How often does one actually stop to consider the urban landscape? The average individual might occasionally glance at a city block and lament how the neighborhood has changed, observing the number of abandoned buildings lining the streets. Few people will stop to wonder what might have once existed in those buildings, or how many people may have passed through the doors of those same buildings over the years.
For others, it is nearly impossible to pass an abandoned building without stopping to consider its place in history. These are the camera toting men and women who call themselves urban explorers, those who spend their spare time photographing each and every detail of abandoned schools, hotels, hospitals, inn, houses, and factories. While many people recall sneaking into the “haunted house” at the end of their street, or wandering the grounds of an abandoned asylum in their town, few people are aware that urban exploration is a worldwide hobby that attracts individuals from all walks of life. Thanks to the advent of technology and social media, exploration has gained a foothold in mainstream art and even literature.
Urban exploration has recently garnered quite a bit of negative attention in the news, turning it into a hobby that is now largely misunderstood. Many news outlets have begun likening exploration photography to terrorism, suggesting that explorers must also be vandals, graffiti artists, and arsonists. In reality, many exploration photographers (such as myself) developed an interest in exploring abandoned buildings as a result of a passion for history. Many of us work in or are retired from the fields of education, mental health, social work, and nursing.
Like many other state “schools” in the United States, education was never a priority for these institutions. Many believed that the developmentally disabled were incapable of learning and growing in any meaningful fashion. These “schools” were merely warehouses for those who were not tolerated in polite society.
We are highly educated individuals dedicated to preserving history through our art, and now that independent publishing is far more accessible, many explorers regularly produce high quality printed works. Many of these works serve to show how effectively human history can be documented by telling the story of its architecture, as our buildings generally help to shape our social structure. In the case of institutions such as asylums for the insane and state schools for the developmentally disabled, the connection between architecture and history goes far beyond the foundation of shelter and care –these institutions form a chapter in human history that is slowly disappearing, brick by brick. We have become “archival opportunists”—seizing every available opportunity to record this vanishing history.
I first visited the Belchertown State School in 2002. It was evening and it had just begun to snow–in fact it was the first snow of the year—and the sprawling campus was so still that the only sound was of snow falling on the leaves that had fallen from the massive trees dotting the park-like grounds of the school. For those who have never ventured near an abandonment of that magnitude, it is difficult to share the experience, but places such as Belchertown State School seem to reach out to its visitors, its buildings fairly bursting with the stories of those who called it home for over 70 years. Built in 1922, the campus was finally closed and abandoned by December of 1992 when the final three patients were loaded into a van and taken away.
The closing of state institutions is nothing new. What sets Belchertown State School apart is the long and frequently horrific road that led to its closure. Though the buildings are now painfully decayed, the evidence of the rampant overcrowding and deplorable conditions in which developmentally disabled individuals were housed is still clearly visible. Bed frames that once crowded every inch of floor space in the patient dorms now lay stacked against the walls of peeling paint. As the patient census swelled year after year, more and more of the basic comforts that most humans crave were removed in order to make room for more beds.
In the infirmary, which is now completely dark inside, the bathrooms still remain open, the toilets having no privacy, the showers closed off by a flimsy, see-through curtain. Many of the buildings have been damaged by fire, covered in graffiti left by teenagers who come to the buildings to party, never knowing what purpose the buildings once served. They only know that the buildings have stood dormant for as long as their parents can remember.
Yet behind the buildings, buried in the overgrowth, lay the playgrounds that once were filled with the laughter of developmentally disabled adults and children. There was a time, in the beginning, when Belchertown State School was a gentle and caring place that had forged strong ties to its community. The first superintendent of the school welcomed the townspeople onto the campus to watch plays put on by staff and patients. The school farm produced vegetables and eggs that were then sold to the townspeople. Every year Belchertown hosted agricultural fairs and parades. The beautifully manicured grounds resembled those of the nearby universities, but the halcyon days wouldn’t last.
Walking the campus today, more than a decade after my first visit, I have learned a great deal more about the state school and its now infamous history. Like many other state “schools” in the United States, education was never a priority for these institutions. Many believed that the developmentally disabled were incapable of learning and growing in any meaningful fashion. These “schools” were merely warehouses for those who were not tolerated in polite society. They were housed in cold, uncaring brick fortifications. They were fed in their beds with food that was prepared by workers in the massive cafeteria where sewage often overflowed from the drains in the floor. Most patients would go months without clean clothes even though the campus housed its own laundry facilities. Some would just be left naked and filthy in the middle of the floor, covered in parasites.
Yet behind the buildings, buried in the overgrowth, lay the playgrounds that once were filled with the laughter of developmentally disabled adults and children. There was a time, in the beginning, when Belchertown State School was a gentle and caring place that had forged strong ties to its community.
Exploring a place such as Belchertown State School invokes in any artist a desire to translate the horror of institutional living to the general public. Many memoirs exist documenting life at the school, such as Ben Ricci’s book Crimes Against Humanity and Ruth Sienkiewicz-Mercer’s seminal memoir I Raise My Eyes to Say Yes. But it is only through photographs that one truly begins to grasp the condition of life in an institution. Photographs of the hospital building (separate from the infirmary) show the X-ray suite where patients were X-rayed by techs who were not licensed to be performing such work, and where many a broken bone and serious injury were missed by these uneducated individuals. Images of the twin industrial buildings that flank the main “school” building allow a glimpse into a world where patients manufactured shoes and mattresses, repairing clothing they would only wear when a state bureaucrat came to visit.
On the other hand, former staff members tell of the monumental changes that occurred in the days following the landmark Ricci vs. Greenblatt lawsuit that effectively shut the school down. Closing the mammoth institution was a long process in which many staff members and administrators fought to improve the level of care and education for those who remained institutionalized. They also worked tirelessly to create a seamless transition into community housing. Some of these remarkable transformations can be seen in images of children’s toys piled neatly in some of the dorm rooms, and in the transition to more comfortable beds in G Building, one of the last buildings to remain open and operating. Artwork created by staff members to help add cheer to some of the more sterile environs still adorn a number of walls in G Building’s hallways. Shelves that once held patients’ belongings still retain the carefully hand-lettered labels, some with colorful magazine cutouts taped below them.
Documenting the evolution of a place like Belchertown State School serves not only to fuel the art of many urban explorers, but it also serves to educate a number of individuals who would not otherwise be aware of the state school’s history. Graduates in fields of special education, nursing, psychology, and social work are no longer thoroughly educated on institutional history and therefore often enter their fields not knowing why certain statutes and laws exist. Most people will never take the time to wander through the decaying giants that loom over Route 202 in the heart of Belchertown, but perhaps they will stumble upon the thousands of photographs taken by explorers for the past decade. Perhaps they will go to a book store and pick up one of the many books written about institutional life. Those of us who have painstakingly documented this institution can only hope.