Abandoned Places and My Fascination with the Post-Apocalyptic

I love abandoned buildings. I know I’m not alone in this obsession, there are countless blogs and websites devoted to documenting long-forgotten places, but I still can’t help but want to share and contribute the little bit that I can to this fascinating subject.

Every empty place, every ruined building, every room with chipped paint and tattered furniture has a story to tell. Looking at these relics provokes a sense of wonder. By themselves, they can only provide a glimpse into a long lost era, a clue to the events that may have happened, or a hint of the emotions felt in that place. Was this a happy place where children played and grew up happy? Did these walls witness pain and suffering, perhaps at the hands of someone cruel and heartless? Was there illness or death? Was someone born here? Who sat in this chair? What was his or her life story or occupation? What did he or she think of when gazing out this window? What did this place see more: love or loss? When I look at a photo of a long-forgotten place, I long to peek into the memories made there. The best way I can describe what I see is beautiful sadness. Beautiful because the memories are almost palpable. Sad because that place has long since reached its not-so-glorious end.

Another reason I think I’m so riveted by abandoned places is my obsession with post-apocalyptic themes. I’m terribly curious about the future of mankind, what far-off event will eventually decimate the human race, and what will become of what we’ve built. (The History Channel had a series called Life After People which speculated about the eventual fate of our buildings and monuments should humans disappear, and yes, I watched it religiously.) When I look within a deserted space, it’s easy for me to visualize our world being devoid of people, to look at the vacant shell of what we’d left behind and wonder what sort of legacy we will leave for anyone who wanders upon our ruins. What will they be able learn about us?

Despite this fascination, I myself have explored very few abandoned buildings. I suppose I’m too chicken-shit to risk getting arrested for trespassing, encountering a psychotic drugged-out squatter, or putting my leg through a rotted floorboard. (You have my permission to call me a coward.) The places I have explored have been relatively well-protected sites within nearby state or county parks. Granted what’s left is usually not much more than a foundation, but I find them beautiful and telling nonetheless. When I found myself looking for subjects to shoot for a photography class, I naturally opted to seek out these sites. Even after completing these projects, I still occasionally hike to ruins within these parks to explore and photograph.

My favorite ruins that I’ve explored are the ORAK ruins in Harriman State Park. These photos were taken as part of an assignment in a black and white photography class.

ORAK Ruins, Harriman State Park: The Gatehouse
ORAK Ruins: The Gatehouse

“ORAK was a mansion… that belonged to George Briggs Buchanan, a vice-president of the Corn Products Refining Co., which made KARO syrup. Buchanan bought the land and built his house in 1923. He named his estate for KARO, which he spelled backwards. The dining room of the house resembled a ship’s cabin, with portholes for windows, and a floor that rocked gently to simulate a ship’s motion. Buchanan died on April 13, 1939, and his heirs sold the property to [Harriman State] Park in 1947. The home, gardens and out-buildings were rented to Park employees until 1973, when the main house and hothouse were demolished.”

ORAK Ruins, Harriman State Park: The Round Wall
ORAK Ruins: The Round Wall

Harriman Trails: A Guide and History, William J. Myles, p. 143

ORAK Ruins, Harriman State Park: The Greenhouse
ORAK Ruins: The Greenhouse
ORAK Ruins, Harriman State Park: The Servant's Quarters
The Servant’s Quarters

A more recent hike through Harriman brought me to the estate of Rose O. Redard, the namesake of Red Rose Tea. I know little about this site, except that it was purchased by the Park in 1961 and demolished later that year.

Ruins of the Redard Estate in Harriman: The Gateway
The Rose Redard Estate: The Gateway I
Ruins of the Redard Estate in Harriman: The Gateway II
The Rose Redard Estate: The Gateway II
Ruins of the Redard Estate in Harriman: The Foundation I
The Rose Redard Estate: The Foundation I
The Redard Estate at Harriman: The Foundation II
The Rose Redard Estate: The Foundation II

My experience with abandoned places is, sadly, pretty lacking. I’m hoping one of these days to pluck up the courage to explore spaces that have a little more left within them to discover. I already have a short “bucket” list of other ruins within the parks in my area that I’d love to seek out and photograph.