April 9, 2018
As historic preservationists we often can feel a sense of despair whenever we see a building that’s been abandoned for years or even decades. Our guest today, Matthew Christopher of Abandoned America, knows just that feeling. That’s why he is dedicated to gaining access to abandoned buildings and spaces across the country, and photographing what he finds inside. Matthew’s images have appeared in countless esteemed publications, and he has photographed abandoned sites ranging from old mental hospitals to public utility buildings to theme parks. Don’t go away! Matthew and Nick discuss how he picks his sites, why he thinks these buildings end up so mistreated, and how photography and greater exposure can sometimes help turn things around.
[Nick Redding] As historic preservationists, we often feel a sense of despair whenever we see a building left abandoned for years or even decades. Our guest today, Matthew Christopher of Abandoned America, knows just that feeling. That’s why he’s dedicated to gaining access to abandoned buildings in spaces across the country and photographing what he finds inside. Matthew’s images have appeared in countless esteemed publications and he has photographed sites from old mental hospitals to public utility buildings to theme parks. Don’t go away! Matthew and I discuss how he picks his sites, why he thinks these buildings end up so mistreated and how photography and greater exposure can sometimes help things turn around on this week’s PreserveCast.
From Preservation Maryland Studios in the historic podcast district of Baltimore, this is PreserveCast!
[Nick Redding] This is Nick Redding, you’re listening to PreserveCast. Today we are joined by Matthew Christopher. Matthew has had an interest in abandoned sites since he was a child but started documenting them nearly a decade ago while researching the decline of the state hospital system. His first two books, Abandoned America: Dismantling the Dream and Abandoned America: The Age of Consequences, are available worldwide through major booksellers. His photography has been featured on the NBC Nightly News, The LA Times, NPR, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Washington Post, Catholic Sun, Yahoo Post, Discovery Channel Magazine, The Harrisburg Patriot, and many more. He’s lectured on the art of ruins, abandoned places, preservation, and mental health history for Preservation Austin, The Pennsylvania State Museum, Preservation Pennsylvania, The Milton S. Hershey Medical Center as well as many others and his work has been displayed in galleries across the United States. His website, Abandoned America has gained international attention and is considered one of the leading collections of images of abandoned spaces. And we are so pleased to have Matthew join us today here on PreserveCast. Thanks for joining us today.
[Matthew Christopher] Oh, thank you so much for having me, Nick. It’s a pleasure to be here.
[NR] So you’ve got the laundry list of places where all of these photos have been featured and you’ve been all around the world doing this. How did this all start? When and why did you start photographing historic and notably abandoned historic places? Where does one begin that process?
[MC] Well, for me it was working in the mental health system. I worked in the mental health system for about ten years and I started out in sort of, I guess, what you would consider the privatized sequel to the state hospital system. It was an adult in-patient ward and a privately-owned company and I got really interested in just the history of state hospitals and asylums and mental health care. And so the more I read about it, the more I found out about this place that was Byberry Philadelphia State Hospital. We’d had patients that had been there, we’d had staff that I worked with that had worked there and it really had kind of a dark history so… I mean, even for state hospitals, it was pretty dark. But anyway, in reading about it, I found out that it had been abandoned for about ten years at that point and so instead of reading about it, I decided that I wanted to actually go see it because it was this kind of legendary place. I mean, I can tell you more about that visit. It, in a nutshell, was that I went there, it was a really transformative experience and just kind of something that I really struggled to convey to other people why I felt the place was so important and so significant. And then was like “Well, what about this school or this power plant or this factory?” It kind of mushroomed from there into a lifelong obsession question I guess you’d say.
[NR] And did that then turn into Abandoned America? Why don’t you tell us what Abandoned America is?
[MC] Abandoned America is… at this point I have the website, which is a catalog of all sorts of the places that I’ve been to which would encompass everything from factories to churches and schools and things like that but also some kind of odd ones like an abandoned aquarium or an abandoned ocean liner that we’ve been on. At this point, there’s two books Abandoned America: The Age of Consequences and Abandoned America: Dismantling the Dream. There’s the website and then all the obligatory social media that goes beyond that but the idea of it basically is just sharing these really fascinating places that are out there that have been left to rot, essentially.
[NR] So, both the titles Dismantling the Dream, The Age of Consequences, not the most uplifting stuff. And, obviously, your first foray into it is looking at an abandoned place that you said even by mental health standards was pretty terrible. Why do you think this is so popular? Why does this resonate when it is sort of dark?
[MC] It’s interesting because I think people really have an interest in sort of macabre subjects. Right? I mean, I could go into maybe philosophical exposition about how a lot of the media that we consume is forcefully cheery and yet there is this sort of lost grief for a lot of things that are kind of encapsulated in these places I think they’re kind of metaphors for. But in a more concrete way, I think that it just appeals to a really wide demographic of people. I mean, and not to stereotype what age groups would be interested in but, I mean, a lot of younger people seem to be interested in kind of the adventure, the idea of these places that are sort of off-the-grid or that aren’t necessarily as rigidly-structured as everything else we have that’s setup. I think that you have people that maybe are a little like my age and older that are interested in the historical aspect of them. You have people that maybe are architects or there’s a lot that you could talk about in terms of sociology and community dynamics that these places bring to the table. There’s a nostalgia. So, in that sense, I guess what’s cool about it is there’s a lot of different people. There’s about as many different takes on it too, and that’s I think why it’s something that I’ve spent all this time on because you could look at it as this kind of melancholy trip through ruins and maybe three days out of the week, that’s what it is. But there’s also a very undeniable beauty about the places. So, I mean, you kind of have to balance it. Even in the books, I was really careful to not just do doom and gloom the whole thing. I mean, a lot of the places were lost, a lot of the places were destroyed, but I tried to find positive stories as well that maybe counter-balance it at least a little bit.
[NR] So along those lines, why don’t you talk to us about what your process is? I mean, how do you identify sites? How do you perhaps if – as much as you’re willing to disclose here – how do you get access? What do you look for when you’re inside these place? I mean, because it’s obviously pretty thoughtful in what you’re selecting particularly when you’re curating a publication, but what goes into that? And I guess also, as sort of a follow up to that, how often do you do it?
[MC] Well, I would say as often as I’m able. In terms of the site selection process, what I access to, which I realize sounds a little glib and is perhaps oversimplifying it but I mean, I think, that by and large most places have something interesting about them. So, in a way, a lot of times I’m going to a place and then afterwards researching and finding out and if I can, revisiting it to try and figure out what the claim to fame of places, what the strange or interesting details about it are. But I guess, what I particularly look for in a place is I look for interesting or significant architecture. I look for the decay and the way the decay has changed a place. I look for things that tell stories about the people that were in the places.
So, for example, one month, I guess, I could have a run of schools that I’m going to photograph and then three months later, it’s prisons or something. It really depends on what I’m able to access and to kind of, I guess, follow that up then with the question that you had about how I gain access. I mean, I’d be a liar if I told you that I haven’t trespassed in places before, although, I am very religious about leaving things exactly as they are. Also, at this point in my life, I’m pretty fortunate in that I really am able to work with property owners a lot more now and get permission to photograph these places. So there are places like prisons, for example, would be a good one to focus on for that because you’re not going to get into a prison if somebody isn’t letting you in nine times out of ten. I mean, they’re engineered to keep people in and out so they’re pretty effective at that.
[NR] Right. And so it’s not been, I guess, as challenging or, perhaps, as you develop more of a record people are more willing to let you in. Are there any places that – I mean, other than prisons – it sounds like that would be, unless you had permission, pretty hard to get into. Anything else that’s really hard to get access to?
[MC] Everything [laughter]. Everything’s really hard to get access to it’s –
[NR] Because of liability? People are just scared you’re going to fall through a floor, that kind of stuff? Is that normally what is the concern?
[MC] There are several different things. What you were saying a minute ago about asking to get in and everything, honestly, if you’re getting turned down nine out of ten times, that’s actually probably really good ratio, you’re doing well that week.
[MC] Yeah, a lot of people have sort of a misconception that either A, if you go up and you know a secret password or something, that people let you in. Or B, that I mean, at this point I’m lucky in that people are somewhat familiar with what I do, particularly people that are kind of in these circles of dealing with these buildings, they may have an idea and that does get me further, but it’s still something where you get turned down all the time. And often I’ll tell people it’s like going for a job interview or something like that where you probably are going to not get more than you get, but it’s the one that you do if it works out right.
[NR] Well, why don’t we take a quick break right here and then when we come back we can maybe talk a little bit more about some of the research that you do, if you see common themes between these different buildings and also, the role preservation has in all of this and if your work, perhaps, has prompted any preservation or rehab. We’ll do that when we return right here on PreserveCast.
[MC] Ok, terrific.
And now, it’s time for a Preservation Explanation
[Stephen Israel] As the well-informed of you may know or those with access to Google may be able to figure out, we are approaching the end of National Deaf History Month. That may seem a little odd since it’s the middle of April, but Deaf History Month actually lasts from March 13th to April 15th.
It’s a little easier to explain if we start with the April date. On April 15th, 1817, the American School for the Deaf was founded in West Hartford, Connecticut. As the first permanent primary and secondary school for deaf students in the United States, it remains an important place for deaf history and culture. The school was founded by Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, a Yale graduate, along with a group of other New England citizens including the surgeon Thomas Cogswell who’s young daughter Alice became deaf as the result of a disease at the age of two. You see, there was no developed system of deaf education in the North American continent at the time. So the group decided to send Gallaudet to Europe in order to learn. There he met Laurent Clerc, a Frenchman who had attended the school for the deaf in Paris. Like the young Alice back in the states, Clerc may have also been deafened by an early childhood event when he was left unattended as a one-year-old and his head accidentally fell into a fire. It’s not clear whether or not this caused his deafness, but the event left Clerc with a permanent scar on his face, which influenced his name sign: a U hand shape stroked twice down the right cheek. This shared experience of a childhood trauma may also have made Clerc sympathetic to Alice’s plight and the plight of other deaf children in the United States.
Whatever the reasoning, Clerc joined Gallaudet, returning with him to Connecticut to share the valuable communication and teaching techniques he’d learned in Paris. Bringing Clerc, known to some as the Apostle of the Deaf in America, across the Atlantic was not the only contribution to deaf education to come from the Gallaudet family. In 1857, Edward Gallaudet, Thomas’ son, became the first principal of the Columbia Institute for the Deaf and Dumb and Blind as it was known at the time. But on April 8th, 1864, with the signature of President Abraham Lincoln, Edward’s school was allowed to start issuing college-level degrees becoming the first school of it’s kind anywhere in the world. It’s no surprise that nowadays, the school is known as Gallaudet University.
The final important date for deaf history month brings us to the more recent past. While Gallaudet University continued to bring quality education and campus life uniquely dedicated to deaf and hard of hearing individuals, in the 1980’s there was one historic first that the university had not yet achieved. Gallaudet had never had a deaf president. In 1988, when the university initially named a hearing individual to be the next president, students were not satisfied. As a result of student protests and pressure known as the Deaf President Now Movement, Gallaudet named it’s first deaf president, I King Jordan on March 13, 1988. There’s tons more to learn about deaf history and culture and one place to start might be the Gallaudet University Museum, but for now we’ve got to get back to PreserveCast.
PreserveCast isn’t just for Mondays anymore. Find all of our episodes at PreserveCast.org anytime and we’re on social media to continue the conversation @PreserveCast. If you have a question or want to suggest a topic, drop us a line at email@example.com.
[NR] This is Nick Redding. You’re listening to PreserveCast. Today we’re joined by Matthew Christopher, who is the photographic and creative mind behind Abandoned America. He has two books, Abandoned America: Dismantling the Dream and Abandoned America: The Age of Consequences, which are available worldwide through major bookstores. And when we left off here, we were talking about the access issues of getting into places and all of the different types of things that Matthew has photographed. So you’ve seen a lot of different types of abandoned places. Is there a common theme behind why buildings end up like this? I mean, you’ve mentioned a lot of institutional ones. Is it that government just moves on, and has a different priority, and they don’t know what to do with these buildings? I know here in Maryland, we see a lot of that. But is there a common theme that you find? Do you think about that as you go to these places?
[MC] That’s a really good question, and I think that’s actually a lot of – what I kind of try and go into in the books is what the individual stories are. And I would say that while they tend to be unique, the places… No two stories are going to be the same in terms of why a place goes under. That being said, with institutional buildings, for example, a lot of them were closed because of treatment through drugs that they can do. The push towards community care and deinstitutionalization. I mean, I think that was really started by John F. Kennedy, but then Reagan really ran with the ball and shuttered a lot of the institutions. And I think it was begun as something that was, perhaps, for the betterment of the people that were being warehoused in them, and wound up being something where it was just, “Hey, we can save a lot of money if we close all these places and dump people out on the streets.” Factories, I mean, you’ve all sorts of different things that can close factories. A lot of it has been jobs moving overseas. And I think, you know, in that sense, you’re really seeing it because we set up these great labor laws and environmental regulations. We didn’t want thirteen-year olds to work in factories where their hands were getting mangled in textile machines or something like that. But then there’s like, “Well, we could have a thirteen-year old do that in Bangladesh or something and we’ll still buy the goods from it.”
[NR] And in Pennsylvania, you see a lot of heavy industry that just has evaporated.
[MC] I mean, I think in the sense, that’s one of the sort of nexus points for a lot of the other stuff. Because using Pennsylvania as an example, I mean Pennsylvania is textile, steel, coal [industries]. Those are kind of three of the big economic tent posts for a lot of communities, particularly when you get into the central part of the state. When you kick one of those out, then who’s paying for your school? What workers are going to be contributing to the upkeep of the church? So you see kind of a ripple, like a bomb blast going across the community and knocking out all these other buildings. I mean, Gary is another great example of that. Gary, Indiana, where the steel factories went out, and then there’s all these ancillary businesses that support the steel industry that also went out. Then people leave the town, the homes are abandoned. So I think it would really be dumbing it down a lot to say that all of this is because of industry and industry leaving. But it certainly is probably one of the more prominent factors.
[NR] Along those lines, I mean, the pictures are stunning. They’re sometimes beautiful, depending on how you look at it, I guess. But there’s a tragedy to all of it. Do you know of cases where your pictures have brought attention that then has led to some type of positive change or revitalization? Are there examples of that? Because I think a lot of people in the preservation community are like, “Yeah, that’s great. People like to look at things that are falling apart. We’re actually trying to save things.” And they see themselves almost at odds with this idea of sort of abandoned photography and stuff like that. Whereas it seems like there could be a nexus between the two. Are there examples of that?
[MC] That’s a really interesting point. I mean, I actually hadn’t really heard about people feeling that way. But I could kind of see it. I mean, I think it all depends – and I’ll circle background of the larger question here – but I think it all depends on how it’s presented. Urban exploration, as it were, the photography of these places can be really terrific. But I think people oftentimes really don’t take what they’re dealing with seriously. And that’s one thing that I always try and do is have very deep and profound respect. And maybe that came from going to state hospitals, which are kind of the site of a lot of tragedy, and loss, and horror. So in that sense, I kind of tend to look at all of the places as grave sites. And places where you should tread lightly, and with respect, and not take goofy selfies of yourself in a wheelchair or something like that. I mean, you do see stuff where it’s really disrespectful. So I can understand people having maybe negative feelings towards the community as a whole based on that.
But there are a lot of people… I think – one thing is, I’ve seen a lot of people that are photographers and that’s in general, that have moved towards an interest in preservation. And, in fact, people that have made careers in preservation. There’s a guy whose work I’ve followed that is a restorative architecture program. There’s another guy that has got his Master’s in Museum Studies so that he can incorporate these into places like the National Building Museum or whatever. So I think a lot of people tend to move that way. And I think the other thing, too, is that when people see these places, they realize maybe a little more how important it is.
I was just looking at a series of pictures that I took of a church that was demolished in Philadelphia a couple of years ago. There was a whole swathe of these beautiful churches that were closed and ultimately demolished. The pictures that I took were midway in the demolition, and so I think that when you tell people all these churches were closed and torn down, it’s pretty abstract concept. When you see one that’s literally in the process of being ripped in half, I think it really has an emotional impact on people. The problem is – and this is getting to what you would ask, how do you translate that into a form of concrete action? I would never take credit for… I mean, a lot of preservation work is many, many people working really hard to try and save a place, but I do try and partner with people and sort of amplify or broadcast what they’re doing. And I think that has had a pretty positive impact in some cases. And I’ve really good relationships with a lot of people that are doing work to restore properties. And just one thing, for example, is that I do photo workshops in some of these places where I’m able to gain legal access. It is a business, but a portion of the funds are paid to the property owners. And that’s raised over $100, $120,000 at this point for various properties, which if you do historic rehabilitation, that’s really a drop in the bucket.
[NR] But it’s something.
[NR] I think a lot of people would be surprised – I know I am – to hear that. So I guess there is a place for this within the broader rehab, restoration, revitalization community that people, perhaps, should think about. Because we have a lot of listeners around the country who are looking for innovative ways to get people engaged with place, even if that place is in really bad shape. This is one way of doing that, I suppose.
[MC] Well, yeah. And you have places where they – for example, Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, which I always hold up as kind of a beacon of historic preservation through granting access where they let people in and that has become a successful business model for them. I think people are very interested in these places and want to take part in them. I think that one of the worst things that you can do is wall a place off and make it so people can’t see what’s going on with it. Because at that point you’re probably really going to lose the place. It’s tough because I understand that you don’t want people trespassing or breaking in, but a lot of times if you grant a legal avenue of access, people will take that because they would rather have it. And then we have places like the Historic Lansdowne Theater or the Catskill Game Farm where the owners are working to preserve the property. And I have great relationships through them, and it’s really kind of complementary in a sense of they enjoy having the people there. They enjoy having it as kind of a managed event where it’s not just a free-for-all. And on the other hand, it can be a really positive experience for people to see it and get the word out.
[NR] Yeah. So what’s next for you? What’s next for Abandoned America? And more importantly, where should people learn more? Where can they get your books? All that good stuff. But what’s coming up next?
[MC] Well, I think in the year ahead I am just heading into workshop season. So I will be traveling quite a bit to go to these various places and teach the photography classes on-site with people. If people would like to follow what I’m doing they can go to my website. The books are on Amazon or Barnes & Noble or wherever you choose to get your books. And if you look up Abandoned America on Twitter, Facebook, whatever, you’ll find me there. But I think in the coming year I’m really looking at just continuing what I’ve been doing and adding more sites and photographing more places. I’ve got a couple that I’m really excited about this year. And I’m also hoping to… I think the bigger thing is I’m hoping to start going to some sites overseas, which branding-wise poses a little bit of a problem because if it’s –
[NR] It’s no longer America.
[MC] – not in America, what do I do with it? Right.
[NR] Abandoned World. Is that available? No, let’s not say that.
[NR] Don’t look that up anyone [laughter].
[MC] Right, right. So yeah, I mean I think that’s kind of it. At some point this year I’m probably going to start putting together the start of a third book because I always sort of viewed this as a series, at least a trilogy. So yeah, I mean that’s it. And then it’ll kind of be essentially, “What am I able to photograph and work with?” And this is maybe the thing that people that are interested in this line of photography, the thing to think about is just how can that work benefit other people? So I’m always kind of trying to look at that, too. How can I use the work to draw attention to a great project that people are doing? Or support something like that. Or even just give people an opportunity to tell their own stories. I’ve done a big website overhaul. And I think that in the year to come I’m really going to be kind of looking at how I can incorporate that a bit more into it, too. I’d really like to have a forum for maybe oral history, but particularly for people who worked in places or been a part of their history to be able to share part of it, too. Because in the end, it’s not about me. It’s about the places and what makes them interesting and the people whose life they were a part of.
[NR] Right. Well, obviously, if people want to learn more the best place to find all that and to keep up to date with everything that’s going on is over on your website at AbandonedAmerica. Before we get going here we ask everyone, what’s your favorite historic building or place? And I could see how this could go into an abandoned direction. It doesn’t necessarily have to but we’d love to hear from Matthew Christopher about your favorite historic building or place.
[MC] That is so hard. There’s so many!
[NR] Well, yeah, that’s why we ask it [laughter].
[MC] I mean because if you broke it down by category or whatever I mean –
[NR] No. No, categories. Favorite building or place [laughter].
[MC] Favorite building or place. Well, I mean if I were going with something that was not abandoned. If I were going with something that I feel represents maybe the ideal of what I would like to see the places that I visit become – I don’t know. We were just talking about Eastern State Penitentiary. So I’m going to pick that. I mean there’s a bajillion places that I love for many different reasons beside Eastern State Penitentiary. But I think they, to me, are a place where really what they do is very hopeful to me because I see them taking this huge property that was abandoned for years and it was really not in very good condition when they had it, and making it a place where the public has access to it. They can learn about its history; they can learn about just the penal system as a whole. They use it as a sort of nexus for advocacy related to kind of incarceration, mass incarceration in America. So yeah, I’m going to pick that so that I do not have to disappoint you [laughter]. I’m sure in about a half an hour or fifty minutes I’ll be like, “Oh my gosh, why did I not say this?” But at least in terms of what they represent, that I think is they really are a beacon to the rest of the preservation community.
[NR] I think that that is a fantastic answer and we will take it. And, Matthew, this has been a real pleasure. Thank you for joining us. And thanks for the good work that you’re doing to shine a light on these places and hopefully provide for a better future in some of their cases by getting people aware of them and aware of their history and their stories. And we look forward to hearing from you again in the future. Maybe when that third book comes out we can have you back to talk about that.
[MC] Oh, that would be terrific. Thank you so much, Nick. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.
You don’t need to open a history book to find us. PreserveCast is available online from iTunes, the Google Play Store, and wherever else you download your podcasts, as well as on our website PreserveCast.org, where you can find a complete archive of all our previous episodes plus photo galleries and additional content. We’re also on Facebookand Twitter at PreserveCast.
This podcast was developed under a grant from the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, a unit of the National Park Service, and in partnership with the Anacostia Trails Heritage Area. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Preservation Maryland and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the National Park Service or the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training.
Our website is made possible by the Historic Preservation Education Foundation. This week’s episode was produced and engineered by me, Stephen Israel. Our executive producer is Aaron Marcavitch. Our theme music is performed by the band, Pretty Gritty. And most importantly, thank you for listening and preserving!