The Lovely Bones

Photo: New York Times

Editor’s note: After the PlanPhilly essay below was published on Tuesday, the link to the New York Times slide show, featuring some of the photos described here along with others, was substituted with the following note: “The pictures in this feature were removed after questions were raised about whether they had been digitally altered.” Read more about that here:

July 7

By Thomas J. Walsh
For PlanPhilly

There’s a terrible beauty to buildings that are dead-in-the-water, whether they’ve been used-up and forgotten or just never came to be, something we were reminded of in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, which featured a photo essay called “Ruins of the Second Gilded Age.” (

That there’s a fascination in ruins is no secret – a sizeable portion of the world’s tourism economy is based on seeing such sites. Pompeii. The Valley of the Temples in Sicily. The Machu Picchu sanctuary. Those Mayan marvels.

But as we all found out over recent years, via several coffee table books, whatever specters haunt 4,000-year-old Egyptian death chambers have kindred spirits in the dead bricks-and-mortar of American homes and commercial buildings, too. Whether they are 200-year-old wood-frame houses, gap-toothed blocks of Philly rowhomes or sprawling factories, abandoned after just decades, there’s an innate curiosity to look within them.

The Times essay was the latest evidence that more and more, American photographers are documenting these sites in beautiful ways, before they are gone. As it turns out, (at least) three compilations by three different photographers in the past 10 years have the same theme.

There’s the 2007 book called “American Ruins” by Arthur Drooker, who captured the freestanding Corinthian columns of the Windsor mansion in Mississippi from an angle that makes it look like an overly elaborate cemetery, which is appropriate. His “White House Ruins” photo is not from some sub-basement of the Pennsylvania Avenue White House, but rather from the Canyon de Chelly National Monument in northeastern Arizona’s Navajo country.

Maxwell MacKenzie’s book, “American Ruins: Ghosts on the Landscape,” came out in 2001. Yet another with the “American Ruins” title was 1999’s effort by Camilo José Vergara, which may be the best known, internationally. (Also, I own this one, so naturally it’s my favorite; but it is ambitious and voluminous.) Vergara includes some nifty time-lapse photography – but over years, not the course of a day. His montage of four pictures of Fern Street in Camden spans the period of 1979-2004, and can be seen here at his Wikipedia entry: Other books by Vergara include “The New American Ghetto,” “Unexpected Chicagoland” and “Twin Towers Remembered.”

In Sunday’s essay, Portuguese photographer Edgar Martins was asked by the Times to “capture on film the physical evidence of the real estate bust in the United States.” The results are streetscapes, construction sites and interiors that are bordering on the surreal, starting with the opening shot of “Chateaux on Central” in downtown Phoenix – the epicenter of the mortgage meltdown.

The street of condominiums – all bricked-up in many hues and tricked-out with cinderblock (yet denticulated) garages, peekaboo balconies with balustrades and arched windows – seems like a movie set, the façades made of Styrofoam and propped up by two-by-fours. Looked at again, the photo seems like a zoomed-in tabletop model of the homes, which were to sell for millions. “Unoccupied and unfinished,” this particular development is not just a shame, it’s tragic – one of the lenders involved committed suicide in June 2008.

The picture of the Echelon in Las Vegas at twilight, aglow with construction lights with a dim foreground of dirt and orange plastic partitions, depicts the talk of the Vegas Strip among casino companies and developers. The $4.8 billion complex might be described as mega-mixed mega-use, with a convention center, 5,000 hotel rooms (in a city that already has thousands too many), an enormous shopping center and, of course, a gigantic casino. The developer, Boyd Gaming (co-owner of the Borgata in Atlantic City and one of the industry’s biggest players), shut down construction in August of last year, an unprecedented move for a casino or resort, but perhaps indicative of the increasingly non-gaming development that overleveraged casino companies have been engaged in for the past decade. Fittingly, the building is shown as exposed, with no outer wall, and also overexposed, from the fluorescent safety lighting. Four large cranes overhang the project, like surgical probes hovering above a dying patient.

There’s a whitewashed photo of a Bakersfield, Calif. staircase inside an unfinished house that sold for $410,000 in 2006 – and recently appraised at $205,000.

And, in what could be the best depiction of the housing boom to date, Martins shot a mustard- and brick-colored Colonial in an Atlanta suburb. The bright white trim and finished roof are set off by no front door, broken windows within brand-new frames, torn drywall on the modest front porch, and the gaping maw of its double, front-facing garage. The trash-strewn foreground is filled with murdered recliners, empty five-gallon white buckets, ripped-up bags of concrete, a rusted-out paint can, a remote-control toy car and about a ton of other detritus. The background consists of darkened bare trees. It’s a 21st century “American Gothic,” derelict of the humans in the foreground.

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“Invincible Cities,” Camilo José Vergara’s collaboration with Rutgers-Camden; this link takes you to the site’s “Camden database,” which is interactive (use the maps to the left of the images to find your way):

NYTimes Magazine, July 5, 2009:

Maxwell MacKenzie:

Arthur Drooker:

PlanPhilly: “Peeking at a powerful past,” June 15, 2009: (C. Bradley Maule):
“An Evening on the Delaware” (June 2009):
“Last Days of the Tidewater Grain Elevator” (December 2007):
“Port Richmond riverfront” (September 2007):

NFR (Necessity For Ruins [Christopher Dougherty; Philadelphia]):

Have a favorite photo Web site for urban ruins? Email me and we’ll add it here.


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