Vines crept up the house. It looked like it was about to break in. The Colonial in Roscoe, N.Y., a hamlet of the Catskills, was shabby – which made it all the more appealing to Bryan Sansivero, 36, and a friend who had arrived before dawn. They went into the musty, empty apartment, which wasn't really an apartment because nobody lives there, and sat in the dark for about half an hour until sunrise.
Soon the living room was glowing, revealing its contents: antique furniture, a fireplace with a frills-lined mantelpiece and, most shockingly, a tiger skin (the creature's mouth open) and a hunting rifle. “We thought this house was crazy. How can this just sit here and be so completely abandoned? ”Said Mr Sansivero.
Despite the dilapidated condition, including peeling walls and an unpleasant kitchen, the house was in pretty good shape. He took photos and later shared them on a Facebook group dedicated to old houses, where his posts evoke emotions ranging from nostalgia to sadness to skepticism that the house was actually found in this state (Mr Sansivero said, that the belongings of the houses are typically staged by previous visitors, but he only makes minor adjustments).
Mr. Sansivero is a professional portrait photographer, but photographing abandoned houses has been a passion of his since college when he studied filmmaking and made a short documentary film about an abandoned hospital on Long Island. His eyes were opened to the mysterious world of such properties.
His attention turned to homes while visiting a family in Pennsylvania and taking stock of the number of abandoned rural areas. "I was intrigued," said Mr. Sansivero. "I just go to time capsule houses where it's like the family just disappeared."
He's been to hundreds of abandoned homes, but few make it onto his Instagram feed. "It has to have an atmospheric light," said Mr. Sansivero. “It has to be colorful, which in my opinion attracts the viewer. It's eye-catching. "And he said," I really like unusual things that are left behind. "
Online, people are drawn to a multitude of abandoned homes. Sometimes it is a country house standing lonely in a field, or a mansion in Ontario where the architectural details take center stage, or a house in Nantes, France with an Old World flair. In the Facebook group “I Love Old Houses and Gardens”, posts about abandoned houses can trigger thousands of reactions. People have long loved scary and even sad things, and these houses hit those tones and more.
"Sometimes when you look at an abandoned house you feel like there was love in that house, that's the feeling I get when I look at this …" wrote one commentator on a house in Kansas. It's not uncommon for someone to point out a vintage item similar to what they grew up with or that belonged to an older family member.
Exploring empty apartments is a hobby, but not without risk. "Under no circumstances, if they are on the property or in an abandoned building or house or building, are they trespassing," Peter Graubard, a real estate attorney in Manhattan, said of visitors. While a house can stand empty for years, it usually still belongs to someone – even if that "someone" is in another state or government agency.
However, the legal risk associated with a look is low, said Graubard. “If it's abandoned, probably nobody really oversees it. And if someone discovers that you might have been on their property to take a picture, I doubt the police or the authorities will be much interested in following someone who just took a picture on social media. "
However, there are other risks associated with exploring these homes such as: B. wobbly floorboards and encounters with hostile creatures.
Hannah Lombard, 33, a caregiver, enjoys exploring abandoned homes in southeast Wisconsin during her free time. “I've always enjoyed everything vintage, retro, everything with character,” she said. Ms. Lombard bought a camera four years ago and started posting pictures on Instagram. She uses OnX, a hunting app that identifies property lines and landowner names, to find the owners of vacant homes, or sometimes she just knocks on a neighbor's door. "If I can't find out who owns the house, I won't go in. I'll stay on the street and take photos," she said. She usually finds the houses vacant because someone in another state inherited the property and she doesn't want or can't afford to look after it.
"I think it's my love of history and antiques that makes these places so interesting to walk through," said Ms. Lombard. "You don't see it every day." Some of the houses she has seen are hundreds of years old. Many are empty, but she found items such as food cards, photo albums and a letter from 1864 in German. "We tried to decipher it, but we can't," she said. Why, they ask themselves and other Looky-Los, are possessions left behind?
For some, abandoned houses are muses. Kyler Dannels is an Atlanta-based architectural designer. As a child he explored abandoned buildings there; many have since been converted into luxury apartments. Today, Mr. Dannels, 35, is looking for older homes in the United States. He values their craftsmanship; the homes tend to have architectural details not found in newer homes. "You don't have to go very far back when it comes to rough sawn timber that was cut on site and stone that was extracted from the house you built on," said Mr Dannels. "Just all these details where the hand of the person who was involved in putting it together is much more visible and obvious."
This exploration has influenced his work, which often involves production art and set building for films and shop windows. Sometimes this requires artificial refinement and aging so that the pieces look lived and harmonious. Old houses taught him what an antique surface really looks like. “Everything has a structure and a kind of patina, tells a story,” said Mr Dannels. For example, when he makes a modern cabin look like it was built 100 years ago, he wants the viewer to know that nothing is accidental, but rather the result of environmental influences, such as water running down a wall and causing discoloration .
In those hazy Instagram filters and romantic captions, it's easy to forget that abandoned homes often contain the remains of devastating personal stories. Some owners are moving away from their homes without waiting for a foreclosure tax or government agency to take over the property simply because they can't afford to stay, said Margaret Dewar, professor emeritus of urban and regional planning at the University of Michigan. Much of their work is focused on neighborhoods in Detroit, where Next City reported 102,330 vacant units in September 2020.
When there are many empty houses in an area, it is usually due to an economic depression. In Detroit, this was due to a combination of blockbusting (real estate agents using scare tactics to convince white homeowners to sell their homes and then sell the homes to black buyers at inflated prices) and the subprime mortgage crisis that caused the city to turn 25 city percent of its population from 2000 to 2010, said Dr. Dewar.
In rural areas, the reason is typically an industrial loss such as a factory closure. When Dr. Dewar and her husband drive through the small Michigan town where he grew up, taking stock of the places where his childhood friends once lived. "Now it's fields with their equipment storage bins and things that are primarily intended for agriculture," she said. Sometimes these plots can be reused, and sometimes their highest and greatest use is to demolish the house to make way for a corn field.
Preserving rural homes is what drives Kelly Gomez, another photographer, to document them for an online project called The Forgotten South. Ms. Gomez, 37, lives in Durham, N.C., but began documenting abandoned homes throughout the American South in 2010 when she was living in Gainesville, Florida.
Ms. Gomez heard about abandoned property just 10 minutes from her own home and went to check it out. By the end of the day, she had explored 18 abandoned historic sites from Gainesville in a matter of hours. They seemed like pieces of a puzzle and she tried to figure out what the sites once were and why they were left behind by using a map with pins to mark what was found. "I've seen every upstate town imaginable between Florida and North Carolina," said Ms. Gomez. “I spent a lot of time exploring Georgia. That's why I love to hike and discover history. "
The homes she captures range from properties like a 5,000 square foot mansion in Madison, Georgia designed in the style of the American Aesthetic Movement in 1883 to derelict cottages in Suwannee County, Florida about the history of North America and take care of it that all these communities are disappearing, ”said Ms. Gomez. Yes, she enjoys looking for these houses, but it is also important to her that the history of these houses is documented, “so that there is a story that the people lived and existed here, maybe what they did or what they acted or what they did or what life was like for them in this region. "
As much as it may seem that these abandoned houses are becoming playgrounds for photographers, some of them are given a new chance at life. In Oakland, California, where Redfin reports the median home price is $ 950,000, houses are empty and many are without homes. This prompted Dominique Walker to start Moms 4 Housing, a nonprofit that helps homeless and disadvantaged mothers. The group received praise for acquiring vacant property in West Oakland that they eventually acquired through a land trust. Similar organizations exist elsewhere in the country, such as Well House in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which is reviving vacant homes for the homeless.
Efforts are also being made in rural cities to preserve dilapidated houses. In the city of Danville, Virginia, for example, the Friends of the Old West End neighborhood group has made a push to prevent the once thriving historic district from being demolished. The city had gone through an economic depression after key industries shut down, with Victorian and Edwardian style mansions pending.
Friends of the Old West End have partnered with the city to sell the homes at affordable prices – that's $ 1 for a 1907 house with a superstructure or $ 250,000 for a Queen Anne ready to move in. "We have been very successful in bringing new people into these homes to rehabilitate them," said Paul Liepe, 71, the organization's managing director. "And actually these people are signing agreements with the city that they will not only rehabilitate but live in the houses for five years," he said. The goal is to prevent people from turning over their property and instead focus on building a community.
Still, many abandoned houses will crumble or succumb to the vines. For now, they continue to attract the attention of photographers like Mr. Sansivero and Mrs. Gomez, who are hoping to save the time capsules, if only on Instagram. “My favorite feeling is a feeling of awe or appreciation that I get for a second in order to stand in this place. It's almost like a museum with no ticket or velvet rope, ”said Ms. Gomez. “I can touch the walls and smell the smells and imagine what it might have been like to stand in this house that I think gives a really intimate glimpse into someone's life. Instead of just reading a history book. "