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Literature / Ghostly Ruins

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America's Forgotten Architecture

A Photography and Illustration coffee-table offering by Harry Skrdla, this nonfiction book is precisely what its title would suggest—a collection of images of once-grand buildings and other locations around America which have been allowed to fall into disrepair, decay, and in many cases outright collapse, leaving only ghostly remains. Divided into sections showcasing different elements of society (Transportation, Industry, Commerce, Public Works, Home, and Amusement) as well as sections on places which managed to be saved and restored (Reincarnation) and ones which sadly no longer exist (Epitaphs), the book is a remarkable collection of black-and-white photographs from the author's personal files as well as collections from all around the country, both vintage ones from the locations' heydays and more modern ones depicting the decrepit states each was allowed to slip into. Each location is described, relating how and why it was built, what purpose it once served, a portion of its history, and what forces eventually brought it to its ruined condition.


Described within its pages are the following locales:

  • The Staten Island ship graveyard
  • The Michigan Central Depot, Detroit
  • The City Hall IRT Station, New York City
  • The Roche de Boeuf Bridge near Toledo, Ohio, and the Delaware River Viaduct between Pennsylvania and New Jersey
  • The Schoellkopf Power Station of Niagara Gorge, destroyed in a spectacular collapse
  • The Packard Plant
  • The Bethlehem Steel Mill
  • The Colonel Ward Pumping Station of Buffalo, New York
  • Bannerman's Castle, a former ammunition storage facility on a lonely Hudson River island
  • The Book-Cadillac Hotel of Detroit
  • The famous Polynesian restaurant Chin Tiki
  • The Danvers State Hospital, inspiration for Arkham Asylum
  • Centralia, Pennsylvania, abandoned after the coal deposits beneath were ignited by a trash pit fire and undermined the town above
  • Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia
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  • Bodie, California
  • Wyndcliffe, former home to the aunt of Edith Wharton
  • Brush Park, an entire ruined district of mansions in Detroit
  • Windsor, a great plantation mansion in Mississippi
  • The United Artists Theatre in Detroit (sensing a pattern?)
  • Chippewa Lake Park in Medina, Ohio
  • The New York State Pavilion (featured in Men in Black)
  • The Palace of Fine Arts in Chicago (now the Museum of Science and Industry)
  • The Minneapolis Stone Arch Bridge
  • The West Baden Springs Hotel, Indiana
  • Saltair, former Mormon dance hall, bathing pier, and amusement park prominently featured in the invoked Cult Classic horror film Carnival of Souls
  • The Wayne Country Training School, Michigan
  • The great Detroit department store, Hudson's
  • Idora Park, Youngstown, Ohio
  • Belle Grove, another famous plantation mansion

The author generally presents each location and its photographs on their own merits, although he's also quite good at atmospheric flavor text and setting a scene. Despite the book's name he also tends not to suggest any of the places might be haunted, instead allowing the images to speak for themselves and the histories to spark the imagination, although the photos tend to be chosen with care and the epigraph is clearly meant to evoke strong emotion and philosophical contemplation. Care is also given to warn readers not to go exploring the actual ruins without proper planning, precautions, and knowledge of how to do so legally and safely, and to be aware that however abandoned a place seems, someone owns it and might not care for trespassers. The introduction also offers theories about why people are drawn to ruined places and what makes one more intriguing or valuable than another.

Contains examples of

  • Abandoned Area: The whole point of the book. The author spends a great deal of time in the introduction explaining that such areas are not truly abandoned, why we are drawn to their forlorn sense of loss and despair, and how each location came to be abandoned.
  • Abandoned Hospital: "What could be more frightening than an abandoned Victorian lunatic asylum?" Danvers State Hospital. Also an example of Bedlam House, naturally.
  • Amusement Park of Doom: Both subverted and played straight. Chippewa Lake Park and Idora Park are shown in their heyday as places of fun, laughter, excitement, and entertainment, and the photos of them in ruins are merely sad, overgrown, and lonely, not frightening or dangerous in any way (other than, of course, being ruins). Saltair, on the other hand, not only appears terrifyingly ominous in its final images before burning to the ground, its usage in Carnival of Souls is noted to underscore the director of that film's recognition of a Truth in Television version of this trope.
  • Author Tract: Even a cursory examination of the introduction and flavor text will make it clear that Skrdla has a bone to pick with America—whether for abandoning trains and ships for airplanes and cars (i.e. modern day decadence and selfishness), allowing industry to move overseas and thus deprive people of jobs and the American dream, the modernization of commerce (decrying malls, fast food, and big business), or no longer caring about the quality, appearance, and meaning of our architecture. Combining this with the epigraph, Nostalgia Ain't Like It Used to Be, and Deadpan Snarker moments presents a diatribe against modern life and in favor of a lost Golden Age. Whether the reader will agree depends on how cynical and/or nostalgic he or she is, but there is truth to some of Skrdla's points. That it's a shame so many of these places were lost, and that at least some views of past builders, industrialists, and entertainment moguls could be worth maintaining today, can't be denied.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Skrdla is quite tongue-in-cheek, if not outright sarcastic, when addressing the Pride Before a Fall theme, but he's also quite funny, such as when giving advice/warnings about exploring such ruins.
    Someone owns these structures. It may be the state, the city, a huge corporation...or the huge next-door neighbor who keeps a loaded shotgun next to his back door.
    Abandoned structures are dangerous. They will all eventually experience structural failures, and you don't want to be there when they do. Walls topple, roofs cave in, floors give way. Try not to experience it firsthand.
    Exploring abandoned buildings is a great way to meet new people: junkies, derelicts, psychopaths...
  • Deliberately Monochrome: While all vintage photos are naturally in black-and-white, the modern-day ones are as well to add to the book's creepy, haunting feel.
  • Derelict Graveyard: The Staten Island ship graveyard. Skrdla explicitly compares it to the Sargasso Sea, the legendary seaweed-infested region of the Atlantic which helped give rise to the Bermuda Triangle.
  • Don't Try This at Home: "This is not a how-to book for exploring abandoned buildings. Instead I hope that it will take the place of a hike through the mud to some remote site, and convey the flavor of a place without the inconvenience and danger of actually going there. I have been intentionally vague in describing the locations of some of these ruins in an effort to discourage visits, which might result in damage to the structure or the visitor."
  • Epigraph: The book begins with Shelley's Ozymandias, of Look on My Works, Ye Mighty, and Despair! fame.
  • For Want of a Nail: Several times Skrdla points out how certain locations could have easily been saved and restored if the right people with enough money and caring had been there at the right time, but in most cases this never came to pass. He also seems to apply this in a more general sense, suggesting what America could have been if the mindsets which had allowed such places to fall to ruin, had relegated certain beliefs and ways of life to quaint relics of the past, had never been adopted.
  • Ghost Town: Centralia, Pennsylvania, thanks to its perpetual mine fire. Bodie, California is one of the more traditional sort.
  • Haunted Castle: Bannerman's Castle not only has the look of one, but Skrdla notes that Pollepel Island where it was built has long been rumored to be haunted by local Native American tribes. He also describes the Hudson River valley where it is located as the "haunted land of Rip Van Winkle and Ichabod Crane."
  • Haunted House: Skrdla explicitly uses the imagery of this trope when helping the reader to imagine the ruins of Brush Park. The only actual location which has the proper look for a haunted house, however, is Wyndcliffe (and perhaps Belle Grove).
  • Hellhole Prison: Eastern State Penitentiary. As stated by one of its visitors, Charles Dickens, "the slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain" there were "immeasurably worse than any torture of the body."
  • Look on My Works, Ye Mighty, and Despair!: Referenced in the epigraph and invoked with several of the ruins.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Skrdla not only refuses to comment definitively on whether ghosts, including those of these ruins, are real, but points out that in the end it doesn't matter whether they are or not—"The line between the ghosts of our imaginings and the possibility of real haunts seems perilously thin...a person who scoffs in the daylight may have serious second thoughts in a ruined building at midnight...Not all of the monsters that our ancestors thought dwelt in the dark of the forest were imaginary. [Ghosts] exist inside our skulls, and that's what counts. Only the least imaginative among us won't feel them lurking in the shadows, just out of sight."
  • Mood Motif: Quite obviously the author, despite not making any plain statements as to the nature or reality of ghosts, has a lot of fun setting up the brooding, dark, disturbing nature of some of these ruins. The introduction alone offers several examples of ruins not described in the book, related in a very campfire horror story manner, and several of the chapter intros and location histories also partake of unnerving imagery and word choice. Eerie faded-out photos from within the book, almost reversed in the manner of negatives, appear in the frontispiece, and aside from the epigraph, Poe's "House of Usher" is quoted in reference to Wyndcliffe while Ray Bradbury is quoted as giving a recommendation.
  • Never Recycle a Building: Discussed by the author, with examples given that are averted (where the places in question did eventually get torn down), played straight (with a few lampshaded that the buildings were allowed to stand and decay for unknown or mysterious reasons, or else simple bureaucratic red tape), justified (the owners or the people of the city wanted the place saved but could never figure out what to do with it or gather the money to fix it; the place was designated a National Historic Site but again could not be repaired; it was preserved as a memorial), and even subverted (the place was recycled, but only in the sense of being repaired and given a new purpose, such as bridges turned into footpaths or the Palace of Fine Arts).
  • Nostalgia Ain't Like It Used to Be: A great deal of time is spent waxing eloquent on the lost past represented by these structures. Some is understandably justified, such as when discussing ruined amusement parks and theatres that were once wonderfully fun local gatherings and means of family entertainment, truly grand public buildings, hotels, and houses that it is a shame were allowed to go to seed, and industries and transportation that were discarded when they could well have helped preserve and strengthen the current economy. Other parts are...just a bit self-indulgent, even overly judgmental.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: Some of the photos most geared toward instilling unease and fear in the reader make use of this trope. Prime examples would be some of the images of Danvers and Eastern State.
  • Pride Before a Fall: A major theme of the book, starting from its epigraph but made particularly prominent in the introductions to the Transportation, Industry, Commerce, and Public Works chapters to underscore why such great buildings were abandoned and allowed to fall into disrepair.
  • Sinister Subway: The City Hall IRT Station. Although it remains beautiful and in good condition even today, it is still described as ghostly and forlorn in the text, and the fact such unused stations are called "ghost stations" doesn't help. It's also one of the more famous examples, being mentioned or referenced in a number of books and movies (and was one of the inspirations for the very much sinister and haunted Van Horne Station in Ghostbusters II).
  • Spooky Photographs: Another point to the book. While most photos are merely empty, sad, and forlorn, some are vaguely upsetting and others are quite unnerving.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: On the one hand, the section on Reincarnations details how several locations were saved from the brink, restored, and turned into places of beauty and historical worth once more; on the other hand, Skrdla rather presciently says in his author's note that the book only presents the ruins as they were at the time of writing—that many could and would be lost to the ravages of time after printing, and eventually the book would only be a record of places which no longer existed. (How prescient was he? On the one hand, the Book-Cadillac Hotel has been restored in all its grandeur, as have a number of the houses in Brush Park and the West Baden Springs Hotel, and Saltair has actually been built again...then allowed to fall into disrepair yet again before being used as a recording studio by various musicians; on the other hand, both Wyndcliffe and Bannerman's Castle are near total collapse, the latter slowly being shored up with new roofs, floors, and panels to block windows and doors, the United Artists Theatre isn't much better, and Chin Tiki, Danvers, and Chippewa Lake Park have all been torn down, although condos have been built in Danvers' place with an administration building modeled after the original asylum's.)