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abandoned places

new york

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Talking Trash in Dubos Point Wildlife Sanctuary

Yellowing remains of a small vessel permanently docked in Dubos Point.

Yellowing remains of a small vessel permanently docked in Dubos Point.

Take the A train past JFK. You’ll be one of a handful of travelers left on a car that seemed well over capacity a moment ago; the babble of the crowd fades to the soft hum of an unimpeded machine.  Nobody asks you for money, or directions.  If you’ve made it this far, you know where you’re going.

Suddenly, the ground drops out and you’re gliding over the silver Jamaica Bay.  The train runs just above sea level, skimming over a surface that teems visibly with diving cormorants.  Clustered with skeletal boat frames, aged marinas jut from a neglected shoreline across the water, to the west, a row of painted houses stand on stilts. There’s no place like the Rockaways to experience New York as a city by the sea.

Head east at Hammels Wye, and a brief walk through the quiet neighborhood of Averne will lead you to a little known peninsula called Dubos Point, one of the last fragments of salt marsh left in a city that was once ringed with tidal wetlands.  The marsh was filled with dredged materials in 1912 in preparation for an ill-fated real estate development, but over the last century, the area has reverted to its natural state.  In 1988, the land was acquired by the Parks Department, deemed a wildlife sanctuary, and given an official name for the first time (Rene Dubos was a microbiologist and environmental activist who coined the phrase “Think Globally, Act Locally”).

Parks officials envisioned marked nature trails and boardwalks for community use, and planned to build nesting structures and employ part-time patrol staff to encourage wildlife and keep the place clean, but none of this came to be.  The Audubon Society of New York maintained the grounds sporadically until 1999, but abandoned its post citing a lack of resources.  Since then, the area has been largely neglected, leaving its care up to volunteers.  Green Apple Corps and the Rockaway Waterfront Alliance have orchestrated several clean-up events over the years, but they’re facing an uphill battle.

Garbage piled up on the bank.

Garbage and driftwood piled up on the bank.

Every day, the shores of Dubos Point are bombarded with an onslaught of garbage, and it’s not coming from park visitors (the preserve is technically not open to the public).  Most of the refuse is washed up from the bay, after a long journey through storm drains that began in the littered streets of New York City. Familiar objects are made strange, touched by a long encounter with an invisible world, caked with green algae, eroded with salt, barnacle-burdened and bleached by the sun. The entire peninsula resounds with the constant susurration of wind through grass. For all these reeds are hiding, perhaps they whisper secrets; mud-moored vessels, decaying toys, and saltbored furniture lay half-concealed in the tidal growth.

A boat moored in a reedy grave.

A boat moored in a reedy grave.

Standing water in old tires and plastic debris makes for a perfect breeding ground for the area’s most populous species.  My first steps onto the grounds of Dubos Point seemed to disturb some ancient curse, as great swarms of mosquitoes rose from their stagnant hollows to draw my blood sacrifice. The Parks department has been criticized in the past for neglecting its duties at Dubos Point while mosquito infestation reached “plague proportions” in the late 90s, rendering backyards unusable from April to October.  After years of complaints and little improvement, some residents resorted to building outdoor shelters for brown bats, a natural insect predator.  Today, the only visible improvement made on the grounds of Dubos Point is a line of Mosquito Magnet kiosks, placed every 100 feet along the boundary of the preserve.

A toy car abandoned in the marsh

A toy car abandoned in the marsh

Despite decades of pollution, the Jamaica Bay harbors hundreds of species of wildlife, and the water is cleaner today than it was 100 years ago.  As one of the last remaining pockets of undeveloped land in New York, the estuary supplies an essential resting place for migratory birds along the Atlantic Flyway; egrets, herons, and peregrine falcons are spotted here. Looking past the garbage, you can still make out the natural beauty of Dubos Point, and imagine what this whole region was like 400 years ago. Neck-high cordgrass is abundant, trapping bits of decayed organisms to fuel a thriving, though limited, ecosystem.  Throngs of fiddler crabs crowd the soggy ground, scuttling sideways with one collective mind, crunching underfoot like eggshells. The breezy silence is only interrupted by an occasional splash from a jumping fish, or the roar of a plane, taking off from the crowded runways of JFK just across the water. Off the curling tip of Dubos Point, fishermen still cast their lines in the Sommerville Basin, affirming a bond we’ve all but lost.

12,000 of the original 16,000 acres of wetlands around the Jamaica Bay have already been filled in for development, and sources predict that the last of the saltwater marshes could disappear in the next 20 years. It’s a shame to see one of the few protected areas in this condition, when its potential for education and recreation is so apparent. New York needs to protect its wild spaces, and sometimes that means getting our hands dirty. To learn about volunteer opportunities with the Parks Department, visit their website.  And check back for information on the next Dubos Point clean-up.

Decaying Hull festers in the noonday sun

A decaying hull festers in the noonday sun.

A beach shelter built from salvaged garbage and tarps.

A beach shelter built from salvaged garbage and tarps.

A single shoe stranded amid nautical debris.

A single shoe stranded amid nautical debris.

Skeletal remains of a water vessel.

Skeletal remains of a water vessel.

Rotting pilings show that this land was once used for something.

Rotting pilings point to an earlier use for the land.

Barnacled motors stuck in the sand.

Barnacled motors stuck in the sand.

Desolate Marshlands

A desolate area of the marsh.

Dead ends abound where the street meets the water in quiet Averne.

Dead ends abound where streets meet the Sommerville basin.

Not a wildlife sanctuary, this is a actually a sidewalk.

This may look like a wildlife sanctuary, but it’s actually a sidewalk.

An overgrown lot advertising yet another housing development.

An overgrown lot advertising yet another housing development.

Don't Litter

Don’t Litter.

Related Links:

Click through for the Trapps Mountain Hamlet at Mohonk Preserve

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Checking in to Grossinger’s Resort

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The ransacked Paul G. hotel, showing the hallmarks of a recent paintball game.

Past a deserted security desk, waist-high grasses choke back the yawning entrance to the Jennie G. Hotel, whose toppled fence serves more as an invitation than a barrier.  Here in the sleepy town of Liberty, NY, this derelict hilltop lodge is not only a destination for the curious, it’s a daily reminder of the town’s old eminence, an emblem of a dead industry, visible from miles around.

In its time, Grossinger’s Catskills Resort was a fantasy realized, where wealthy businessmen, celebrity entertainers, and star athletes gathered to mingle with those that they liked and were like, to see and be seen, and to enjoy, rightly so, the things they enjoyed.  As the slogan goes—Grossinger’s has Everything for the Kind of Person who Likes to Come to Grossinger’s.

Flowers left by a former guest, or a prop from an old photo shoot.

If you’re the kind of person that’s inclined to spend their vacation somewhere dark, dusty, and dangerous, the motto still rings true today, and you’re not coming for the five-star kosher kitchen.  For just as quickly as the resort prospered into a world-class institution, it’s descended into a swift decay.  Explorers frequent the grounds, armed with cameras in an attempt to capture the beauty in its devastation, sifting through the artifacts—a broken lounge chair, old reservation records—piecing together a lost age of tourism.

A generation ago, this region of the Catskills was known as the Borscht Belt, a tongue-in-cheek designation for a string of hotels and resorts that catered to a predominantly Jewish customer base in a time when discrimination against Jews at mainstream resorts was widespread. In popular culture, the most notable representation of this time and place is Dirty Dancing, which was supposedly inspired by a summer at Grossinger’s.  The unexpected success of its film adaptation had little effect on the long-struggling resort—in 1986, a year before the film was released, Grossinger’s ended its 70 year legacy.

The story of Grossinger’s is, at its root, an American story. The Grossingers were Austrian immigrants, who after some early years of struggle in New York City, and a failed farming venture, opened a small farmhouse to boarders in 1914, without plumbing or electricity.  They quickly gained a reputation for their exceptional hospitality and incredible kosher cooking and outgrew the ramshackle farmhouse, purchasing the property that the resort still occupies today.

Grossinger’s rise to prominence is largely attributed to the couple’s daughter Jennie, who worked there as a hostess in its early years.  Later, Jennie’s legendary leadership would transform the resort from its humble beginnings to a massive 35-building complex (with its own zip code and airstrip), attracting over 150,000 guests a year, and establishing a new type of travel destination that renounced the quiet charms of country living for a fast-paced, action-packed social experience that met the expectations of its sophisticated New York clientele.

Remnants of an attempt to burn down the Jennie G.

Every sport of leisure had its own arena, with state of the art facilities for handball, tennis, skiing, ice skating, barrel jumping, and tobogganing, along with a championship golf course.  In 1952, the resort earned a place in history by being the first to use artificial snow.  Its famous training establishment for boxers hosted seven world champions.  Its stages launched the careers of countless well-known singers and comedians.  In its day spas and beauty salons, ballrooms and auditoriums, guests were offered a level of luxury that even the wealthiest individuals couldn’t enjoy at home, earning Grossinger’s the nickname, “Waldorf in the Catskills.”

A daily missive called The Tattler identified notable guests and the business that made their respective fortunes.  Weekly tabloids published on the grounds boasted the presence of celebrity athletes and entertainers.  But for all the emphasis on earthly pleasures and material wealth, Jennie G. ensured that the Grossinger’s experience was warm and personal, always treating guests like one of the family, even when visitors reached well over 1,000 per week.

By the late sixties, the Grossinger’s model had started to fall out of favor as cheap air travel to tourist destinations around the world became readily available to a new generation.  After the property was abandoned, several renovation attempts were aborted by a string of investors.  Widespread demolition has greatly diminished the sprawl of the original resort, but several of the largest buildings remain.  Most have been stripped of any vestige of opulence, and some structures are barely standing; no more so than the former Joy Cottage, whose floors might not withstand the footfalls of a field mouse.

Artifacts from the hotel’s glory days are few and far between, but Grossinger’s most recent batch of visitors has been quick to leave its mark.  In a haunting hotel filled with empty rooms, some scenes are startlingly arranged, with collected mementos photogenically poised in the pursuit of a compelling shot.  Despite these attempts to prettify Grossinger’s decline, the grounds retain an air of savage dilapidation, and an utter submission to nature.

The Grossinger’s Hotel pool c. 1967.

An indoor swimming pool is Grossinger’s most enduring spectacle, and has become a favorite location of urban explorers near and far.  Radiance remains in its terra-cotta tiles and its well-preserved space age light fixtures.  Its dimensions continue to impress, as do the postcard views through its towering glass walls, all miraculously intact.  It’s growth, not decay, that makes this pool so picturesque—the years have transformed this neglected natatorium into a flourishing greenhouse.  Ferns prosper from a moss-caked poolside, unhindered by the tread of carefree vacationers, urged by a ceiling that constantly drips.  Year-round scents of summer have bowed to a kind of perpetual spring, with the reek of chlorine and suntan lotion replaced by the heady odor of moss and mildew—it’s dank, green, and vibrantly alive.

Meanwhile, areas across the region that once relied on a thriving tourism industry have fallen into depression or emptied out.  The Catskills is attempting to rebrand, updating its image and holding online contests to determine a new slogan.  The winner?  The Catskills, Always in Season.

Though it remains to be seen whether the coming seasons will bring new visitors, there’s no doubt they’re serving to erase the region’s outmoded reputation.  With each passing year, in ruined hotels across the Catskills, the physical remnants of lost vacations dwindle.  Indoors, snowdrifts weigh on aching floors; leaf litter collects to harbor the damp or fuel the fire.  Vines claim what the rain leaves behind, compelling the constant progress of decay.  Scattered in photo albums, hidden in bottom drawers, excerpted from yellowing newsprint, the memories will follow, clearing the way for new journeys.  Before it’s forgotten, here’s one more look inside the celebrated resort.

-Will Ellis

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I’m having the time of my life. And I owe it all to you.

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This catwalk ensured a comfortable commute from your suite at the Paul G. to the indoor pool year-round.

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A pitch-black beauty salon lit with the aid of a flashlight.

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The ruined entrance to the hotel spa.

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Office on the bottom floor of the Jennie G. Hotel.

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The best preserved room, with two murphy beds, and a carpet of moss.

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In most rooms, peeling wallpaper was all that remained.

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This one was among the most interesting.

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The ground floor of the management office, now on the verge of collapse.

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Hotel records neatly arranged on a mattress, by a photographer, no doubt.

The Hotel Jennie G.

Related Links:

Consider the Catskills for your next getaway: Official Catskills Tourism Site

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.

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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.

Related Links:

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

Houdini’s Grave, in NYC’s Spookiest Cemetery

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Are we in Queens or Salem’s Lot?

If you pass by a graveyard on the Jackie Robinson Parkway, don’t hold your breath.  You’ve got two and half miles of Queens’ Cemetery Belt ahead of you, a burial ground so vast it’s supposedly visible from space.   Surrounded on all sides by an ocean of headstones, the modest Machpelah Cemetery makes up only a small fraction of the sprawling necropolis, but its arguably the creepiest graveyard in the city…

Cramped centenarian tombstones muster in rows on the hilly plot—the place is rundown and deserted, but one grave is consistently well-maintained.  It’s the monument of Machpelah’s most famous resident, master escape artist Harry Houdini.  Only steps from the headstone lurks an eerie cemetery office, abandoned since the late 80s.  The cemetery is a dream destination for graveyard ghouls on a chilly October night, especially since Halloween marks the anniversary of Houdini’s untimely death.

The history of the Cemetery Belt can be traced back to the Rural Cemeteries Act of 1847, under which cemeteries became a legitimate commercial enterprise for the first time in New York.  Non-profit organizations were authorized to buy up land and sell plots to individuals, replacing the traditional practice of burying the deceased in churchyards and private property.

Bayside-Acacia Cemetery

Conditions at Bayside-Acacia are still less than ideal.

Areas of then-rural Queens quickly became concentrated with new cemetery holdings.  A stipulation of the act limited the acreage of land an organization could purchase in a given county, but church groups and land speculators got around this by buying up neighboring plots on the Brooklyn-Queens border, forming the region now known as the Cemetery Belt.

Between 1832 and 1849, a series of cholera outbreaks thoroughly exhausted Manhattan’s remaining burial sites.  The common belief at the time was that ground water could become contaminated with the disease when infected corpses were exposed to the soil.  As a result, all burials were prohibited on the island of Manhattan in 1852.

As the population swelled, new developments, including the Brooklyn Bridge, often required the displacement of grave sites.   Manhattan started evicting its dead people, and sending them to western Queens—tens of thousands of deceased were disinterred and transported to mass graves in the Cemetery Belt.  These ghoulish dealings were kept away from the public eye, often carried out in the dead of night.

Today, Queens’ five million “permanent residents” almost triple its living population, but their numbers are at a standstill.  Most of these cemeteries reached capacity long ago, leaving many without a source of income.  As a result, some have fallen into disrepair, with officials failing to provide the “perpetual care” their patrons are rightfully owed.

At the nearby Bayside Cemetery, conditions were downright shameful, and hair-raising—exposed human remains were identified at several of the overgrown grave sites.  Community pressure, litigation, and the effort of volunteers have gotten the place cleaned up, albeit in a cursory fashion.  Gaping mausoleums have been closed off with cinderblocks and boards.

At Machpelah, the plots are untidy, but not nearly as egregious as the Bayside grounds.  The cemetery’s decline is most apparent in its ramshackle office building.  The boarded-up structure is dilapidated now, but its architecture, dating to 1928, continues to impress on the surface.

Burial records litter the floor of the

Burial records litter the floor of the Machpelah Cemetery office.

Any semblance of grandeur breaks down on the inside.  The striking arched windows visible in the facade are installed in rectangular frames, and their diamond panes are all artifice.  The skeleton of a drop ceiling hangs askew, with most panels collapsed and reduced to a yellow paste that covers the ground.  The office has apparently fallen victim to vandals over the years, furniture and safe deposit boxes have been ransacked, old burial records lie scattered in the grime.  Anything of value has been removed, but a coin bank souvenir from the 1939 New York World’s Fair remains, its most recent deposits dating back to 1988.

“Stuffy” doesn’t begin to describe its suffocating ether. Reception rooms are boxed in with cheap wood paneling, which combines with the dizzying funk of mildew to evoke the interior of a coffin.   Secluded in a cockeyed armoire, Nosferatu could feel right at home here.

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Red roses wilt on Houdini’s grave.

Every Halloween, hundreds of devotees make the yearly pilgrimage to Houdini’s final resting place to pay their respects, party, and make an offering—around the anniversary of his death, pumpkins, broomsticks, and playing cards mount like a cairn on his headstone.

The Society of American Magicians, for which Houdini served as president until his death, was the official caretaker of the site until recently.  Between 1975 and 1993, the bust that adorns the Houdini monument was stolen or destroyed four times—it’s thought to be the only graven image in any Jewish Cemetery.

For many years, the likeness was only brought out for yearly ceremonies, but in 2011, a group of magicians from the Scranton Houdini Museum engaged in some guerrilla restoration, installing a new bust with the blessing of Houdini’s family.  The group has since taken over responsibilities for the site’s care, and so far the monument remains unscathed.

With no funds to reoccupy, renovate, or demolish the old office building, its likely to stand until it falls down on its own; the same can’t be said of Houdini’s shiny new effigy.  Odds are he’ll lose his head again—even though it’s screwed on.  So next time you’re traveling down that graveyard highway, be sure to stop by for a look while you can.  There’s no need to wait for the witching hour.  At Machpelah Cemetery, the gate is always open, and every day is Halloween.

UPDATE: The office was demolished on August 21st, 2013.

-Will Ellis

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The lobby, with a distinctive arched doorway, bathed in golden morning light.

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The second floor.

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Valuable copper pipes were removed from the upstairs.

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Several rooms feature vintage wallpaper, but wood paneling had been removed.

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Sunlight illuminates a stairwell.

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A forbidding basement. The structure could only be accessed through a narrow opening that led to this room.

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No vacancy.

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Dawn breaks on Houdini’s grave.

Related Links:

Inside Creedmoor State Hospital’s Building 25

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The first glimpse of Building 25′s fourth floor from the central stairwell.  That’s not gravel.

In Queens Village, mere inches of brick and mortar separate the world we know from one of the strangest places in the city.  Creedmoor Psychiatric Center’s Building 25 has undergone something of a transformation over its 40 years of neglect, but it couldn’t have done it alone.  Once a haven for New York’s cast-out mentally ill, the long-abandoned ward is very much inhabited today…

Creedmoor was founded in 1912 as the Farm Colony of Brooklyn State Hospital, one of hundreds of similar psychiatric wards established at the turn of the century to house and rehabilitate those who were ill equipped to function on their own.  Rejected by mainstream society, hundreds of thousands of mentally disturbed individuals, many afflicted with psychosis and schizophrenia, were transferred from urban centers across the country to outlying pastoral areas where fresh air, closeness to nature, and the healing power of work was thought to be their best bet for rehabilitation.

Inside Creedmoor State Hospital's Building 25

A few articles of clothing were left behind.

As the 20th century progressed, asylums across the country became overrun with patients, and many institutions became desperately understaffed and dangerously underfunded.  Living conditions at some psychiatric wards grew dire—patient abuse and neglect was not uncommon.  Creedmoor State Hospital was habitually under scrutiny during this period, beginning in the 1940s with an outbreak of dysentery that resulted from unsanitary living conditions in the wards.

The hospital had spiraled completely out of control by 1974 when the state ordered an inquiry into an outbreak of crime on the Creedmoor campus.  Within 20 months, three rapes were reported, 22 assaults, 52 fires, 130 burglaries, six instances of suicide, a shooting, a riot, and an attempted murder, prompting an investigation into all downstate mental hospitals.  As late as 1984, the violent ward of Creedmoor Psychiatric Center was rocked with scandal following the death of a patient, who had been struck in the throat by a staff member while restrained in a straitjacket.

In the late 20th Century, the development of antipsychotic medications and new standards of treatment for the mentally ill accelerated a trend toward deinstitutionalization.  A series of dramatic budget cuts and dwindling patient populations led to the closing of farm colonies across the United States, and a marked decline at Creedmoor.  The campus continues to operate today, housing only a few hundred patients and providing outpatient services, leaving its turbulent past behind.  Many of the buildings have been sold off to new tenants.  Others, like Building 25, lie fallow.

The building was an active ward until some time in the 1970s, and retains many mementos from its days as a residence and treatment center for the mentally ill.  With peeling paint, dusty furniture, and dark corridors, the lower floors are typical of a long-abandoned hospital, but upstairs, the effect of time has taken a grotesque turn.

The smell alone is enough to drive anyone to the verge of madness, but the visual is even more appalling.  For 40 years, generations of pigeons have defecated on the fourth floor of Building 25, far removed from their dim-witted dealings with the human world, assembling a monument all their own.  Guano accumulates in grey mounds under popular roosts, with the tallest columns reaching several feet in height.  Like the myriad formations of a cavern, Buiding 25’s guano stalagmites are a work in progress—pigeons roost at every turn, and they’re awfully dubious of outsiders.  Violent outbursts of flight punctuate an otherworldly soundscape of low, rumbling coos.  The filth acts as an acoustic insulator, making every movement impossibly close.

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These dropping formations formed under the pipes of a sprinkler system the birds frequented.

Two levels down and a world away from the top floor, a kitchen is filled with years’ worth of garbage intersected by narrow pathways.  A living room, kept relatively tidy, features a sitting area with an array of chairs, including a homemade toilet.  Loosely organized objects litter every surface—toiletries, clothing, hundreds of dead D batteries.  Some of the belongings looked as if they hadn’t been touched for decades, but a newspaper dated to only a few weeks before confirmed my suspicion that someone was still living here.

I found him snoozing peacefully in a light-filled dayroom, surrounded by a series of patient murals.  Once painted over, images of faraway lands, country gardens, and the Holy Mother are coming to light again as time peels back the layers.  The image was surprising, unforgettably human, and imprudent to photograph.  Declining to introduce myself, I passed once more through the dark, decaying halls of Building 25, leaving its charms, horrors, and mysteries for the birds.  Back on solid ground, its impression wouldn’t fade for months—Building 25 has a way of recurring in dreams

-Will Ellis

Inside Creedmoor State Hospital's Building 25

Overgrowth covered most of the windows, casting green light over much of the interior.

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Furniture stacked in a cafeteria on Building 25′s third floor.

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These chairs are popular with urban explorers, one went as far as covering the upholstery with fake blood.

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Metallic sheets are bolted to this bathroom wall in lieu of mirrors, which patients could use as a weapon.

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A tiny toy collection arranged on a windowsill.

Inside Creedmoor State Hospital's Building 25

Even in the 70s, this equipment was outdated, and left behind.

Inside Creedmoor State Hospital's Building 25

Did this mural prophesy the current condition of the top floor?

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An uninviting hallway on Creedmoor’s fourth floor.

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Satan’s sandbox.

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This bathroom held the largest volume of fecal matter.

Inside Creedmoor State Hospital's Building 25

And I thought gas station toilets were filthy.

Inside Creedmoor State Hospital's Building 25

The guano gives some rooms the look of an indoor desert.

Inside Creedmoor State Hospital's Building 25

Anyone for musical chairs?

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An incongruous Virgin emerges from an infested day room.

Inside Creedmoor State Hospital's Building 25

A glimpse at the Creedmoor squat.

A Watery Grave for Historic Ships on Staten Island

Staten Island Boat Graveyard

Wooden Shipwreck at Arthur Kill Boat Graveyard.

Do you know how to get to Staten Island’s most remarkable graveyard?  First pass through a centuries-old roadside cemetery, (consisting of a handful of horribly eroded grave markers).  Follow a barely there garbage-strewn path down to the marshy Arthur Kill (kill is the Dutch word for creek, which explains why creepy names like “Fresh Kills” abound in the Dutch-settled Hudson River Valley.)  Once your feet are sinking a few inches into the mud with every step, you’ll start seeing the boats.  Some over a century old, steam vessels, warships, ferries, fireboats, the final vestiges of New York’s shipping era, doomed to die here in a catastrophically polluted Staten Island waterway.  Welcome to the Arthur Kill Boat Graveyard.

Arthur Kill Marsh by Night

Secluded path from the cemetery down to the Arthur Kill.

Operational since the 1930s, Witte’s Marine Equipment company in Rossville served to dredge, salvage, and resell materials from the wrecked and disused vessels of the New York and New Jersey waterways.  Eccentric owner John J. Witte refused to dismantle the majority of the ships that came to rest in the yard, amassing a prodigious collection of over 400 historic watercraft.  As the ships slowly decomposed and the area gained a reputation as a mecca for artists and photographers, Witte gained his own reputation as a ferocious defender of his property, known for scaring off unsolicited visitors personally until he passed away in 1980.  The yard is now controlled by the Donjon Marine Company, which seems to be taking a more proactive approach to actually salvaging materials from the wrecks and keeping the curious out, erecting 12-foot metal walls around the perimeter of the yard with signs prohibiting any and all photography.

The walls presented an obstacle, but after several muddy minutes I made it to the Arthur Kill Shore.  Though the shipyard had lost most of its former glory, the remaining 20-40 wrecks were still an eldritch sight to behold—half submerged in years of muck, leaning at odd angles, corroded in streaks of rust, putrefying elbow to elbow with massive skeleton hulls.  These wade out their final days in the boneyard before being stripped and recycled into automobiles and refrigerators.  So see them while you can, if you dare, what was once the city’s premiere collection of nautical artifacts is sinking fast.

Rotting Hulls in Arthur Kill

Rotting hulls jut from their shallow graves at the Arthur Kill Ship Graveyard.

Rusty Boats at Arthur Kill Boat Graveyard

Rusty Boats pile up on the shore.

Rusty Machinery in the Staten Island Boat Graveyard

Oxidized machinery adorns this decaying watercraft.

Staten Island Ship Graveyard

A salvaged wheelhouse moulders in the marsh.

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