The Way It Was: A Monument to Madness
"The whole country is one vast insane asylum and they're letting the worst patients run the place." -- Robert Welch
All Must Die Alone...
Originally published June, 2013.
I visited an abandoned insane asylum and I invite you to come along with me...
Where is this, John?
Not saying. It's a well known place but it is off limits. It dates back to the late 19th century and was expanded over time to be one of the largest in the country in its heyday.
I encourage no one to visit and certainly not the way I did. I went alone via a dark, creepy, abandoned underground utility tunnel system but I am criminally foolish so I can't condone even my own methods! Some friends were supposed to come with me but at the last minute cancelled and that's why I went alone -- I'm stubborn.
I even met a few people and was serenaded by unexpected music at an unlikely location -- stories I'll tell at the end of this article.
The opening picture is in one of the big common rooms and the quote on the fireplace is from Kurt Vonnegut.
The complex is the size of a village. It had dozens of buildings -- some now fallen in or demolished, and the largest ones are interconnected by hallways or utility tunnels. There are hundreds and hundreds of rooms on multiple floors -- probably over a thousand altogether.
It has a feel about it.
Old Power House
You could walk right up to it and there are many ways open to get inside -- but it is in a well populated and traveled area and you might be seen and arrested. The best way in is deep underground. The Way can be found in the old power plant shown in the photo above.
The next picture was taken deep underground under a hill that lies between the power plant and the asylum. It's about 1/8 to 1/4 mile at least between them. The photo was taken with the camera laid on a pipe on a 15 second time exposure while I waved an LED flashlight around to light the scene evenly (so-called "light painting" for scene illumination). It is totally dark and still the way caves are -- and in fact that's exactly what it is: a man-made cave system.
Because the power plant lies below the asylum on the other side of the hill, it's a continuous uphill walk of slopes and stairs to reach the asylum.
When I first entered the basement from the utility tunnel and climbed to the first floor, I found the following scenes. I arrived inside just after sunup.
This first seems like it might have been a small clinic area where maybe medications were prepared. It was near "Ward 10" which looked to be a high security wing with rooms for violent patients perhaps. Finding a building this deteriorated with curtains hanging still and the light slanting in from behind evokes a mood I can't describe.
Bright and Cheerful Curtains
And here is one of the remaining heavy doors that guarded the rooms in Ward 10. This part of the building was very, very water damaged and decayed making the curtains in the "clinic" even more contradictory.
And as I describe the place and its feel I do not make light of it. This was a place of contradictions: it was a place of hope, but also a place of despair. Many were served, but not all were really helped. Tens of thousands of patients passed through it -- some living most of their lives there, some dying there -- over about 100 years of operation. Some say it is haunted but I am not sensitive to such things. In all the abandoned places I (and many others) have visited, most of us have yet to have an "encounter".
Still, I have to say you can't go in there and not feel something...
Bits and Pieces of a Forgotten Way of Life
This particular place has very little other than it's basic existence as an institution documented. What went on inside on a day to day basis has very little written about it. You simply have study the history of such places and make deductions.
Much is made of the cruelty and injustice of the mental health system. But on a simple day-to-day basis, was that most of what went on? For the most part, this was a hospital for troubled souls who found a way to live, one day at a time.
The Ball Room
The above title is whimsical because of the presence of a basketball that wasn't part of that room's function -- in fact, I've been told who brought it there from the recreation center. But it makes a poignant subject in one of the large "common rooms" where patients could congregate near bright windows and surrounded by pastoral murals. There a quite a number of such rooms throughout the complex with a variety of scenes in them.
Some of them even had television in the later years and though the sets are still around -- there still isn't anything worth watching.
Life During Wartime
Some of the larger rooms had multiple fireplaces which weren't part of the original design. The reason is part of the tragic history of the place: in the early 20th century a deep winter storm and cold snap combined with a failure at the power plant (which was chiefly a steam generation facility) resulted in many deaths from severe hypothermia among the patients and staff alike. Fireplaces were added to the design to provide a back up. One of them someone has adorned with some of the artificial flowers that still abound in the place and it resulted in my favorite shot from my visit.
Sitting by the Window on a Spring Day
Hard as it is for me to believe, many mirrors in the facility are intact. The vandals haven't "yet" broken this place up. One of them is in a common room and I used it for an odd self portrait (which I obviously did with several scenes here). Note the painting hung on the wall -- in some areas no such things on the wall are found.
Self Portrait with Fireplace and Painting
And in one of the rooms is a surprising bit of history uncovered by the passage of time and decay of the more recent paint layers. It is a small picture painted on the wall -- frame and all. That is, the frame is also just painted there.
A few things that occur to me about this painting. First off, the clothes, hair styles and the ukelele suggest the 1940's. The fact that it, like other paintings, were not in frames suggest that they were done that way to not provide something that could be taken down and used as an impromptu weapon.
At least two layers of paint covered this old artwork -- a white later, and a sickly green layer that I presume was supposed to be "soothing". But they have peeled away and I'm delighted that the painting has survived basically intact.
Who painted this? Someone from the "outside"? A staffer? A patient? We'll probably never know.
But branching off from the common rooms were other rooms and long corridors of patient residence rooms.
Come and Play with Us! Forever, and ever, and ever...
People, even people with mental health issues, need ordinary care and services.
I needed a bit of care myself...
Drying My Hair
And of course, everyone -- patients and staff -- needed to eat. Here's one of the cafeterias where someone thoughtfully saved me a seat...
Saved You a Seat in the Cafeteria
As befitting its status as a self-contained community, most ordinary medical and dental procedures could be done on site. Here's the dental clinic which in it's deteriorated state suggests a sinister purpose...
The Doctor Will See You Now
Finally, it's worth noting that attempts were made to make folks as comfortable as they could be under the circumstances. Pianos occur in several common rooms (note the collapsed grand piano in the opening shot of this article). Here's a close up of an upright piano manufactured -- like all the pianos I found -- by the Kroeger company of New York.
And I actually made a minute and a half hybrid video of this facility which features sound from this piano, which still worked... sort of. It's a mood piece and maybe better conveys how this place feels than anything I could write.
In an area which appears to be housing for less risky patients (though the windows are still covered by heavy wire) were what must have been "relaxing" and pleasant rooms to live in.
Pink and Blue
For the most part, the staff rooms tend to be uninteresting. Here's a couple of things thought I thought worthy of capturing.
Self-Renewing "Green" Desktop
The title is a joke of course -- but this desk overgrown with mold and mosses maybe symbolizes something about the slowness and inefficiency of the sort of bureaucracies that typify most large institutions. A rolling stone gathers no moss... but nothing much happens here so the moss is growing...
Was this next some sort of counselor's office? Or just someone who liked posters with positive messages. At any rate, some wag has editorialized on the message.
Imagination is the Poop
The administrative area is low security, and generally has a feel that's different than most of the facility. Perhaps that's why some spend more time there than elsewhere in the facility? And of course they are not shy about leaving their mark on the environment.
You've Never Lit Dandelions?
"Rattail" is a character in a story by Peter Wentz entitled "The Boy With the Thorn in His Side". The quote about dandelions was just so odd (like anything in this place is "normal") that I researched it and found the source. You can read it here: theboywiththethorninhisside.webs.com/ -- on the left side is a navigator to take you through the short "chapters". It's not long.
In fact, possible swarming of places like this by those bent on tagging and destruction is part of the reason I don't share some locations. My opinion of what the masses will do to these places is encapsulated in the message on the towel dispenser below which I found in a basement workshop.
Pull Down and Tear Up
The Sound of Music and the Luckiest Men in the World
I promised to explain this. I was in what must have been a snack shop or something and the entire floor was covered with lids like you would put on a disposable foam or paper hot beverage cup. It did't turn out to be a compelling picture, but stopping to photograph it was quite an experience.
As I was setting up the camera/tripod, suddenly the room was filled with instrumental music. I can't emphasize enough that the "entropic silence" of these places becomes an almost tangible thing. You can hear the slightest sound and when loud music suddenly occurs it is a trouser dampening moment!
I realized it was probably a musical ringtone -- but my phone was off. Someone was hiding in the room with me and their phone was ringing! More curious than sensible I moved toward the sound which I thought was coming from a closet. But as I took several steps towards the closet, the sound suddenly seemed to be coming from behind me.
Turning and looking down I beheld a nice, large HTC Android phone. Turning it over I saw the caller ID said "Jason". With visions of hockey masks dancing in my head I answered it saying, "Hello, Jason."
The caller was silent for a second, then said hesitantly, "I see you found the phone."
"I did, Jason", I said. "Do you know where it is?"
Clearly a young person on the line, he once more paused before weakly answering, "Uh...no."
"*********", I said. [Location redacted] No reply from Jason.
"Listen, I'm not anyone official, I'm just a photographer who snuck in to photograph the place. Do you know how lucky you are that out of THOUSANDS of rooms, I happened to be in the one where you lost your phone when you called it? I mean, wow!"
He was clearly relieved. "Thanks man", he said, "can I get it back from you? Will you be there awhile? It will take me two hours to get there."
"Yes, there's plenty of charge in the phone. I've only been here for a couple of hours and I'll be here at least a couple of hours more."
"Okay, my name's Jason and that's my brother Mike's phone but he's working so I'll hook up with you when I get there."
"Cool. See you." And I hung up.
Hours later he called. "Hi, how do I find you?" he asked.
"Do you know where the hair dryers are?" "No." "The grand piano?" "No." "How about the dentists office?" "No, man we were just there for the first time yesterday and got creeped out and left without seeing much."
While this back and forth was going on I became aware that I was hearing him with a "stereo echo". Asking him to talk I put the phone to my chest to mute the sound and I could still hear him: HE WAS ADJACENT TO THE ROOM I WAS IN!
I gave him his brother's phone back and received his gratitude and I told him, "You and your brother are two of the luckiest guys I've ever met!"
Hyperbole? Maybe, but you have to admit that for them to call the phone when I was near it, and to end up coming in near where I was is the most amazing coincidence, or evidence of divine providence. Either way, I was impressed!
Historians Rumble in the Basement
Finally on my way out of the facility I saw a somewhat modern utility room on the way back to the steam tunnels. It had a very odd rocking chair in it and I stopped to get a shot as seen below.
Ol' Rockin' Chair's Got Me
While I was taking this shot, I became aware of a low pitched rumble that I could almost "feel". It sounded like maybe a lot of water flowing through pipes far away. I really couldn't tell what it was but it was scary and it was getting louder. I wondered all sorts of things: water main break, building collapse -- but it went on and on slowly growing louder.
I was frozen looking into the hallway -- there was nowhere to go. Suddenly I saw flashes of light in the hallway and shortly after the sound peaked and past the door of the room I was in rushed by... a shopping cart.
Yes, it was a shopping cart and it was piled to overflowing with papers. It was being pushed by two men with respirators on their faces, lamps on their heads, and a sudden expression of surprise and dismay as they passed the room I was in and saw me. I can only imagine what my face looked like.
The called out, "HEY!" and managed to stop their overburdened juggernaut of a cart. They walked back to the room and in heavy New York accents asked, "Hey, what cha' doin'?"
I told them I was taking pictures and they asked me if I was "working there" to which I told them no, I was just an amateur photographer who snuck in. I asked if they were working there?
They laughed and said no and that they were amateur historians. "Man, there is so little known about what really went on in here and we're collecting documents, you know? We're going through them and getting like the picture of how this place was." They were obviously proud of what they were doing. I hope they publish.
We chatted a bit and went our separate ways. They warned me that they were leaving because the sherriff's department and the fire company were doing a drill at the other end of the property so I should watch out. I thanked them.
Their presence really clarified something though: a friend of mine has been looking for the "discharge" records hop?ing to score a souvenir. It seems that this facility, when someone died within its walls, filled out the standard discharge form like someone had gotten well and was leaving. However, the "Reason for Discharge" would be filled out as "Death". A macabre trophy of the type that some of us seek. He has never found one, despite information that many were left filed in the basement.
After meeting these two "historians", I think I know why he never found them!
Anyway, I left the way I came in going downhill, under the hill, to the power plant through the artificial caves. It was a fun time and I will be going back.
Thanks for reading all this! May your life be full of adventure.