If you follow me enough, (and if you don’t you should, on facebook and here on wordpress) you know that I have worked on a number of urban decay sites and that one of my favorites, Thistle Mill, was recently demolished. Another favorite site of mine, one I couldn’t really disclose in the past, was Henryton State Hospital, which used to be somewhere between Howard and Carroll counties in Maryland. Henryton is gone now, but earlier this year I took an excursion there with my boyfriend, along with my good photographer friend Jim O’Connor and managed to capture some images of it before the demolition started. I also wrote this entry below, which I never published. I want to share it with you now as we go into this new year. Look to the future, but always take the time to honor the past…..
A while back, I joined my good friend Jim (from Jim O’Connor Photography) in exploring a local urban decay site. For once, I was not there as a model, just as an explorer and amateur photographer. In addition to photographing models, Jim does a lot of urban decay photography, so he knows some cool places in the area.
Urban decay, for those who do not know the term, describes and man made structure that was abandoned and left to be reclaimed by nature. The structures fall into a decayed state due to the lack of attention over the years. They usually have most or all of the following characteristics: peeling paint, holes in the wall and floor, plants creeping in through the walls and windows, broken glass, and also usually vandalized with graffiti by whatever punk kid randomly stumbled upon the place.
Though they look cool, urban decay sites can be dangerous. One has to be cautious when exploring such a place. Some of these buildings were old enough to have contained asbestos. Sometimes the floors, staircases, railings, and roof are in disrepair and are collapsing. Plus, there’s also the possibility of vermin or vagrants squatting in such a place, though I have never personally had such an encounter. I think that the danger is another part of the allure of such locations. In my mind, exploring such a place is like going on an adventure.
The particular site we went to on this excursion was become a bit popular with photographers in the area, even though you can technically get in trouble for being caught there. People have been asked by law enforcement to leave the area before, and I honestly think it’s just because they are trying to keep people safe more than anything else. Rumor had it for some time that this location would begin to undergo the demolition process by late spring/early summer, but seeing as how the rumor has been that this location would be demoed “soon” for the past two years, no one took it too seriously. But here we are…. I guess I should have believed long ago that it would eventually be taken down as the county has been planning; but it was still a sad day for a lot of photographers and urban explorers in the area when the process actually began.
Henryton had a lot of history. The buildings go back to the 1920’s, but the location was abandoned and closed for good in 1985 (the same year I was born, funny enough.) Though some local groups have been advocating saving the area and turning it into a positive development for the community , it seems that their efforts have gone unrewarded as the buildings are being demolished. There have been several fires at the complex, and I honestly can’t blame the county for seeing it as more of a hazard than anything else. Even so, I wanted to capture this local legend of urban decay before it became a memory.
I’m glad that I went that day.
We explored the grounds, and though it was a constant fear in the back of our minds that we could be caught and possibly charged with trespassing, we never encountered anyone that was bothered by our presence. During our time there we ran into a small group of photographers, a few area hikers, a couple walking through the grounds and the abandoned buildings with their dog, and—you won’t believe this— adults with two small children between the ages of 6-9. The presence of the children truly shocked me. For all the safety reasons and more that I mentioned earlier, this was certainly no place to bring children— especially kids that young.
The graffiti people choose to put on the walls never ceases to amaze me. Sometimes you see some really amazing pieces of art, then there’s the obligatory crude and anatomically incorrect penises that seem to be virtually everywhere, racist and anti-Semitic slurs, various messages about drugs and sex, and just plain creepy messages kids left behind to freak out people.
I think the thing that really has me interested in sites like this is the sense of wonder at what the structure was before it decayed to the condition we know it today. Who lived and worked there, how many people came through those buildings, how did this place impact their lives? It’s a mystery. I wish the building could have been preserved somehow, but unfortunately it seems that “progress” is more important than past.
Call me nostalgic, but I find the past far more interesting.
For more on Henryton, please visit the official Wikipedia page. Another great reference is this amazing book all about Henryton written by Amy McGovern, a really sweet lady who is a friend of a friend that I had the pleasure of meeting once. Her book talks all about the history of the complex from beginning to its demolition earlier this year. I highly recommend picking it up!