Kojo talks with author Colson Whitehead about his new novel "The Underground Railroad" and its resonance at this particular moment in history.
For nearly two decades, Washington D.C. writer and photographer Pablo Maurer has been exploring the forgotten spaces and places society left behind. From the crumbling rooms of Maryland’s old Forest Haven Asylum to the overgrown faux facades of Virginia’s long-abandoned Renaissance Faire near Fredericksburg, Maurer captures the demise of buildings that once brimmed with life. Kojo talks with Maurer about the sites he’s documented for the DCist’s “Abandoned DC” series, and discusses the research and risks Maurer takes to capture these decrepit structures.
- Pablo Maurer Reporter and Photographer, DCist
Pablo Maurer’s Abandoned D.C.
Images of once-thriving, now-abandoned sites, including the Virginia Renaissance Faire, ruins of the Forest Haven Asylum and the Penn Hills Resort in the Poconos.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHave you ever driven by an abandoned factory and wondered what it's like inside? Or have you ever stumbled on an overgrown house or a derelict school and been tempted to take a peek? Years after nature reclaims these decaying relics, our morbid curiosity about them remains. And while most of us never get to see what's inside, there are some intrepid urban explorers who take big risks to do just that.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFor nearly two decades, journalist Pablo Maurer has been one of those explorers, taking risks a lot of us wouldn't. Maurer points his camera at abandoned spaces in our area that once brimmed with life but still tell a story in death. His photos and the stories that go with them take viewers on an eerie kind of time travel that can fascinate and horrify you all at once. Pablo Maurer joins us in studio.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe's a photographer and writer for DCist, which is a daily online news magazine. He's also the author of the DCist "Abandoned D.C." series. Pablo, good to meet you.
MR. PABLO MAURERGood to meet you.
NNAMDII have been following your work and even your recent arrest, which we'll be talking about later. You have been inside places that most of us just wonder about. You've explored a famous asylum for the insane in Maryland. You've picked through the ruins of a Pennsylvania coal factory. You've been, as I mentioned before, arrested for photographing a mold-covered vacation resort.
NNAMDISome people might think you're either incredibly inquisitive or incredibly foolish, maybe both, to do a series like this. So what got you into exploring our area's abandoned structures?
MAURERYou know, I don't know. I've kind of have been doing this stuff a long time. I think growing up -- I grew up in Nashville, TN, and I think the kind of stuff that I used to do, for example, with my dad just, you know, the way we bonded would be just to walk down some railroad tracks or kind of go exploring. And I think maybe that sort of mentality bled over into my teenage and adult years, you know.
MAURERSo, you know, I really don't know. As long as I can remember, every time I pass one of those places, I sort of begin obsessing over what might be inside or what might not be inside, you know, so...
NNAMDIWell, a lot of us do that. But most of us don't break into those places. How do you get into them?
MAURERI mean, any number of ways. A lot of places, I mean, it really depends on the level of ruin, I think, of the place. I mean, a lot of places are so kind of bombed out that you can really just stroll on in, you know. Certainly, also, I'm not the first person to explore a lot of these places. So even if they're fenced off...
NNAMDIYeah, do you actually run into vagrants or vandals once you get inside?
MAURERYeah. I mean, I'd definitely come across people who have been squatting there, for example, or something like that. As far as vandals, not really. I mean, I've also never really run in to any other urban explorers, whatever you want to call them.
NNAMDIPosses of graffiti artists?
MAURERI mean, those people who do street art definitely -- they definitely have been there because most of the places are pretty thoroughly covered with different types of graffiti. You know, all different kinds. But, no, I can't say I ever come across -- I mean, honestly, I'm usually the only person there, which is kind of what I like about it. You know, it's like a meditative thing for me. It's really peaceful and quiet and it's a good kind of time to reflect, I guess. You know, so...
NNAMDIYour photos can be downright eerie. It can be jarring to see rusting beds, moldy wall, old suitcases, even a long forgotten dental clinic at a place like Forest Haven Asylum in Laurel. How do you approach your subject matter from a journalistic perspective without becoming just a gawker?
MAURERThat's an interesting question. I mean I think as far as the photographs go, what I tend to strive for is just a faithful representation of the scene. I mean, I think there are certainly some kind of rules that I adhere to. I don't want to photograph anything that has any kind of personal information in it. You know, when it comes to editing the photos, I try and not go crazy with -- you know, I think a lot of people who do photography of abandoned sites tend to go insane with, you know, oversaturating the colors or making them look like these surreal places.
MAURERWhen, to me, I'd rather just sort of -- you know, the people who view my photos, I just want them to get an accurate sort of impression of what the place looks like, you know.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Pablo Maurer. He's a photographer and writer for DCist, which is a daily online news magazine. He's also the author of the DCist's "Abandoned D.C. Series." We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Have you ever explored an abandoned building? What was it like? 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
NNAMDIPablo, some of these places you've explored, like the Summit Casino in Pennsylvania, are so retro that they'd be perfect for some of the cool filters we have now have through apps and digital cameras, but you don't do that. What kind of photography rules do you follow when you take photos? You just want to show us what's real and what's there.
MAURERYeah, I mean, I think the great thing about these places, from a photography standpoint, is it's not necessary to do that. I mean the subject matter, to me at least, is so interesting. And so, you know, I think, you talk about color for example, I mean, a lot of these places -- Forest Haven, for example, kind of -- you'll be wandering down this sort of long tan-colored hallway that was never tan in the first place. It was white, you know. Or I came into a room there that had this periwinkle-colored wall that was this incredibly unique color that you really only get when you paint a wall blue and expose it to the elements for 20 years basically, you know.
MAURERSo, I think the places look so surreal and kind of, you know, interesting already, that it'd be a disservice to the photograph to pick up my cell phone and, you know, apply some sort of filter to it or something like that, you know. The pictures kind of speak for themselves, you know. They're easy photos to take. The subject matter's super interesting, so, you know.
NNAMDILet's talk about the Summit Resort in the Pocono's. You took a tantalizing photo of a heart-shaped bar in this honeymoon resort, which closed about a decade ago. But then you ran into trouble. What happened?
MAURERWell, after I took that photo, which I took that -- you know, I went there just to get that photo. I found that heart-shaped bar…
NNAMDIYou had researched the place, right?
MAURERYeah, I found an old pamphlet from the place. And saw the bar and just immediately sort of began obsessing about going and photographing the place. We were there, you know, I took the photo of the place. I heard some noise from outside the building, which when you're in a place as quiet as an abandoned place, it's kind of a really alarming thing. I was with a friend. We sort of quickly went to see who was there. I thought it might be, you know, the owner of the place or, you know, a vagrant or something like that.
MAURERAnd it was a -- turned out it was six or seven Pennsylvania State Police Officers with assault rifles. So we very quickly made ourselves very visible. You know and made our presence known and dealt with that situation.
NNAMDIWere you arrested?
MAURERWe got -- it could have been much worse, honestly. I ended up getting a trespassing citation, which is not even a misdemeanor, you know, but certainly that's kind of the risk you take when you explore these places, is, you know, if somebody really wanted to I'm sure they could charge with you breaking and entering or, you know, a felony or something like that.
NNAMDIYeah, the impression I got when I read that story was that after you explained to them what you were doing, the officers became more sympathetic of you.
MAURERYeah, they looked through my phone. One of them -- I don't think -- they were all very courteous, but I don't think really any of them understood the appeal of taking the photos. I think one of them looked at the camera and looked at my friend and I and said, "I mean, what are you guys doing here? Don't you have girlfriends?" You know, so.
NNAMDIGet a life.
MAURERYeah, exactly -- that's exactly what he was saying.
NNAMDIThis is his professional life, Pablo Maurer.
NNAMDIYou write that the Summit Resort was an absolute jewel. What did you get to see before the officers showed up?
MAURERWe explored some of the outbuildings. There was like an indoor kind of sports place. And then we explored the sort of reception area with the bar, with a, you know, a really cool kind of indoor water fall and pool. And, you know, it's hard to describe. And it was definitely a worthwhile trip. I really wish it hadn't turned out the way it had. After the arrest actually, I reached out to the owner.
MAURERI got an email from somebody who used to work there. And they said, you know, there's a piano in the photograph that you took and that my grandfather, who is now deceased -- that was actually the last piano he tuned. He was a piano tuner. So I sort of, again, began to obsess about going back. And I called the owner. You know and he doesn't know that I got arrested there.
MAURERAnd I said -- I explained to him that I'm a journalist. I mentioned the letter and he said, "You know, nobody was coming here when it was open and now I get a phone call every two weeks from somebody who wants to take photo of the dang place." So -- and then he hung up on me. So I won't be going back there.
NNAMDIWhere were you when I needed your money?
NNAMDIYou found the Summit Resort only after you toured another defunct honeymoon resort deep in Pennsylvania. Tell us about the Penn Hills resort and what you found there.
MAURERThat is a resort that’s been there since, I mean, it was actually an inn in the early 20th century and kind of grew into one of Pennsylvania's more popular honeymoon destinations. It closed in the late 2000s. It was the -- Monroe County, Penn. actually seized the place and it's relatively intact. Unfortunately, the more people find out about these places -- sometimes the wrong kind of people go there. It's been pretty thoroughly gutted by, you know, (unintelligible) places since copper became incredibly valuable…
MAURER…a lot of people go and they've sort of, you know -- so every single room will be -- the wall's will be smashed in, all the, you know, bathrooms are sort of bombed out, you know. But it's incredible, I mean, it's like walking back through time, you know.
NNAMDII mean the centerpiece of that resort is wedding-bell-shaped outdoor pool.
MAURERYeah, yeah. And then there's like a nice Tiki bar there and it's full of these sort of like reds and orange and brown colors of that era that really, for some reason, speak to me. I'd of totally gone there. I'd still go there if they were…
NNAMDIWhat happened to the resort in the 1980s and the 1990s, after its heyday?
MAURERI think it's -- another thing I sort of get interested about it what happens, why these places go out of business. I mean I think obviously in the Pocono's, I mean, the general sort of feel is that, you know, as airfare kind of got cheaper, it didn't really feel like a vacation anymore for people in say, New York or D.C. to just drive three hours to Pennsylvania, you know.
MAURERI think they lost a lot business. And then a lot of these places weren't updated. I mean, styles change. People don't want necessarily to take a bath in a heart-shaped tub anymore. You know, so I don't know. I mean, and I think, also, there's been sort of a transition in general. Like, I explored a drive-in movie theater, for example, and I think the undoing of the two places is similar.
MAURERI mean, there's been a shift where people don't want to go on their honeymoon with 80 other honeymoon couples anymore. People don't want to go to a drive-in with, you know, 500 strangers. They sort of -- those things have been kind of largely privatized, you know. so.
NNAMDIThat's the way things go. Here's Dimitri, in Beltsville, Md. Dimitri, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DIMITRIHello, Kojo. I love your show.
DIMITRIAnd I just want to mention that I've also explored the Forest Haven Asylum in Laurel, Md., maybe about four years ago. And it was really easy to get into and it's an amazing place. It is -- and you cannot get in there anymore. They don't let anybody on the property and there's a guards at the door now. But I was amazed. There's floors full of paperwork with people's personal information that have been there and case files. And it was a really creepy place to be in.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Dimitri. Care to comment?
MAURERYeah, I would discourage people from going there. That's the first thing I want to say. If you read my writing, you know, just know that there's a risk involved in going. On Forest Haven, I think the District, a few years ago, actually cleaned a lot of those personal records up. For a while there it was really -- it's actually exactly how he described it. I mean it was case files all over the floor and that kind of stuff.
MAURERBut Forest Haven in particular was a really sort of gut-wrenching place to do for me. I mean, you know, the history of the place is so awful, you know. And I really -- I did it -- it's actually kind of what inspired me to write DCist because I thought, well, our demographic is like 70 percent 21 to 32 year olds and they don't even know about this place. And if they can learn some of the tragic history of the place maybe it'll sort of spur them to research also the problems that this District still has with the way it deals with developmentally disabled people. So, yeah, I would discourage anyone from Forest Haven, by the way.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back we'll continue our conversation with Pablo Maurer. If you have called, stay on the line. We'll try to get to your calls. The number is 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIOur guest is Pablo Maurer. He's a photographer and writer for the DCist, which is a daily online news magazine. He's the author of the DCist's "Abandoned D.C. Series." We got an email from Nick, who says, "Should some of these abandoned places be better preserved? What are we missing by allowing some of the places to be lost?" What do you say?
MAURERCertainly. Many of them should. I did a story on the Huber coal breaker, which is outside of D.C., but it's the last remaining coal processing facility in eastern Pennsylvania. And it's actually, literally as we're speaking, being torn down. I was the last photographer in there. And yeah, I mean, they should -- you know, a lot of them should absolutely be preserved. I mean, just because -- even the sites that have sort of negative histories, I mean, it's still our history.
MAURERYou know, something like the coal breaker would be a valuable educational tool for any kid that grew up in eastern Pennsylvania after coal kind of, you know, went out of, you know, was no longer king, I guess you could say. You know, so sure, I think that all the time when I'm in places, you know.
NNAMDII'm sure a lot of our listeners have visited the Maryland Renaissance festival near Annapolis. But Virginia used to have its own fair and you found it in the woods off Route 3 in Fredericksburg. Tell us a little bit about the history of this place.
MAURERWell, it was open for two seasons and then it closed. And it just, you know, didn't make money, basically. It is an incredibly surreal place. It's a ruin within a ruin. I mean it's something that was built to look like it's from a different era. And now it's sort of decomposed for 20 years, since the '90s -- or 15 years or so. I mean, that's another place that you can look at the photos. I discourage you from going there because the grounds are leased…
NNAMDIUnless you're wearing orange.
NNAMDIWhy is that?
MAURERThe grounds are leased by a hunting club. So it's another place where I sort of encountered some law enforcement. So certainly know what you're getting into, you know. But it's beautiful. It looks like a natural park. There's a huge imitation kind of pirate ship docked in the middle of a pond, in the middle of the place. I mean it's crazy.
NNAMDIHere's Gabriel, in Arlington, Va. Gabriel, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
GABRIELHi, Kojo. I'm so glad that you're doing this segment. I just wanted to say that I've done a little bit of exploration around the region myself. I went to the psychiatric building of D.C. General last year. And then recently I also went to Lorton Reformatory. And I just wanted to say that for me half of the enjoyment is doing the research about the history of the buildings and planning a way in. And then just kind of learning about the way that different industries and structures were used.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Gabriel. We got an email either from you or your namesake, Gabriel, who says, "Just wanted to emphasize to listeners that the vast majority of urban explorers are respectful of the places they visit. The ethics are similar to leave no trace camping, leave only footprints, take only photographs." Correct, Pablo?
MAURERI 100 percent agree with that. I mean I'd even go so far as to say that if I can't get into a place easily enough, I mean I've never broken a, you know, broken door or something to get into a place. I think it's, I think, you have to have respect for your subject matter. And, you know, a lot of these, like Forest Haven for example, you know, there's a mass grave there. I mean, you have to -- it would be disrespectful to the legacy of the place and the people who suffered there to do anything to it. You know, so yeah, I 100 percent agree.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Maureen, who said, "One of my most fun photo shoots was finding an unlocked door at Lorton Reformatory after it was no longer a prison and before it became an artist colony. Luckily for me, I work at St. Elizabeth's Hospital, so have been able to legally visit and photograph some of the abandoned buildings on the two campuses. I think shooting in places like these make you think about the people who lived there and what their lives were like so they are not forgotten." Of course, as she points out, there are historic abandoned buildings at St. Elizabeth, the psychiatric hospital in D.C., which is under redevelopment.
MAURERYeah, I tried to work with the city for about a month here to gain access to -- especially to photograph the Blackburn Laboratory, which is an incredible, very well-maintained, you know, set of laboratories and there's a very large morgue there that I'd like to do a story on. But oftentimes, I mean, the city isn't quite cooperative. They, I guess, you know, might consider it a safety hazard for me to go in. So to whoever wrote that email, find me, because I'd really love to get into St. E.'s somehow.
NNAMDIThey should find you. Larissa, in Washington. We don't have a lot time left, Larissa, but go ahead, please.
LARISSAThank you for taking my call, Kojo. I wonder if your guest has ever been to Gary, Ind. My husband was born in Gary, Ind. And several years ago we went there and we couldn't believe what was happening there. It is so dilapidated. It is so abandoned. It's just incredible. And if it wasn't for the steel mills in the Second World War we wouldn't have won the war. And I…
NNAMDIWell, I don't know. We're running out of time. Allow me to ask Pablo. Have you been to Gary, Ind.?
MAURERI've been to Gary. I lived in Chicago for five or six years. So I've been to Gary. I've been to -- there are lots of places in the Midwest that, you know, there's Gary, Dayton, you know, obviously Detroit. You know, lots of cities that -- there's a lot of stuff to explore. And unfortunately I'm kind of D.C. bound at the moment.
NNAMDICan you give us a taste of what's next in the series?
MAURERYeah, I've got a piece coming up on the Jacob Tome School, which is a part of what used to be Bainbridge Naval Academy, up north of Baltimore. And, you know, I have three or four sets that I photographed that I'll be, I guess, putting out in the next few weeks. So I guess keep your eyes peeled.
NNAMDIYou can follow him in the "Abandoned D.C. Series." He's the author of it at DCist.com. He's a photographer and writer for DCist, which is a daily online news magazine. Pablo Maurer, thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIThank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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