some work has been done on the spot, it’s not clear when the park will reopen.  In the meantime, warning signs haven’t stopped neighbors and dedicated bird watchers from enjoying it.  Trails are well-defined and the area is relatively free of garbage, despite the presence of some larger debris.  The east side of Downey Pond is dotted with abandoned hot rods from another era.

Vine Car

One of the park’s many abandoned cars.

Marooned in the marsh

An overturned vehicle marooned in a swamp east of Downey Pond.

Long before Staten Island’s industrial boom, the Lenape Indians camped here to take advantage of the nearby wetlands, where shellfish were plentiful.  Remnants of the wetlands are still visible across Forest Avenue in Arlington Marsh, which is home to some of the last stretches of healthy salt marsh in New York City.  Acquiring it was a major coup for the Parks Department, which plans to keep the 55 acres wild. Here, ghostly remnants of long-forgotten piers and burned out vessels seem oddly in sync with the tidal rhythms of the natural world. At low tide, a boat graveyard comes to the surface in an adjacent cove, where native cordgrass and mussel beds take root in the old hulls of 19th century sailing ships.

Arlington Marsh

An expanse of pilings that once supported massive factory docks.

Oyster Beds

Oyster beds in the hull of a long-abandoned ship.

Old Ship

Fragment of a sailboat at Arlington Marsh.

This post would’ve ended there if I hadn’t come upon a mention of the 1976 murder of Susan Jacobson in connection with the area. Though the scene of the crime is never referred to as Mariner’s Marsh, the description is unmistakable in a New York Times article published in 2011, which begins:

“The 16-year-old boy had settled on a plan on how to kill his girlfriend. There was a blighted section on the north shore of Staten Island called Port Ivory, overgrown coastline facing the industrial banks of New Jersey. The land was pocked with holes leading to small underground rooms, like bunkers.

This abandoned lot was the last thing a 14-year-old girl named Susan Jacobson ever saw as she climbed down into one of those holes with her boyfriend, Dempsey Hawkins, on May 15, 1976. “

In the ruins

Ruins of a system of rails that closely match a description of the murder site.

Included in the article is a scan of a handwritten letter from Hawkins to the reporter in which he details an idyllic romance with Jacobson that ends abruptly following an abortion. In the final paragraph, he goes on, “In came 1976 and the insanity and the whole painful mess I am about to relate succinctly simply because it’s disturbing.  I strangled Susan and concealed her body in a metal barrel in a wooded area across from a Proctor and Gamble factory on Staten Island.

Two years passed before her remains were discovered by a boy playing in the tunnels. He had assumed they were dog bones until a friend spotted Susan’s tennis shoes. Hawkins, now 55, was denied parole for the eighth time in 2012 despite a history of good behavior behind bars. Parole commissioners have repeatedly taken issue with what occurred immediately after the crime. On multiple occasions, Hawkins himself participated in search parties for the missing girl, knowing all the while precisely where the body was hidden.

Vines

Icicles stretch into the darkness of the tunnel as vines spiral toward the light.

The tunnel

An arched passageway near the scene of the crime.


Book-Related Events Coming Up:

  • Brooklyn Brainery, April 15th 8:30-10:00, $7 (Sold Out)
  • Dead Horse Bay, May 2nd, @ 12:45 I’ll be leading a walking tour of one of my favorite places in NYC with Untapped Cities
  • Mid-Manhattan Library, May 7th, 6:30-8:00 PM, Free!

Inside the Jumping Jack Power Plant

The second floor

The main floor of the “Jumping Jack Pump House”

Lately the lack of abandoned buildings in the five boroughs has had me ruin-hunting on the distant shores of New Jersey and the Hudson River Valley. But all the while there was something incredible hiding in plain sight just a ten minute walk from my apartment.  Just when it seems there is nothing left to find, this city will surprise you.  

I had admired the building for some time, having first spotted it on a walk around my neighborhood a year or two ago.  It was obviously some long-forgotten industrial relic, with a rather plain, but towering, facade. I had never heard of the place and could only find a single picture of it on the world wide web, with nothing of the interior. It seemed, at the time, that this could be one of the exceedingly rare “undiscovered” abandoned buildings in New York City. Who knew what it might look like inside?  Most likely an empty shell, I thought, or else I would have heard of it.

Not quite an

Not quite an “empty shell.”

It lingered long in my daydreams through the coming months, but I never attempted to stop in until December, when out of the blue I found myself walking in the direction of that mysterious building, camera and flashlight in hand. Inside, I couldn’t make out much at all but a collapsing ceiling and a floor padded with decades of rust and grime. I went looking for a way to the next level, finding several impassible staircases before settling on one that was relatively intact.  Upstairs, I treaded over some rickety catwalks and continued into the main room.

With coal crunching underfoot, I gazed up at the grand four-story gallery of rusted machinery before me. It was likely about a century old, gleaming orange in its old age, scattered here and there with flecks of sunlight cast through the broken windowpanes on the south side of the hall.  A hulking configuration of steel beams suspended over all, looking unmistakably like a man doing a jumping jack. Its actual function remains a mystery to me.

Will Ellis_Abandoned NYC_Pump House-1

The “jumping jack man.”

Judging by the amount of graffiti, I wasn’t even close to being the first person to find this place, and others have informed me that it’s fairly well-known among diehard explorers.  After some careful inspection, it appears that some (though not all) of the graffiti is quite old, I’d guess from the late 70s and 80s judging by the style, and the way in which it has aged, rusting or peeling away with underlying layers of paint and metal.

Paper records from inside the building point to the year 1963 as the last time the plant was in operation.  My theory is that the building had been abandoned and left pretty vulnerable to trespassers for a couple of decades before being sealed up tightly some time in the 80s or 90s.  Until recently, it’s been relatively untouched since those days, making it something of a time capsule of a grittier New York.  Prior to being secured, part of the ground floor was apparently used as a chop shop. An abandoned and gutted automobile  had been walled in at some point, entombed like a mosquito in amber on the ground floor.

I can only speculate about what the building was actually used for. My guess would be a coal-burning power plant of some kind, though some artifacts refer to a “pump house.”  (UPDATE: These records seem to refer to a separate building, which is still standing a few blocks away. In light of this, I’ve changed the name of this post to “Jumping Jack Power Plant” from “Jumping Jack Pump House”) I could tell you a bit more about its history but I don’t want to give away too much. “Undiscovered” or not, this place is still pretty under the radar, and I’d like to keep it that way for now.

Will Ellis_Abandoned NYC_Pump House-9

A gutted car in the ground floor chop shop.

Flooded pit

A flooded section of the lower level.

A submerged boiler

A boiler submerged in a 10-ft pile of coal.

Abandoned NYC_Will Ellis_Jumping Jack Pump House-14

A corroded staircase.

Will Ellis_Abandoned NYC_Pump House-6

Hallway leading to the locker room.

Will Ellis_Abandoned NYC_Pump House-7

The locker room was heavily tagged.

Will Ellis_Abandoned NYC_Pump House-5

Detail of the control panel.

Will Ellis_Abandoned NYC_Pump House-8

Desolate waterfront views through a broken window.


This guy

A heartfelt thank you goes out to everyone who’s picked up a copy of my book, and for all of your thoughtful comments.

If you haven’t gotten yours yet, you can head over to abandonednycbook.com to order a signed copy and a free print directly from me, which is the best way to support what I do.  (You can also get them on Amazon if you want to save a few bucks.)

It was so great meeting some of you at my Red Room talk last week. If you couldn’t make it to that one, you can still stop by one of these events this month and get your book that way.  Hope to see you there!

  • February 18th at Morbid Anatomy Museum (tickets here)
  • February 23rd at Manhasset Public Library
  • February 25th at WeWork Soho (tickets here)

Inside the Loew’s 46th St. Theater

20140315-IMG_1376

A fire escape like this one on a windowless structure is a sure sign that a building was once a movie theater.

Some of the grandest and gaudiest heights of American architecture took form in the movie palaces of New York City in the early 20th century. While the majority of them have been converted to big box retail, gymnasiums, and McDonald’s restaurants, a handful have managed to slip through the cracks. Behind those hollow, graffiti-strewn walls you’ll find vestiges of movie-going’s golden age—a wonderland of molded plaster ornamentation dripping with sculptural details.

In the case of the former Loew’s 46th St. Theater in Borough Park, there’s no mistaking its former life. There is the telltale fire escape, the prodigious height, the ornate facade, even the old marquee remains. When it first opened under the name “Universal Theater” on October 9th, 1927, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported “one of the most disorderly first nights ever witnessed in Brooklyn.” That evening, a crowd of over 25,000 lined up to gain admittance to the 3,000 seat theater. Many resorted to clambering up the fire escape to gawk at the wonders within.

AbandonedNYC_Abandonend_Movie_Theater_Brooklyn_Will Ellis (2 of 9)

Many of NYC’s movie palaces have found second lives as houses of worship.

AbandonedNYC_Abandonend_Movie_Theater_Brooklyn_Will Ellis (5 of 9)

Wrought iron banisters in the balcony.

The Universal was New York City’s first “atmospheric theater,” masterminded by famed theater architect John Eberson. His design aimed to replicate an extravagant Italian garden under a night sky. Plastic trees and shrubbery extended from the wrapping facade, which was painted a fine gold, contrasting beautifully with the blue dome that suspended over all, giving the theater the feel of an open-air auditorium. The ceiling was once decked out with twinkling stars and projected with “atmospheric effects” (namely clouds) that constantly drifted by overhead.

After delighting a generation of Brooklynites with its fanciful design, the movie house fell on hard times with the rise of the multiplex. By the 1960s, the 46th St. Theater became a performance space and music venue. In November of 1970, the Grateful Dead played four quasi-legendary nights with the likes of Jefferson Airplane and the Byrds, and the theater was briefly known as the “Brooklyn Rock Palace.”

Neighbors soon tired of the noise and the rowdy concertgoers, and the venue closed down in 1973. A furniture retailer settled into the building, occupying the lobby and part of the ground floor of the theater with a showroom, and walling off the best bits from view. Seating was removed on the orchestra level, and the space was repurposed as a stock room. Though the building changed hands to a new furniture seller in the intervening years, the theater serves the same function to this day. The orchestra level is filled with an array of ornate upholstered chairs, creating an odd visual echo with the architectural arabesques overhead, made stranger by the fact that they’re all facing away from the screen.

For the record, the Loew’s 46th Street Theater is not the sort of place you should try sneaking in to. I had a fairly legitimate reason to be there when I scheduled an appointment last spring while scouting a location. After several phone calls to the secretary I managed to arrange a visit, where I was greeted by a friendly Hasidic man who let me inside and escorted me to the back of his store. He warned me that the place would be dark and it would take several minutes for the industrial-grade lighting to warm up. Little by little, the details emerged–gleaming balustrades, parapets, modillions, and entablatures fit for a Greco-Roman amphitheater.

Found in the aisles of an abandoned movie theater in Borough Park.

Found objects from the aisles of the upper balcony.

For the next half hour or so, I had free reign to poke around and snap some pictures. I headed to the balcony, which was still relatively intact and offered better views. By the looks of it, no one bothered to sweep up after the last audience cleared the theater 45 years ago—popcorn bags, candy wrappers, and ticket stubs still litter the aisles. Through the grating buzz of the mercury vapor lamps, an imaginative mind could almost make out the surging strings of a Hollywood score or Jerry Garcia’s haunting refrain: “What a long, strange trip it’s been…”

As devoted Deadheads are wont to do, one fan managed to record the Grateful Dead’s full set list on the night of November 11th 1970, when they played the theater. Here’s “Truckin‘,” which makes for a compelling aural accompaniment to the images below. I especially enjoy the gentlemen’s “woohoo” at 1:10 when the lyrics mention his home town of New York City, such a classic concert moment.


If this location interests you, check out Matt Lambros’ excellent blog After the Final Curtain, which features an exhaustive record of decrepit movie palaces throughout the country (including this one.)

AbandonedNYC_Abandonend_Movie_Theater_Brooklyn_Will Ellis (4 of 9)

This classical fountain was the most striking feature of the theater’s design.

AbandonedNYC_Abandonend_Movie_Theater_Brooklyn_Will Ellis (3 of 9)

In the flickering light of the silver screen, the plaster detailing could easily be mistaken for solid gold.

AbandonedNYC_Abandonend_Movie_Theater_Brooklyn_Will Ellis (7 of 9)

All that ornamentation wasn’t built for the ages. Large chunks have broken off over the years.

AbandonedNYC_Abandonend_Movie_Theater_Brooklyn_Will Ellis (6 of 9)

Mold and bird droppings mark the upholstered backrests of the balcony seating.

AbandonedNYC_Abandonend_Movie_Theater_Brooklyn_Will Ellis (8 of 9)

The upper balcony’s decor is subtle by comparison, but the carpet featured an extravagant pattern that’s still visible today.

AbandonedNYC_Abandonend_Movie_Theater_Brooklyn_Will Ellis (9 of 9)

Empty seats in the balcony.

Abandoned NYC_Will Ellis_Loews Theater_LoRes-1

A view of the orchestra level, filled with a variety of tan upholstered dining chairs.


Switching gears now for a book update! If you’ve somehow missed it, the official release date of Abandoned NYC the book is January 28th, but as of yesterday I have them in stock (taking up half of my apartment) to start shipping out your orders a week early. It’s still not too late to get yours first (along with a print and a fancy signature!) by placing an order with me through this link. First shipment will go out next week (week of January 18th.)

I’ll also be giving a few talks next month, starting on February 4th at the Red Room of the KGB Bar, hosted by Untapped Cities. You can register here for a free ticket (there may be a drink minimum involved.) There is a limited capacity so make sure to sign up soon in case it fills up. On Wednesday February 18th, I’ll be doing a similar song and dance at the wonderful Morbid Anatomy Museum, tickets for that go for a low, low $5, you can get yours here or at the door. For any Long Islanders, I’ll be doing another talk/signing at the Manhasset Public Library hosted by the Great Neck Camera Club on the night of February 23rd. That one’s free, open to all, and there’s no need to register. I’m really, really looking forward to meeting some of you over the coming weeks and months! (And hopefully getting rid of these books so I can have my living room back…)

Thanks to everyone who’s already placed an order for all of the kind words and support!

www.abandonednycbook.com

Pick up a copy here.


Found in Essex County Hospital

Clothing left behind in a group dormitory.

Clothing left behind in a group dormitory.

I outlined New Jersey’s Essex County Hospital in a previous post, but a few months back I made it out a second time to explore a little further. I ended up in the tunnels underneath the wards, where I found a file room stuffed with material dating from the 1930s to the 1980s, near the last years of Essex County Hospital’s operation.  The records are scattered in cardboard boxes with no apparent system of organization, many of them overtaken with mold and rot.

Much of what’s been left here is mundane, day-to-day operational notes on staff, time sheets, and maintenance, but some of it is rather enlightening.  There are decades’ worth of doctor’s notes, admission records, and log books detailing the daily activities of individual residents, some describe a patient’s entire life story in a single paragraph. The scale of it is truly overwhelming when you start flipping through the files page by page.

As I’ve mentioned before, many of the patterns of neglect well-documented in the age of institutions have shifted to the criminal justice system today. In New York City, the mentally ill now account for 40% of the prison population. To make matters worse, an epidemic of violence against mentally ill inmates at Rikers Island came to light this summer, causing an uproar. Now, the de Blasio administration is pushing for a major $130 million initiative that strikes at the heart of the problem, aiming to keep repeat low-level offenders out of prison and get them into treatment programs. From the Times article: “The changes include tripling the size of both pretrial diversion programs and the amount of resources devoted to easing the transition from jail back into society. This would represent a significantly different approach to criminal justice in the city, experts said. But they cautioned that nothing of such scale had been tried by a municipality before, and that putting the plan into effect would be difficult.”

As we look forward, it’s worth taking a moment to look back.  What follows is a tiny sampling of the massive amount of records, artifacts, and ephemera left behind in the wards of Essex County Hospital and that moldy file room in the basement. You can read for yourself, just click to enlarge.

Files scattered underground in Essex County Hospital.

Files scattered underground in Essex County Hospital.

Overbrook Found Objects_Will Ellis_Abandoned NYC-12

Overbrook Found Objects_Will Ellis_Abandoned NYC-10-2

 

 

Patient's belongings were left behind in bags, most meticulously arranged by a previous visitor.

Belongings left in a storage room (most likely meticulously arranged by a previous visitor to the abandoned building.)

 

Overbrook Objects_Will Ellis_Abandoned NYC-8

Murals depict the wide world outside the institution.

Wallpaper commonly depicts majestic scenes of the world outside asylum walls.

Overbrook_Card

Overbrook Found Objects_Will Ellis_Abandoned NYC-10

This room doubled as church and synagogue, catering to the resident's religious needs.

This room doubled as church and synagogue, catering to the patients’ religious needs.

 

Overbrook Objects_Will Ellis_Abandoned NYC-7

Overbrook Found Objects_Will Ellis_Abandoned NYC-14

 

 

The file room contained 6 or 7 aisles of shelving piled high with records.

One of six or seven rows of shelving in the file room, stuffed with 50 years’ worth of records.

 

Overbrook Found Objects_Will Ellis_Abandoned NYC-13


 

 


Last Days of the Staten Island Farm Colony

Eerie ruins of the Staten Island Farm Colony

A ruined Farm Colony dormitory seen through the trees.

Part of what makes abandoned buildings so captivating is that their existence is ephemeral, they cannot remain decayed and crumbling forever, and inevitably that means saying goodbye.

Admittedly, the Staten Island Farm Colony is not one of the most spectacular places I’ve seen, (the interiors have been completely destroyed by vandalism) but it remains the one place I’ve come back to more than any other. What’s always impressed me about it is its changeability. The place is reborn with every season, and I suppose that’s true of all abandoned buildings, but I’m always struck by it at the Farm Colony. In the height of summer, its jungle-like atmosphere lends it the look of a fallen Aztec empire, which is almost unrecognizable in the cooler months. It’s haunting in the fall when the fog rolls in, and desolate in the winter when ice and snow blanket the buildings inside and out. Through 40 years of abandonment, the Farm Colony is as ever-changing as the natural world that engulfs it, but it’s looking more and more definite that this historic district will be undergoing a final, permanent transformation in the days ahead.

The Farm Colony’s existing structures.

New renderings for the “Landmark Colony,” with several buildings preserved.

Last month, the Landmarks Preservation Commission unanimously approved a proposal to bring 350 units of senior housing to the site, part of a large new development called “The Landmark Colony.”  In the process, the institution is returning to its historic function as a home for the elderly after a four decade hiatus. (The place was essentially a geriatric hospital when it closed down in the 1970s, though it had been established in the mid 19th century as a refuge for the poor.)  With five buildings saved and one kept as a stabilized ruin, the design will preserve much of the area’s architectural character. The remaining structures will be demolished and replaced with modern residential units, which is to be expected considering just how far gone some of these buildings are.

Several of the places I’ve photographed in the last few years have been set aside for renovation (The Domino Sugar Refinery, the Gowanus Batcave, and P.S. 186 to name a few.)  The Smith Infirmary, the old Machpelah Cemetery office, and most troublingly, the Harlem Renaissance Ballroom have not been so lucky.  It’s rare and encouraging when a structure is fortunate enough to get a second chance in this rapidly evolving city, but as positive as these changes are for their communities, a part of me still feels like something is lost.  I know I’m not the only one who’ll miss the Farm Colony and its embattled ruins, which have become a popular spot for paintballers and Staten Island teenagers to pass the time.

Here’s a series of photos I’ve taken over the last year in sweltering heat, biting cold, snow, rain, and fog. Hopefully I make it back one last time before these ancient grounds are covered with fresh paint and brimming with active retirees year-round.

ABANDONEDNYC_WILL ELLIS_FARM COLONY-14

The Laundry and Industrial building will be preserved…

ABANDONEDNYC_WILL ELLIS_FARM COLONY-13

…As will the Dining Hall. These are the two largest open spaces in the Farm Colony.

ABANDONED NYC_Will Ellis_Farm Colony-2

Daylight trickles into a dark room adjacent to the cafeteria.

ABANDONED NYC_Will Ellis_Farm Colony-11

An arched walkway on a lower floor is a rare example of architectural ornament.

ABANDONED NYC_Will Ellis_Farm Colony-9

The Farm Colony’s most picturesque building is sadly slated for demolition.

ABANDONED NYC_Will Ellis_Farm Colony-12

But a similar dormitory on the south side of the grounds will be stabilized and preserved as a ruin.

ABANDONED NYC_Will Ellis_Farm Colony-5

Snow piles up after winter storms, turning to ice when the temperature fluctuates.

ABANDONED NYC_Will Ellis_Farm Colony-3

A wintry bathroom.

ABANDONED NYC_Will Ellis_Farm Colony-4

This bed is one of the only remaining artifacts from the institution’s past.

ABANDONED NYC_Will Ellis_Farm Colony-10

Trees silhouetted against the clouds, projected through a camera obscura on the ground floor of a residence hall.


 

 


Enter your email address to follow AbandonedNYC and receive new posts by email.

Facebook

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,342 other followers

%d bloggers like this: