Sneaking Past the Ghosts (2008)

Best Abandoned Buildings

SUBJECT — Best Abandoned Buildings
LOCATION — Brooklyn, Jersey City, Roosevelt Island, Staten Island

Ignoring "No Trespassing" signs, scrambling over chain-link fences, crawling through broken windows? All business as usual when breaking into abandoned buildings. An urbanite's answer to mountain climbing, exploring vacant structures can be a physical and mental challenge, but it's also a way to escape from the noises and crowds of city life, and to relax into the stillness of peeling paint and worn-away brick. New York, of course, houses an abundance of uninhabited buildings dusted over by years of disuse.

The ultimate New York destination for forgotten architecture is Roosevelt Island—home not only to a notorious madhouse, but also to a smallpox hospital, where lucky patients used to be quarantined until they died. Accordingly, the island was the first spot we set out to explore.

The OCTAGONAL LUNATIC ASYLUM, on the northern part of the island, is sandwiched between an apartment complex and tennis courts and surrounded by long, annoyingly hardy grasses. The infamous madhouse, completed in the 1840s, was the subject of a scathing article by journalist Nellie Bly, who feigned insanity to report on the loony-bin's abuses, including the use of inmates from a nearby prison as "nurses." After traversing the ruin's perimeter, we finally found a way in. But when we looked through our chosen entrance route, we noticed that the wooden floor, roughly eight feet below us, was deteriorated and unstable. We sighed with regret and left the premises.

But Roosevelt's true visual gem is the SMALLPOX HOSPITAL, located at the island's southernmost point. Apparently nobody told the architect—James Renwick Jr. of St. Patrick's Cathedral fame—that state institutions should look sterile and bland. The hospital, built in the 1850s, looks like a crumbling, three-story brick mansion, complete with arched windows and a balcony. The roof and the second and third floors no longer exist to block the sun and rain. So trees, vines, and other vegetation have taken root in almost every room. The hospital gained further notoriety in Spider-Man as the setting for the final battle between Toby McGuire and the Green Goblin.

Moving on to Greenpoint, you'd never guess that the long, red-brick building, tall fences, and ugly barbed wire at the corner of Leonard and Bayard Streets encircle MCCARREN PARK POOL. Brooklyn can thank Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his public works program for the site, which opened during the Great Depression only to fall into disrepair and then close in the 1980s. Its enormous blue-green hole in the ground looks like a skate park waiting to happen. Tall reeds and marsh grasses sprouting from the nearby diving pool suggest a West Nile breeding ground. The surrounding dark-red walls look like a graffiti museum, and the entryway's upper level provides an excellent view of the skyline.

In Red Hook's Gowanus Industrial Park, a hulking, deserted GRAIN TERMINAL sits on Columbia Street, at the edge of the polluted Gowanus Canal; it's a relic of the area's once booming waterfront industry. Today, large windows ring the building's ground floor, which opens up into a large, empty hall. A couple of railroad-like tracks, probably meant for grain carts, run across the expansive room. Numerous silos taper toward the ceiling, and looking up through them, you can glimpse pieces of sky more than a hundred feet away. At the far end of the 12-story structure, a seemingly endless staircase extends upward toward further exploration opportunities. For a mini-adventure, delve into the cottage-sized abandoned transformer house located next door.

Cross the Hudson River to Jersey City for a view of the HUDSON & MANHATTAN RAILROAD POWERHOUSE, a stunning fortress of ornate brickwork and huge, riveting windows at Washington and Bay streets, especially striking amid the dull sea of recently built office buildings. The powerhouse, opened in 1908, fueled what would become the PATH subway system connecting New York and New Jersey, and was considered so important that President Theodore Roosevelt participated in its opening by personally switching on the power. On the inside, half of the ruin remains swathed in near darkness, with debris littering the floor. The other half, bright from sunlight pouring in, feels like a huge, empty cathedral. In the corner is a metal staircase, which we climbed, floor by floor, until we stood on the roof.

Canvassing Staten Island's dank, cavernous boys' school, AUGUSTINIAN ACADEMY (Campus Road, near Howard Street) turned into by far our creepiest adventure. From the outside it looks like an austere castle, with a desolate, Celtic-cross-shaped fountain in back—never mind the bricked-up windows. As with many vacant buildings, rumors of Satan worshippers and murderous monks abound, but the empty bottles indicate that students from nearby Wagner College visit the site frequently. Rumors also allude to numerous subground levels, allegations denied by a representative of Wagner College, the building's owner. Due to the over-whelming darkness and disorienting, maze-like quality of the rooms, we lost any urge to seek out possible basements. When we finally stumbled onto a staircase, we climbed upward, grasping at a shaft of light inching through the fire-eaten roof. When we reached the top floor, it held us in awe. Thriving green plants complemented the wild graffiti and the trusses had the sooty glaze of burned wood. A connecting room could have been an old chapel. It was a peaceful scene, until noises emanated from the gloomy downstairs darkness. Easily frightened, we hurried back outside.


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