The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Haunting photos show forgotten — and forbidden — buildings in America

Packard Auto Plant, Detroit, Mi. Copyright Eric Holubow.
Placeholder while article actions load

The cities of the Rust Belt -- once-vibrant industrial centers that stretched across the northern U.S. and around the Great Lakes -- have receded over the last decades, leaving behind abandoned factories, schools, theaters and other public buildings that served a once much larger population. Many of these buildings now sit quietly decaying until their demolition date, mostly unseen except for a few architects and construction workers.

But a group of photographers is bringing these hidden views of America's former grandeur to a much wider audience. One is Eric Holubow, a Chicago native who photographs derelict and decaying buildings, and published a book of these photos called "Abandoned: America's Vanishing Landscape" last year.

Holubow grew up in Chicago near Cabrini Green, an infamously crime-ridden public housing project that the city slowly demolished over two decades. Holubow says his interest in photographing decaying building grew as he watched Cabrini Green being torn down. Amid the usual architectural detritus, he was surprised to see cross-sections of the building, revealing units that were painted bright pink, orange or green, by people who were doing their best to brighten their surroundings. "I had a curiosity to get closer to those buildings, and that's where it started for me," he says.

From there, Holubow started looking for buildings with broken windows, pouring through city registers of soon-to-be demolished properties, and scanning Google Maps for collapsed roofs, which might hint at the presence of dramatically decaying buildings.

Holubow found plenty of fodder for amazing photographs near his native Chicago. Some of his photographs feature abandoned factories in formerly thriving Rust Belt cities, like Detroit, Cleveland and Gary, Ind. For example, here is a shot of the abandoned Schlitz Brewery building in Milwaukee (you can click on the photos to enlarge them):

Rusting machinery in Armour Meatpacking in East St. Louis:

An exterior shot of a steel factory in Steubenville, Ohio:

An army of abandoned machines -- what Holubow labels a "million machine march" -- in an old factory in Kokomo, Ill:

Lace still in a textile machine at the Scranton Lace Factory in Scranton, Pa.:

It's not just the factories. Holubow has captured hundreds of stunning images of the other public places that thrived earlier in the 20th Century. Churches, theaters, schools and other grand public places now sit quietly decaying, hidden monuments to the past.

This structure is the Michigan Central Station, in Detroit, Mich.:

Here is the City Methodist Church in Gary, Ind.:

These incredible floors, warped by water and time, in the Central School of Visual Arts in St. Louis, Mo.:

Cast-off books in a high school in Gary, Ind.:

The J.N. Adams Memorial hospital, an old tuberculosis facility, in Perrysburg, N.Y.:

An abandoned neo-natal ward in Chicago:

The Majestic Theater in East St. Louis, the first building in the area to have air conditioning when it opened in 1928:

Holubow says he's found that a lot of people share a curiosity about these forbidden places, and that seeing them satisfies an innate human desire to explore.

"But then there's also an adrenaline rush from going into a place that you're not supposed to go into," he says.

Holubow has had plenty of cause for adrenaline in the course of his photography, including having to scare down a large watch dog, stumbling on squatters living in the building, and having his foot fall through a decaying floor. Once a woman mistook him for a surveyor and took him on a tour of an abandoned building. He snapped some photos and left just as the real surveyor was showing up.

"It's fun, especially when you can get away with it. There are other times when you get caught by the police, which is not fun," he says.

This genre of photography is sometimes called "ruin porn." But Holubow, like most of the photographers who turn their lenses on similar subjects, dislikes the term, saying it is pejorative and makes the work seem -- inaccurately -- exploitative. He says he is trying to tell a story about these places and create something aesthetically and conceptually provocative, not just "look at the hole in that wall."

For Holubow, part of the beauty of these shots comes from seeing how architecture decays. The photos combine architecture's highly structured aesthetic with something totally unstructured -- or perhaps more accurately, destructed: entropy.

Another part of his interest is in drawing attention to the buildings themselves, in hopes that some can be restored and used again. Holubow says some of these places are too damaged to be repaired, and should be brought down. But others could be saved and enjoyed, if only people fought for them.

What's unique about this work, he says, is that "these places that were never deemed as significant sites -- they were almost deemed the opposite -- we found value in those places."

Holubow's work will be on display at Art Miami in December in connection with Hexton Gallery.

You might also like: 

-What it’s like to be a part of the world’s richest 1 percent, in 15 incredible photos

-Stunning photos show why S. Korea is the plastic surgery capital of the world

-Oddly captivating photos show what happened to all those Pizza Hut restaurants