in Bronx, NY US

Hart Island was once private land owned by Thomas Pell when he purchased it from the area's Native Americans in 1654, and a barracks for Union Soldiers during the Civil War, but like many of the island surrounding New York City, it had eventually become a place for the "socially undesirable." Once the federal government had no use for the island, it was purchased by New York City in 1868 for $75,000. A year later, an extension of the House of Refuge (a prison on Roosevelt Island) was established on Hart, which was a work house for delinquent boys. The first civilian burial also took place that year, starting the precedent of using the land as a potter's field. In 1870, structures built on the southern tip of island were used to treat victims of the yellow fever epidemic. A branch of the New York City Asylum for the Insane established a hospital for women on the island in 1885.

In 1904, a large institution called the Reformatory for Misdemeanants was built in the center of the island, accommodating about 2,000 boys toiling in the workhouses or out in the field, burying the dead. Buildings on Hart would continue to be erected until as late as 1931, when the last structure, the chapel, was constructed. The reformatory became a small city unto itself, with about 24 buildings connected with paved streets. It wasn't an easy place to live as a City Council investigation revealed; the boys would be subject to various tortures, such as kneeling for hours in a room called "the cooler," being ordered to beat each other with clubs, and having to perform "stand up," which consisted of standing in a straight line for half the night during a period of a few weeks. The island was described as a chaotic place, as the buildings would house inmates mixed with other people having mental illness, infectious diseases, substance abuse and the homeless. The boys would often become sick from sharing towels, razors and soap with residents infected with tuberculosis and other contagions.

Hart island was almost home to what would have been a very odd sight among the barred windows of the reformatory buildings: an amusement park. Solomon Riley, a black man who owned four acres of land on the southern tip, began building a park known as "Negro Coney Island" in 1925. He became wealthy by using his white wife's name to purchase property in predominantly-white areas in Harlem and renting the apartments to blacks, and wanted to open an amusement park for his new tenants, who were barred from the "whites only" parks in Rye and Dobbs Ferry. With a dance hall, eight boarding houses, a 200-ft boardwalk and a bathing pavilion already constructed, reformatory officials cringed at the absurdity of this park, surrounded by graves and miscreants. The city condemned the property to prevent the completion of the park, and Mr. Riley eventually sold the land to the city for $144,000.

Escapes were not uncommon, even without the amusement park to aid in sumggling. Prisoners have managed to leave the island by swimming, climbing onto waiting motorboats, or even simply running over the ice in the winter to City Island. A prisoner named Joseph "The Eel" Farrell bragged that he swam to Long Island in 1919, and escaped once again to the Bronx in 1921.

In 1928, Hart Island was primarily an overflow facility for prison overcrowding, and during World War II it was used as a disciplinary camp for over 2,000 Navy and Coast Guard troops. It would also serve as a prison for German soldiers arrested off the coast of Long Island. During the next few decades, the facilities on the island would focus on experimental pilot programs such as a tubercularium, the "six point" program for alcoholics (1952), and the Phoenix House for substance abuse (1967). In 1955 a Nike missile launch site was constructed on the island to protect the city during the Cold War era (more history on the Nike site here). A multitude of graves were destroyed when the missile elevators were built, but no one know who was in them. When Ebbets Field was torn down in 1960, the bleachers were donated to Hart Island, where they still remain, bolted to railroad ties from the dismantled Third Avenue Elevated Train.

The aforementioned Phoenix House was a product of a three million dollar renovation of the work houses, funded by NYC in 1967. It proved to be a successful model program where former addicts could help others perform disciplined abstinence, but did not last long on the island itself. A last attempt to use the island for the living was made by the Department of Corrections in 1982, in an effort to discipline minor offenders with short-term "quality of life" sentences. Trailers enclosed with razor wire would serve as confinement for graffiti vandals, turnstile jumpers, small time drug dealers and the like. It failed due to the lack of convictions in municipal courts, and the area is now used for accommodating the burial detail and correction officers.

The primary focus of Hart Island has been being a potter's field for the city from 1869 to the present day. The first burial was that of Louisa Van Slyke, a 24-year old orphan who died at Charity Hospital and with no one to claim her body. The island has since become the largest tax-funded cemetery in the world, with over 1 million bodies interred over 101 acres. Along with the unknown and indigent, the people buried here also may not have been able to afford a private funeral. A burial on Hart Island is vaguely defined as a "City Burial" on official paperwork. Unknown adults are buried in single plots, and are the most often disinterred and identified using medical data from surviving relatives. Identified adults are in 3-sectioned trenches of 48 bodies for easier disinterment; their caskets are stacked three high and two across. Children (mostly stillborn / infants) are buried in trenches of 1,000 bodies, as they are very rarely disinterred. Their caskets stack five high and usually twenty across, depending on the size. The first child to die of AIDS in NYC was buried in isolation on the southern tip of the island, and was given a special grave stone marked "SC-B1, 1985" (SP = special child, B1 = Baby 1). Amputated body parts are also buried on the island, in boxes labeled "limbs."

The island takes in about 1,500 bodies a year, and there is a constant struggle to find more burial space. In the past, the trenches were re-used after 25-50 years of decomposition; workers would dig up the decayed remains and toss aside any remaining bones to make room for the pine boxes. This practice has ended, but now there's less room, and the abandoned but historic buildings are being torn down to make more space for new burials. The grisly work of the trenching is performed by Rikers Island inmates, given a 50-cent an hour wage, and under close supervision by DOC officers. A single ferry operated by the NYC Department of Transportation services the island, departing from Fordham St. on City Island where a morgue truck carries the bodies to be buried in simple pine boxes.

Accessing records is an arduous and sometimes impossible task. Trench numbers were bizarrely duplicated and changed over the years, making identifying the plots difficult. Records were stored on hand-written ledgers, many of which had been destroyed in a 1977 fire where about 25,000 people were forgotten. Even after the fire, records were still kept on one hand-written ledger on the island, until recently. The paperwork is often illegible or improperly photocopied, which obliterates access to thousands of burial records. Melinda Hunt, an artist who started photographing the toppled grave markers in the early 1990s, started amassing a database that is considered more complete than official records, made through a Freedom of Information Act request. She has also published a book called Hart Island and produced a film called Hart Island: An American Cemetery; these and the database all can be found at the Hart Island Project website.

Access to the island is extremely restricted; relatives can visit but must be accompanied by a corrections officer, and are very restricted to where they are able to go. Cell phones, cameras and the press are banned from the island. Getting caught on Hart Island is considered trespassing on prison property, and carries a sentence of 2 years in prison. Efforts are being made to transfer the property from the Department of Corrections to the Parks Department, and possibly loosen some of the visitor restrictions.

The island is home to an estimated 900,000 bodies as of 2012. For more information be sure to check out the New York Correction History Society, and of course, The Hart Island Project.


in Taunton, MA US

In 1833, the state of Massachusetts had its first state-run asylum established in Worcester, but by 1851 it had gotten so dangerously overcrowded that Legislature appropriated $100,000 for the construction of a new hospital. The commission chose a tranquil farm north of Taunton to help soothe troubled minds; although it was close to the city center, a river created a natural boundary that would prevent the encroachment of the bustling city life. The prominent New England architect Elbridge Boyden was chosen to design the main hospital building using Dr. Thomas Kirkbride's linear plan. A unique and rare neo-classical design was employed, utilizing cast-iron in the capitals, cornices, and the many ornate cupolas which adorned the roof line. Several wards branched out from the central administration area in the form of crooked wings, allowing plenty of natural sunlight and fresh air into the rooms. The three story building was dominated by a 70 foot tall dome in the center, which provided panoramic views of the town and scenic countryside. Although not original, another striking architectural element was the curved enclosed breezeways, which connected the wing tips of the Kirkbride building with two infirmary buildings built in the 1890s. The institution opened in 1854 as the State Lunatic Hospital at Taunton, admitting the first patient on April 7th.

The patient population quickly grew to 250 in the first eight weeks, and by 1873 the number had doubled. A series of construction projects were undertaken through 1906 to enlarge the facility, and the campus underwent another large expansion in the 1930s. Some notable patients included serial killer Jane Toppan, a nurse who confessed to 31 murders in 1901 by administering fatal doses of pain medication; she was committed to Taunton for the rest of her life. Known as "Jolly Jane," she reportedly lay in bed with her victims as they died. Another famous patient who was committed at Taunton was Thomas Hubbard Sumner, developer of the celestial navigation method known as the Sumner Line; he spent his last remaining years here as well.

The Kirkbride building was closed in 1975 and fell into disrepair through neglect, however the eastern infirmary building at the wing tip was kept in operation. In the early 2000s, a ponderously large anti-climb fence was erected around the building to prevent illegal entry. In 1999, the massive central cupola collapsed, and on March 19th 2006, a fire tore through the administration area, destroying center of the building and theater. The rubble was cleared out by bulldozers, and the entire Kirkbride was eventually demolished in May 2009-2010; the eastern infirmary still remains, as well as other treatment and service buildings. Many architectural elements from the Kirkbride were salvaged and sold off, including timber, granite, iron gates, vintage fixtures and slate roofing tiles. Although Taunton State Hospital underwent a $19-million capital improvement in the early 1990s, the state announced the full closure of the 169-bed institution in 2012, effectively consolidating services to the new psychiatric hospital built in Worcester. After many protests and campaigns to keep Taunton open, the closure was cancelled and it may even undergo an expansion in 2015.


in Natchez, MS US

Although the building itself dates back to 1869, the Ritz Theater was opened much later, in 1935. The Art Deco facade featured a network of neon tube lights that spelled out "RITZ" and other decorative elements. The 500-seat theater was operated by Gulf States Theaters and Paramount, until it closed around 1968-1971.

A jewelry store reputedly operated in the space after the theater closed, but details are unclear when the building was fully vacated. Neglect caused the roof to deteriorate over the years, and a tornado in 1998 damaged the building even more, leading to the eventual collapse of the roof in 2000. The facade decayed substantially for many years, but in 2008 it was restored by the Historic Natchez Foundation.

Glimpses of the abandoned theater can be seen in the contemporary films The Ladykillers and My Dog Skip.


Seafoam Palace

After 12 years of photographing hundreds of rotting buildings, I've finally found myself on the other side of the table as an owner! I've been working with a team of amazing artists, fabricators, and innovators on restoring a historic building in Detroit that had been disused for over 20 years. Our plan is to bring the building back from the throes of ultimate decay to become a public museum of curiosity called Seafoam Palace.

Based on the curiosity cabinets of yore, the museum will be inviting guests to explore their sense of wonder through artifacts, art, history and adventure, with a hint of musty wood still lingering in the air. We've been busy shoring up the foundation, rebuilding collapsing structure, hooking up utilities, and removing graffiti from the limestone facade. The place isn't as far gone as most of the places on this website, but restoring a 13,000 square foot building turns into a huge job! So we've started a Kickstarter project to help fund repairing our main exhibition space.

As one of the rewards ($250 or more), I'm offering limited edition prints of one of the most beautiful scenes I was able to capture - the front entrance of an abandoned psychiatric hospital I found in Italy:

Tom Kirsch Photography Print

The prints are 11x17" (279 x 432mm), signed, and will be framed with old-growth timber that was actually used in the Seafoam Palace building construction (circa 1925). You'll also get a free admission for you and a guest when we open to the public. We're also offering other awesome rewards here.

Even if you can't donate, check out our video... you'll be transformed!

The Seafoam Palace - A Museum of Curiosity

in New Orleans, LA US

Originally known as the Samuel J. Peters Junior High School, this 81,931 square foot building was built in 1913, and designed by architects E.A. Christy and Charles Colbert. It was named after Samuel Jarvis Peters (1801-1855), who was responsible for founding the New Orleans Public School system with Horace Mann. Each year, the school would send a delegation with flowers to Peters' tomb on Founder's Day.

The name of the school changed a number of times over the years; first, to Commercial High School, and once again as the Israel Meyer Augustine Middle School, named after Israel M. Augustine, Jr. - the first African American elected as judge in Criminal District Court in Louisiana. It was heavily damaged in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina struck, and has been sitting vacant since.

In 2009, the school was stabilized using Federal Emergency Management Agency funds, as an assessment deemed the building was one of several "that are either contributing resources to historic districts that are listed in the [National Register of Historic Places], or are individually eligible for NRHP listing." A second assessment in 2012 appraised the structure at being worth $2.1 million. Estimated renovations costs are at $7-10 million, and the school is currently up for sale.


in New Orleans, LA US

This iconic red brick brewery on Tulane Ave. in New Orleans was designed by architect Louis Lehle in German Romanesque style. Production of Dixie Beer began in 1907 under the leadership of Valentine Merz, who was once the president of the Jackson Brewing Co.

Dixie Beer thrived until Prohibition was enforced in the 1920s; the name of the company was briefly changed to the Dixie Beverage Company during this time. Once alcohol became legal to manufacture again, new competition in New Orleans made profits difficult to reach for many years, and eventually forced the owners to file for bankruptcy. The company was revived in 1989 with a line of specialty beers however, which included Dixie Jazz, Blackened Voodoo, and Crimson Voodoo, and Dixie became a viable, growing business once again.

Hurricane Katrina swept through New Orleans in 2005, wiping out almost everything on the first floors of the brewery, including the modern bottling line, 10,000 cases of beer, and anything that wasn't made of stainless steel. Scrappers also attacked the building, stealing the copper and other precious metals from the tanks and wiring, and destroying parts of the building in the process. The state expropriated the building in 2011 and had it transferred to the Veterans Administration as part of a massive LSU/VA hospital complex being constructed nearby. The VA has plans to transform the old building into an advanced bio-research facility called the Dixie Brewery Research Building, replacing parts of the crumbling brick facade with modern glass walls. Joe and Kendra Bruno, who owned the building, have been fighting to gain control back from the VA and re-open the brewery, and have managed to halt demolition just hours before it was about to begin. The fate of the property now lies in the results of pending court cases. Dixie Beer is still produced under contract by Minhas Craft Brewery in Wisconsin.


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