After the great response I received to my piece on the Grande Ballroom, I decided to do a write up about the Eastown Theater. In the middle of putting this together I came across some very recent pictures online that showed the Eastown being demolished. The loss of this great venue meant that my tribute was now a memorial. I only got to see this place twice, in its final years with decay and neglect taking their toll, but it was obvious what a grand theater it had been. Although we knew its days were numbered from the moment we went inside, there is still a terrible feeling of loss knowing it’s gone.
The Eastown opened in 1931, as a venue for “talkies” or movies with sound. This was a time when movie theaters were not referred to as “plexes” but as palaces, and the name was fitting. Long before people could sit in their living rooms and be entertained by the images on a black and white television (and decades before they could watch a movie on a device that fits in your pocket) going to the cinema was an event. It was an experience, not a short diversion between several other forms of entertainment, as the elaborate decor of such places can attest.
The Eastown was designed by V.J. Waier for the Wisper & Wetsman chain of theaters. Waier used numerous classical influences in his design creating an extremely ornate interior that can best be described as Baroque. Besides the 2,500 seat theater, the building also offered office and retail space, a 35 residential apartments, and a ballroom that could host 300.
At one time, the city of Detroit was known for producing two things: Cars, and amazing music. The Motown sound was born here, taking its name from the city’s nickname, the Motor City. Before that, John Lee Hooker developed a whole new style of blues while playing the dive bars and juke joints that catered to a hard working, hard drinking, and often hard fighting population.
But Detroit was not just Motown. This was Detroit Rock City, and by the late sixties it was producing some the best and heaviest rock music out there. It started with little all-ages clubs that hosted live music for high school kids, but as the music scene blew up across the country, so did the scene in Detroit. While the city and surrounding area was home to numerous clubs, at the vanguard of the scene was the Grande Ballroom (pronounced like grandy).
Built in 1928, the Grande was built to as a place to dance while the big bands of the day played on simple stage. The first floor was actually designed and used for retail space. As the big bands declined, so did the ballrooms. However, the counterculture of the late sixties and the huge surge in rock music that went with it suddenly made them desirable again. In 1966, a high school teacher and part time DJ from Dearborn, named Russ Gibb, purchased the Grande and opened what for the next few years would be THE place to see a show in Detroit.
For years I explored ruins in parks, abandoned farms, small buildings in the city – stuff that many people would not even bother with. It was not until I got a digital camera and started roaming the ghost town that was Bethlehem Steel’s flagship plant that I began to lo0k for more variety. The internet made a huge difference, allowing me to find contacts in other locations. Bit by bit I started hitting locations besides the industrial structures that I love so much.
Soon I hit my first hospital, my first asylum, my first school… Every type of location had its own feel to it. Each one had its special attractions and mysteries to explore. It was almost like I had a checklist of building types to check off. Theater – check. Power station – check. But it took me a while to get to my first house of worship. But thanks to some Philly friends, I finally was able to explore and shoot in an abandoned church. Unfortunately, I was so interested in exploring every corner of the building that I did not shoot nearly as much as I should have. I never got to make a return trip, and the place has since been raised. But it will always be a special place to me and I offer this as a tribute and memorial to the beautiful Transfiguration of Our Lord church in West Philadelphia.
We were in a hurry to get inside, and as often happens, we planned to shoot exteriors once we were done with the interior. Then, we forgot. The above shot is from the Philadelphia Church Project and you can click on the picture to link to their site and a more in depth history of the church.
Transfiguration was a Roman Catholic church, founded in 1905. The construction of the church itself did not occur until 1928 and it remained an active house of worship until 2000, when dwindling congregations caused the Catholic Church to merge smaller congregations and close some churches permanently. The church remained unused until it was demolished in 2009.
Some abandoned places are easy to overlook. Block after block of soot stained brick factories can easily conceal an abandoned place in their midst. Some only stand out as they windows are broken and replaced with plywood, while others go unnoticed until the taggers start covering them with spray paint. Then there are those you just can’t miss, such as the Divine Lorraine Hotel on Philadelphia’s North Broad Street. If its striking architecture was not enough to attract the eye, the fact that it towers over any nearby structure makes it impossible to miss.
The hotel dates back to the 1890′s when North Broad Street was the gateway to the affluent neighborhoods of North Philadelphia. Designed by architect Willis G. Hale, the building is a testament to the age in which is was built. The industrial revolution brought about new technology and new wealth like the country had never known before. At ten stories tall, it was one of the first highrise apartment buildings in the city, and one of the first equipped with elevators. It was a place of luxury for the city’s elite boasting such rare features as electricity and an onsite staff.
In 1948, the controversial leader of the Universal Peace Mission Movement, Father Divine, purchased the building and renamed it the Divine Lorraine. Divine opened the hotel to members of all races, making it the first Philadelphia hotel of its class to be fully integrated. With its religious affiliation, the hotel operated with a strict code or morality, meaning no drinking, smoking, or excessive interaction between members of the opposite sex. Divine believed that all people were created equally in the eyes of God and was active in various social welfare programs as well as civil rights. The hotel closed in 1999 and has been sold twice since then. Currently, the graffiti is being scrubbed away in preparation of a major renovation, where the old structure will be reopened as condominiums.
The interior was gutted in 2008, leaving a shell of the former structure. In 2009, I took my camera inside and captured what was left.
Only the frills and trim of the lobby remained to hint at the hotel’s past glory
Fancy marble stairs curved up from the lobby, promising luxury that had long since been stripped away.
A small room next to where the front desk stood was filled with trash and debris and we quickly assessed that it was someone’s current home. So we headed up to the upper floors.
Every floor between the ground floor and the top was more or less the same. Walls removed, flooring stripped, frequent holes that needed to be avoided. But the views of the outer walls from so close were totally worth the trip.
There was something about the views here that reminded me of pictures I’ve seen from the old left bank of Paris. Until you noticed modern Broad Street in the background.
We took a break in the section seen at the top of the above picture, where the two wings of the building are joined by a bridging hallway. The spot offered great views to the west and I was able to spy some of the wall at Eastern State Penitentiary. It was a popular place to hang out as evidenced by the various empty booze bottles, food wrappers, and three homemade crack pipes we found sitting there. Time to move on.
The top of each wing was a large space under a soaring curved ceiling. One of these had been a place of worship and I believe the other was a dining hall. Both had been gutted, though.
We did not venture out on the roof, which has since become a popular graffiti spot and location for group photos. But we were content with finally getting inside a place that had beckoned us for years. Most of her mysteries had been wiped away with the plaster, but the sense of history that this grand old building retained was easy to perceive.
Across a dead end road from Paterson, NJ’s striking Great Falls rises a nondescript wall of white. A peek through the gate in the wall reveals an aging scoreboard, the rising bleachers, and the faint outline of the infield of Hinchliffe Stadium.
Recently, my accomplices and I took a quick tour of the old stadium, now listed as a National Historic Landmark, which patiently waits to be restored to its former glory.
Dating from 1932, the 10,000 plus seat stadium hosted a variety of sports including football, boxing, track and field, and even auto racing. It also provided a venue for entertainers to perform including Duke Ellington in one of his last performances.
The stadium was a testament to perseverance and determination. It was built in the Great Depression as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal, employing many out of work laborers. But what really sets it apart and demands that it be saved is that Hinchliffe was a Negro League baseball stadium. Built in the time of Jim Crow and rampant segregation, it was home to some of the greatest athletes of the day, athletes that would never be allowed onto white professional teams. It is a monument both to the ignorance of the time and to how far we have come today.
Eventually, the stadium became property of the Paterson school district and was used by the neighboring high school. It’s age and declining condition caused the district to close it in 1997 and it has sat idle since. It has not been ignored, however. There was minimal debris and graffiti to be seen owing to the efforts of devoted supporters. A local man we talked to by the fence pointed out the boarded up press box and spoke of how it used to be a popular hangout for drug users.
Unlike many historic structures that languish until they are finally leveled (see Greystone Hospital for example) there is hope for Hinchliffe. Restoration efforts are being funded and hopefully the park will be restored to it’s former glory and the seats will once again echo with the cheers of fans.
It’s not uncommon to hear people express fear of heights, or of water. Claustrophobia is a term that most people would recognize. Fear of death is so shared that people are more likely to point out those who don’t have it than those who do. However, one of our most universal fears seems to rarely be spoken of. The fear of being forgotten. We may not even realize we have it, but everyone from the billionaire whose name graces a skyscraper to the kid in the alley spray painting his name on the wall is saying the same thing. “I exist!” Every tombstone and monument is an attempt to stay in the public’s memory. Every film credit, every world record, every kid jumping around behind a new reporter on the evening news is trying to document their presence in the world.
So imagine dying and leaving nothing behind to show for your life. For many of the patients that found themselves living out their days in Greystone (and other hospitals) this was the sad reality. For them there are no fancy stones, no flowers left by loved ones, not even a sign to show where they lie. Their fate was a small patch of land at the foot of a wooded slope adjoining a more typical public cemetery.
One of the great tragedies of the state hospitals is that they became a dumping ground for the homeless, the elderly, troublesome children and the overflow of overcrowded prisons. But unlike a prison where you do your time and are released, the hospital stay was indefinite. Meanwhile, those who were truly ill were often ignored and forgotten by any family they had. The stigma of mental illness and the ignorance of the public made having a mentally ill relative a cause for shame. Much as a pregnant teenage girl in past decades would be pulled out of school and sent far away for fear of bringing shame and embarrassment to her family, so too were the mentally ill hidden away and not spoken of.
What’s worse is those who wound up here, unclaimed by anyone and forgotten by all, do not even get their names. The numbers seen above do not refer to a plot but to an individual. A whole life condensed into a small concrete cylinder with a number on the top. Most of them are hidden by the grass but as you roam across the lawn you see traces of the rows.
And others have been pushed right out of the earth by decades of rain and snow. If one did not know, there would be no way to tell that this is the final resting place for a human being.
And now the only home these people had is about to be leveled. The only monument to hundreds of forgotten souls will soon be erased from memory.
Ignored and hidden away in life, forgotten in death. Forgotten souls.
Americans have a reputation for not valuing their history, and our general attitude toward preserving our historic places only supports that reputation. One of the latest victims of our disregard for the past (and our devotion to money over all) is Greystone Psychiatric Hospital in Morris Plains, NJ. Greystone is a magnificent example of Second Empire Victorian architecture, designed by the great architect Samuel Sloan. It is also one of the few remaining hospitals that were built on the Kirkbride plan, a pioneering approach to housing the mentally ill first developed by Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride.
The Kirbride plan featured a central administration section, with bat like wings extending to the right and the left forming the male and female wards. Greystone’s wards have been empty for years and were already subject to demolition by neglect while the admin was still in use. The admin finally closed in 2008.
Greystone treated thousands of patients including the great Woody Guthrie. It was mentioned in Allen Ginsberg’s homage to his generation, Howl. It is a place of beauty and history, when many suffered and were offered comfort.
Now the state of New Jersey has decided this building needs to go – at tremendous taxpayer expense. But many of us stand opposed to the state and its total disregard for the history of this building, those who labored so long and hard helping the patients within these walls, and those patients themselves, many of whom lived out most of their lives here.
Two of the crusaders trying to save Greystone are Christina Mathews and Rusty Tagliareni who have been working on a documentary about the hospital and the need for its preservation.
You can view the trailer for their film here:
For many who lived (and died) in Greystone’s wards, this was the only home they knew. The staff and patients were their only friends and family. And the building itself, the only memorial that they ever lived. For more on their legacy stay tuned for Greystone Hospital – The Last Monument to Forgotten Souls Part II
I made a vow that I would update this site at least once a week. So far, I’ve failed miserably. But to prove I’m not idle, here is my latest piece for Hidden City Philadelphia.
I met up with local Philly photographer Sarah Bloom at an old abandoned factory and interviewed her about her work, her inspiration, and what it is like to get naked in places most people won’t even enter.
Give it a read and stay tuned. I promise to have more stuff up soon.