Archive for March, 2013

We Are the Random

Random stuff that has been sitting in my “post this” file but hasn’t fit into any of the themed posts I’ve been doing.

Former home in Gary, with former gutter and former tarp

gary tarp

Another view of the power plant, disconnected.


As seen in a heap of junk on an abandoned rail car lost in the wilderness of south side Chicago.

chicago gears

Left Behind

The narrative arc of Gary’s history is a common one, having been repeated in countless other rust belt towns. Industry thrives, the city booms. Industry dries up, unemployment and white flight follows. This is history writ large, with big impersonal forces inexorably taking their toll over time. Of course, these things must happen to somebody. People had to decide one day they’d had enough, and to move out. Or shutter their church. Or close down a hospital.  On this granular level, there can be more questions than answers. Why would people leave an entirely furnished home?




A kitchen, though rummaged through by squatters, still has dishes, utensils, and food left behind.



A hutch with china



Solid wood dining room table.



This all raises difficult feelings which are hard to quantify. It’s hard not to feel like a bit of  a ghoul when walking through places that have been so recently abandoned to misfortune. But we do it anyway…

The Palace Theater- Part the Backstage Pass

Time to head backstage and see what might be left.  Does anyone need some rusty cables?

LDR rigging

I tried finding my way up to the ceiling to check out any control contraptions left behind, but found my way barred by this beast of a door.  You can see where someone took a pry bar to it if you look close.

Entry Denied

I did find a very lost chair.

Palace Theater3

I made my way back down the rubble strewn stairs, disappointed, but I will be going back for another try.  There were a few doors I didn’t take on this trip.


The Palace Theater- Part the Stage Forward

One of the trickier aspects of a series on the Palace is that when exploring you walk into the main theater first and then spend time rummaging about the rest of the building.  My first reaction is to go look at THIS!

Palace Theater2

Then afterwards to follow up with what you say in yesterday’s post.  But that wouldn’t have been fair, now would it?

I’m not too sure there is much to say here really.  Other than I’m glad I braved the balcony for this photo.

Palace Theater4

The Palace Theater- Part The Entryway

   Palace Theater7The Palace Theater is a landmark building in Gary, sadly it is one of those landmark buildings that has gone past the point of no return.

There are buildings that can be rehabilitated, and buildings that are simply waiting their turn for the wrecking ball, the Palace is in line for the latter.  The interior has been torn apart by scrappers, there is no trim left on the walls, just one sad heap of of small scrap left by the ticket taker’s booth.  The wood is crumbling, the walls are collapsing without the benefit of help and I am frankly shocked the roof is still mostly intact.  It isn’t in as bad of shape as St. John’s Hospital, but that is only because so far it has avoided being set on fire.

Palace Theater6

Ticket Taker’s booth in the lobby

One thing that surprised me about this location was how much intact glass there is.  Sure many planes of the lobby doors were broken, but many remain, and the great planes of glass separating the foyer from the theater proper are almost all intact.

Palace Theater5

The foyer itself is a study in urban decay.  The stairs are more or less ramps of rubble, don’t be fooled by the suggestion of steps you see here, the traces of explorers before me.  To access the balcony you must climb over a heap of rubble at the bottom and top of these stairs, as well as at the bottom of the stairs going to balcony from the landing.


Of course, to add to the fun all the piles of fallen materials were encased in ice, slick, and utterly unpredictable as to when it was going to give way beneath my feet.  Still, I don’t regret going up to the balcony, the view was with it.

Sofa Hell

The other day I showed you the stairs to Sofa Hell, the stairs that no one in their right mind will attempt to climb.   A few years before we had poked around the building for a bit and BentBottle had noticed a way into the second floor but it was as we were on our way out.  He never mentioned this to me but had said he wanted to go back.

Before our most recent trip we were discussing where we wanted to go, and I remembered BentBottle’s request and suggested we give it a try, Tabula Rasa agreed so we headed off on our little adventure.  On the way in I got distracted by mason jars so they made it inside before I did.  My first view of Sofa Hell, if you look close you’ll see BentBottle skulking in the background.

Sofa Hell


The entire floor is like this, there are a couple of open places and narrow paths to work your way through the heaps of dead and decaying furniture.

rotten chair

It is the hell of bad upholstery, collapsing walls, broken windows and fallen drop ceilings.  The stalactites are pretty cool though.

Second Floor

I had thought we would find more signs of parties and wanton destruction but other than the piles of furniture and some random garbage, not really.  Though there were a lot children’s toy scattered around on the third floor.  Go figure.

Looting or Liberating

Today’s post was supposed to be about Sofa Hell, but I suppose that will have to wait for another day.  What I really want to to talk about now is a subject briefly touched on by Tabular Rasa in his last post.

He mostly discussed the moving of objects found to create a more aesthetically pleasing image, something which I am fairly certain most urban explorers have no problem doing.  Certainly in the Methodist church things get moved on a pretty regular basis, new stuff is brought in, old stuff vanishes.  One day I showed up and there was a defunct piano in the main hall, a year and half later it is no where to be found.

The main meat of the discussion he mentioned was, “When, if ever, is it OK to take home mementos from these locations?”  Is it looting or is it liberating something as a keepsake?  How much should be preserved for future urban explorers?  What are the ethics of taking more than photos?

The phrase “Take only memories/photographs, leave only footprints” is an old one often used for urban exploring and by the National Park Service.  In the case of the NPS, they have a multitude of events they can point where natural monuments have been more or less ruined by people taking just one little piece home with them.  Take the petrified trees of Yellowstone for example.  When first found there were two upright trees and one fallen, now a stump of one standing tree remains, surrounded by a fence to ward off souvenir hunters.  The Petrified Forest in Arizona has a similar problem, while they have the benefit of a lot more trees certain specimens have been seriously degraded by visitors taking mementos.   NPS is there to preserve these places as best they can for the enjoyment and edification of future generations far along the line.

Then you have us, the urban explorers.  The people who go where they shouldn’t, do things that are reckless for fun and often take a lot of photos along the way.  Sometimes we find things utterly unexpected and we want to take them home has a memento of a place that is not going to be held for preservation, but a place that is slated for destruction.  Is it wrong for us to take these objects and deny future explorers the chance to see them before they are gone?

Example A:

In the basement of a burned out church Tomato and I found a table of amazingly whole and unbroken tableware.  Normally in places like this any dishes left behind have already been smashed by bored or inebriated people.   We picked through the table and each of came away with a haul of stuff we wanted, this is my take.

3 16 2013 187

Between the two if us we took less than a quarter of what was there.  Is this wrong of us?  Die hards in the school of “Take nothing” thought would say yes, but I disagree.

Look at the location, a burned out church with pretty much nothing to explore.  The roof has caved in due to the fire, the front of the building is falling down  and left on its own the building will be a heap of rubble in 20 years or so.

burned church         3 16 2013 177

It is not a historical building, it has very little for an urban explore to explore and it isn’t a very interesting exploration.  I’m pretty sure most urban explorers just drive right past this one, after all less than one block away is the Palace Theater.

Example B:

The Palace Theater, it is a popular stop for any urban explorer in Gary.  Up in the front entry way, behind the ticket taker’s booth is a heap of rubble, trim that once decorated the room.


From this heap I took a scrap with a couple of rosettes.  I know the Palace in on the list of places the city wants to demolish, I figured I had best grab a piece of history while I could.

3 16 2013

So was I wrong?  More yes in this case than the other, but again I feel no guilt because this place is only going to be around for another 10 years or so, 20 if we are lucky.  Future photographers aren’t going to miss this one piece, and even if everyone passing through took a piece of scrap there is a lot more to look at than one dark room that is notable only for the booth and the slowly collapsing doors into the foyer.  The Palace Theater has already been mostly stripped not by explorers, but by actual scrappers.  Were there any chance the Palace was going to be saved and preserved then perhaps the trim should stay, but it isn’t going to be.

Every time I bring home something from a trip I do consider the impact on future explorers.  I take into consideration how likely it the building is going to be demolished soon, how popular the location is both with explorers and the local downtrodden, as well as the question of much do I really need another random thing taking up space in my already small home.

These buildings are, by their very nature, in a constant state of flux.  Because something was or wasn’t there yesterday doesn’t mean it will be the same tomorrow.  Most of us want to preserve these places to whatever extent we can, but we are not the only ones who venture into such places.  Teens looking for a place to party, homeless seeking shelter, graffiti artists, vandals, and more; this is what we must contend with.  Because I respect a place doesn’t mean I won’t preserve a bit of it at home where no other photographer can see it.  This is not the National Park Service, we are not preserving and protecting the wilderness for 10 generations to come.  We are documenting the decay and decline, the forgotten places that will one day be destroyed with little warning, like the Dixie Square Mall.  It was one of those places they had talked about destroying for years and it never happened, until one day it did.

On that note, should I ever have the chance to snag one of these tiles from the Ambassador Apartments, you know I will.


Mutatis Mutandis

Following the Idiot Photographer’s cue, I’m going with a Latin title for this post. Mutatis Mutandis is a phrase which means, “having changed that which needed to be changed.” In all three shots, I have rearranged a central object to make for better composition.  Since IP and I just recently had a discussion hashing out the proper etiquette of urban exploring, it seemed a good time to make this a theme of a post. Just what is acceptable behavior for photographers at abandoned sites? I’ve heard the motto “take only pictures, leave only footprints,” but that seems to ascribe too much holiness to these buildings. Certainly the other extreme, wanton destruction and vandalism, is not acceptable. We’re there to document decay, not actively promote it.

What we decided is that it’s hypocritical to have a completely hands-off approach to these places. After all, we aren’t going to grafitti the walls or tear down doors; but someone had to so that we could have our urban ruins to photograph. In the photos below, I made the changes that I felt were necessary and acceptable to be made, mutatis mutandis.





I love the eerie Tricycle of Doom.



If you have a different opinion on the subject of urban exploration etiquette, please share.

Stairway to Sofas

Some years ago we stumbled across a former furniture store, you can only access the ground floor, because the main stairs look something like this.

escaping couch

These days there are two large holes, and some plywood ramps over them because that is safe.

The back set of stairs were in even worse shape.

gary10 282

Now these stairs have only the bottom 4 steps or so, they are just gone.

Every now and again I would see photos of the couch sitting at the stop of the stairs on Flicker, and I have been waiting for the day it goes crashing through the stairs to going the rest of the furniture in what I call Sofa Hell.  But stubbornly, year after year, it remains out of reach  at the top of the stairs.

You may have noticed the large holes in the main stair case, they were caused by people braving the rusted steps and plummeting through.  From what I have heard no one was seriously injured but a camera did meet its demise.   I’ve been wanting to visit the second floor since we first found the place but it wasn’t until our most recent visit that BentBottle showed us the safe and sane way to get there.

So at last I can take this photo.

The Couch at the Top of the Stairs

I didn’t brave these stairs since I don’t trust them at all, but the second floor was interesting enough all on its own.  You’ve already see one photo from there, the tree from yesterday.

Next stop, Sofa Hell.  or is it Sofa Purgatory?  Perhaps they will be admitted to Sofa once heaven once they lose the tacky upholstery.

Genius Locii

Despite being a fairly rational and not superstitious person I too often fall into magical thinking when exploring the lost places I often find myself in.  Blame it on the all the mythology (and H.P. Lovecraft) I read growing up, all the fantasy (High and Low) I’ve read all my life, as well as my nature as a human being to see patterns where there are none and to imbue the inanimate with a mind.

The Romans had the idea of a Genius Locii, the protective patron spirit of a place, be it a forest or a building, a waterfall or an open market.  This spirit was to be placated and honored and the personality of the spirit was divined by the nature of the place.  A forest could have a grim human hating spirit which only wanted to protect the trees and animals, while an open meadow would have a playful spirit that wanted humans to come in and enjoy the simple pleasures of laying in the grasses and watching the clouds go by.   The Genius Locii would help or harm depending on its nature and personality and could be as fickle as any 4 year old human child.

As I scrabble through these buildings I like to fancy I can feel the Genius Locii, and I make up stories not only about the people who once lived or worked here, but about how the building itself feels about being left to crumble and decay, relegated to be forgotten or actively reviled as an eye sore.  Some places crumble and age and fall in a glory, such as the Methodist Church.  Others fall remembering the better days, bitter in their memories of once being a place of importance, or a shelter for families.

Then others embrace their dotage by moving past what they were when first built, they welcome in the pigeons and secret furtive beasts who now shelter in them.

cat on a couch


They shelter trees who spread their branches, reaching for windows or collapsed ceilings, perhaps dreaming of the freedom of open sky.

A Tree Dreams of Freedom


I know that Genius Locii are the creatures of my imagination, yet one cannot help but to feel them there.  Watching.  Ready to help or harm, or merely indifferent to my fate.  All while whispering the stories of the people who have come before me and haunting my dreams in the small hours of the night.