Forgive our trespasses
Urban explorers capture history
By David Giffels

Akron Beacon Journal (5-04-04)

There are two distinct points of beauty in the life cycle of a building. The first comes when it is new, unscratched and full of promise. The second comes in its decline, after age has etched a story.

The Ohio Trespassers aim for the end of that line. A young Akron couple, Jay Brown and Amy Wyatt, have spent two years chronicling abandoned buildings around the region, capturing the beautiful decay with a digital camera and posting it on their Web site,

They're drawn toward institutions -- prisons and hospitals, orphanages and factories. They like them big and decadent and, while they don't believe in ghosts, it seems that the more people a place once held, the more alluring its emptiness.

``I think a lot of couples would go to a bed and breakfast,'' Brown said recently, sitting in the living room of the couple's East Akron apartment. ``But we go to abandoned tuberculosis hospitals.''

On weekends and vacations, they go exploring, sometimes visiting sites they know about, other times scouting new prospects. Or, more correctly, old prospects. Their Web site has electronic photo albums and historical accounts of 24 locations, all within a few hours' drive of Akron.

They've been to a paper mill in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, a supposed witch's graveyard in Mahoning County, a tuberculosis hospital in Lima, a castle-like state penitentiary in West Virginia. The only Akron location is an abandoned concrete coal-loading tower beside train tracks off Eastwood Avenue.

Their photos often offer surprises.

In a cemetery chapel, Brown and Wyatt found messages left behind by visitors and, for no explainable reason, thousands of ladybugs, covering nearly every surface. In a huge rubber factory in Youngstown, they found the usual industrial debris, along with children's dolls and a sandbox.

In other words, their photos tell not just the story of these buildings' former use, but what becomes of such places once they're left alone. It's a stage of architectural evolution that's often ignored, and more often unappreciated.

Often, Brown and Wyatt explore without permission, although with a certain set of self-imposed ethical guidelines. They'll only go inside if the doors are unlocked. If they're asked to leave, they do. This has happened only a few times; most of the places they visit are unattended, and the beer cans, graffiti and property damage they find suggest other trespassers don't share their code. As Ohio Trespassers, their intent is to document these places before they disappear.

``I think the buildings are beautiful, just seeing how time has taken them,'' Wyatt said.

``Imagining the way they used to be,'' Brown said, finishing her sentence.

Longtime fascination

Brown's eye for these things developed in the Rust Belt years of his hometown.

``I remember downtown Akron in the 1980s was just like a wasteland,'' the 33-year-old said. ``I think that's part of the reason I got interested in abandoned buildings, because I grew up in Akron.''

At 25, Wyatt missed the ``heyday'' of Akron's decadence, but she shares the same sensibility that led the couple on their first visit, a day trip to the Mansfield Reformatory. Brown and Wyatt wanted to see the location of one of their favorite films, The Shawshank Redemption. They took some pictures and, during the hourlong drive back home, decided to put together a Web site.

They were surprised, as they searched the Internet, to discover that ``urban exploration'' is a vast genre, with sites from all over the world, covering abandoned amusement parks, Chernobyl, European castles and American factories.

As Ohio Trespassers' collection of locations grew, so did the responses of property owners. One of their favorite sites, the Fairmount Children's Home near Alliance, burned down a year and a half ago, after the owner had asked Brown and Wyatt to remove it from their site.

After the fire, the owner e-mailed again, blaming Ohio Trespassers for having drawn attention to the abandoned building.

``We felt bad,'' Wyatt said. ``It was such a historical building that we were sorry to see it go. At first I felt a little responsible, but teen-agers were going there for years, and every door was wide open. I don't think we can be responsible for every crazy arsonist out there.''

Strangely, another building on the Web site -- the Royer Chapel in Coshocton -- burned down at the same time, 4 a.m., on the same December night in 2002. Although Brown and Wyatt assume the timing was coincidental, it did give them pause. And it also, ironically, helped reaffirm their purpose.

``It's a historic building,'' Brown said of the children's home. ``Our Web site probably has some of the last photographs of Fairmount before it burned. We're preserving places we go, and providing some of the best information.''

Interest is high

They get e-mail almost every day, some from people interested in the history of old places, and some from people who had been inside them when they were young. Much of the mail they get regarding the Fairmount Children's Home, for instance, comes from people who were orphans there.

Some property owners have expressed appreciation for their work, inviting them back for more formal tours. They have become friends with the owner of the Dixmont Insane Asylum near Pittsburgh, who allowed them to host a ``ghost hunt'' last Halloween. It went so well, another such tour will take place Saturday night.

The reservations, limited to 30 people, are nearly full, but you can still sign up The cost is $35.

There's a bittersweet reason for this particular event. The owner and Ohio Trespassers want people to see the Dixmont building one last time. The 1859 hospital, named for social reformer Dorothea Dix, is to be torn down for a Wal-Mart.

Brown and Wyatt are powerless to save the looming brick asylum. Instead, they'll help make sure it's not forgotten.

David Giffels' column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He can be reached at 330-996-3572 or at