Ghostly Ruins: America's Forgotten Architecture

by Harry Skrdla

Published by Princeton Architectural press

224 pages, 2006

Buy it online





Haunted History

Reviewed by Linda L. Richards


At first glance, Harry Skrdla's Ghostly Ruins seems to be nothing more or less than an art book. Which can be enough. Beautifully reproduced black and white photos against sparse but salient prose. And, on certain levels, this first impression is never proven to be untrue. But rather than being a one-noted representation of the work of a single photograher, Ghostly Ruins isn't the result of one artist's work. Rather, it is a collection -- and in a sense a recollection -- of a preservationist and the book's title -- and mandate -- seems all the more pure for this realization.

That mandate is summed up quite efficiently in the first paragraph of the introduction to the work:

This is a book of bones.

Between these covers lie the vast skeletal remains of thirty enterprises which, rather than having the decency to vanish when their time was past, have lingered on as crumbling, petrified remains.

The bones in question span the outreaches of historic America. These are the places you've never seen or, if you have, you never thought to see again. The New York State Pavillion in Queens, caught as it stands, "an empty promise to a future that never materialized" or Chicago's Palace of the Fine Arts, which -- before being reimagined as The Museum of Science and Industry in 1940, had become "the last crumbling vestige of the White City's grandeur -- a reminder of the glory that had once been."

Here, too, is the Saltair, Salt Lake City's "impossible Moorish fantasy" built by the Mormon Church in 1893 "as a place of wholesome recreation for the faithful" and finally destroyed by fire in 1970. Like so many other structures in Ghostly Ruins, the Saltair is shown here in its original splendor. The photos of the Saltair -- all of them great -- are from 1900, 1955, 1965 and contemporary.

There is nothing contemporary on offer from Belle Grove, a plantation house in Iberville Parish,.Louisiana. "With seventy-five rooms," writes the author, "it was one of the largest antebellum homes in the south." In historic photos -- and a main floor floorplan -- it stands here, somehow both beautiful and faintly evil. For many years the house stood as a decaying symbol for a costly lifestyle. Razed in 1940, there are few people for whom Belle Grove is even a memory. It's good to see it in Ghostly Ruins, photographed of course long after its heyday, but still standing and relatively intact.

There is more beauty and faint evil in Ghostly Ruins, but nowhere as much as shown in the Danvers State Hospital in Danvers, Massachusetts, a facility that sounds as though it could have been conceived by Stephen King. As the author says, "The Danvers State Hospital may have the worst karma of any abandoned site in the country." Built in 1870 to house 200 patients, at its height the Victorian-style building was "home" to 2000. The hospital was finally closed in 1990. Contemporary photos of the interior of the abandoned hospital show no horror: but it's not difficult to imagine from the pieces that are given.

Skrdla has organized the book logically, grouping like with like. Thus, chapter one is "Transportation," (The Ship Graveyard, the Michigan Central Depot and so on) chapter two is "Industry" (the Schoellkopf Power Station, the Packard Plant, etc.) chapter three is "Commerce" and so on, finishing with "Epitaphs" -- which include Belle Grove and Saltair -- buildings that are well documented, but no longer exist on this plane.

Ghostly Ruins is a beautiful and important book. The photographs have been carefully collected and faithfully reproduced, the prose is both illustrative and evocative. It's difficult, as you read, to forget, even for a second, that this respectful account may well be the final word on some of these grand old structures.

So is Ghostly Ruins an art book? In a very real way, it is. But it's so much more, as well. Students of architecture, lovers of art and those with an affection for true Americana will all find something to cherish in these pages. | October 2006


Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine.