A location of immense proportions and beauty popped up on my radar on the advent of the new year of 2016. It was a gorgeous, sprawling, red-brick sanatorium built into a western New York hillside. It featured curved hallways, massive open air porches, and the piece-de-resistance: a gigantic arched rotunda crowned with a marvelous stained glass skylight. Photos proved it to be a vibrant, colorful space; a space I needed to see. But alas, nearly a year's time had passed and still, I had not had the opportunity to explore this beautiful monstrosity. School work, poor weather, and a trespassing ticket all stood in the way of exploring it. But then came the day when the courage and the times aligned perfectly and I found myself in my car, speeding down the interstate to the J.D. Salinger Memorial Hospital.
It was a peaceful morning of the onset of the fall equinox. The sun was shining, not a cloud in the sky, and a cool breeze billowed through the air, reminding me of what it felt like to be cold. The drive was a long one, but not a grueling one. I was excited for why lie at the end of the road, and I have gotten accustomed to driving 3 or 4 hours at a time. Just about when the sun reached its zenith, we pulled into the minute town in which this gargantuan hospital lies.
We were clearly out of place in this town. It was one of those town in which everyone knows everyone, so three college age kids that pull up in a bright blue car with New Jersey plates sticks out like a porcupine in a nudist colony. Walking through the town and up the long road to the hospital, we set of nearly every dog-alarm in the whole town. Nearly every house we passed by, the dogs that resided inside would sense the presence of alien lifeforms and start howling to their owners who would come out and stare at us with confused and/or suspicious eyes. This scrutiny by the neighbors did not help with the anxieties of exploring this hospital.
But to our surprise, no one stopped to question us and we slipped off the road and into the forest that led up to the sanatorium; hidden from the civilized world. After a short hike along a path pre-made for explorers, by explorers, the curvilinear hospital building came into view. Since its abandonment, a large and sturdy barbed wire fence was put up around the entire property. So there we were, standing a few hundred feet away from this gorgeous abandonment, held back by a chain link fence thin barrier. Hopping the fence was not an option; none of us were really in the mood to get cut up and dangled in barbed wire. Luckily, over the years, fellow explorers (and delinquents) have cut holes through the fence, making entry to this campus much easier and less bloody. Most of the previously cut holes had been patched up but after a short walk along the fence line, a fresh wound in the fence was found. One by one was climbed through the fence and in a matter of seconds we were standing in the middle of a sprawling abandoned hospital campus.
Walking up to the colossal, Parthenon-eque main entrance way was indubitably a surreal experience; one of the most unreal of my time exploring. Four large, ionic columns loomed over myself and my fellow explorers. Stepping up the large concrete stairs and through the main doorway was like stepping into another dimension. Another dimension in which human life ceased to exist and nature was allowed to run rampant and decay could live free. The first thing all our eyes fell to once making our way through the portal, was a fireplace with the words "J.D. SALINGER MEMORIAL HOSPITAL" cut into a marble slab above the mantel. Flanking off both sides were two gorgeous staircases, leading up into the unknown. We stayed in the foyer for a few minutes while we set up our equipment, but being that I was so excited that I had finally made it into this place, I began to wander off on my lonesome. What I happened upon first was a curved hallway. This was strikingly different from every other decrepit hallway I had been in (which is probably hundreds at this point). I have seen the nearly quarter mile long hallways of general hospitals, the extra wide corridors of Kirkbride asylums, narrow cell blocks of prisons, but none of them were as visually and architecturally appealing as this curvilinear hallway, bending off into the distance, the terminus out of sight from the start.
Traversing the arched corridor, I reach its end, and realize that I should probably reconnect with my fellow explorers. I turned around and headed back from whence I came. But somehow, the curvature of the hallway disoriented me and I ended up in a different area from where I started. But, amazingly enough, getting mildly lost within the first five minutes of being in this building brought me to one of the most beautiful rooms I have ever had the pleasure of stepping foot into in my time exploring buildings. I stepped through an arched doorway and suddenly the sky opened up above me and I was yet again transported to another dimension. A kaleidoscope of stained class hung high above my head. I was standing in the heart of the rotunda, at the core of what drew me to this in the first place. As with most beautiful things in this world, photographs cannot do this space justice. No camera, no wide angle lens, no amount of megapixels can replicate the sensation of standing in that domed room. The air hung heavy, the light shone bright, the residual whispers rang loud.
Shockingly, I did not take as many photographs in that room as one might expect. I mean, I definitely got all the necessary shots of it, but I was too awe struck to focus on photographing. Looking back now, I wish I had some more shots of the dome, but as like aforementioned, what good would that do? Nothing can compare to actually being there.
But I couldn't stay in there forever. There was a whole hospital to explore. So I made my way back out of the ethereal glow and into the dark, dingy hallways to reconvene with the others. There was a slight moment of panic when they were not back in the main entrance where I saw them last. It turns out that everyone had wandered off to their own devices, but after a few moments the allure of the dome pulled us all back together and soon enough we were back on track. The first room we entered after the dome was a dilapidated kitchen. Someone really did not like kitchen equipment because most of the remaining equipment was knocked over and smashed to pieces. This was strange because overall, this hospital lacked the level of vandalism that most abandoned hospitals of this age and type have incurred over the years. Moving onwards and upwards, we made our way into the wards.
These hospital wards were unlike any of the many I've seen before. There was the typical long corridor with patient rooms adorning each side, but attached to each room was a doorway that led out to a massive porch area. It appeared that the patients, at least in this ward, were given free range of the ward, and could walk about wherever they pleased. The porch was spacious, bright, and full of fresh air. If I was terminally ill, I could see that space being very therapeutic. That is why this building was built like this, after all. Every floor in every ward had access to a porch of the like. Some floors had caged in porches, presumable for the more unstable patients. The upper floors provided an absolutely incredible view of the surrounding landscape. It felt more like a mountain resort than a hospital.
The level of decay in this building was amazing. Nature had nearly completely taken back over. Ferns and various other vegetation grew out of the floors, vines coated the walls, and water dripped from the ceilings. Pain chips coated the walls and floors. Even the graffiti done after the hospital's closing had begun to peel and decay. Being abandoned for over 20 years, this was no surprise, but the way this particular building had decayed, was rather elegant.
In one of the wards we noticed a latter that led up to what presumably was some sort of watch tower. Of course we had to investigate that. So there we were, climbing up this latter into the unknown. I emerged onto a platform that was raised up above all of the wards and buildings of the vacant campus. From that little watch tower, we could see a truly all-encompassing view of the hospital. The curvy wards stretched across landscape. Far of into the distance we could see the shores of Lake Eerie. The minute looking, distant skyscrapers of Buffalo barely shown through a deep haze. Although providing a beautiful view, being up on that platform became somewhat of a hassle. Every time a car was heard passing by on the adjacent road, we would have to hit the deck to avoid being spotted. That got old really quickly so we decided to climb back down into the abyss.
It was a lot colder and harder to breath back inside the hospital; but no surprise there. So we continued our wandering. Ward after ward, porch after porch, room after room until we felt we had thoroughly explored the majority of the hospital. One building we stumbled into held a decent sized auditorium on the first floor, which was neat. The rest of that building was for the most part, was rather banal. It seemed to be used as a developmental center for children at some point, due to the large amount of children's toys strewn about every room. The roof provided another nice view of the hospital, but again, the constant need to dodge the view of passing cars made it more of a hassle than it was worth. So we headed back down to figure out what the plan was.
There was a power plant on the campus, so we figured we might as well go check that out as well. It was on the far side of campus and of course, we took possibly the worst possible route to get there. We ended up bushwhacking through what felt like the Amazon jungle. After climbing our way through untraversed forest, not only did we find out that there was a much, MUCH easier way we could have gone, but that there was two layers of barbed wire fences we would have to get through to get to the power plant. We were tired, we were discouraged, the last thing we wanted to do was deal with barbed wire. The unanimous decision was, we had seen the majority of the hospital, the power plant probably was not worth it, and that we should call it a day and head home. And that is exactly what we did.
With much haste, we made our way back through the hospital towards the main entrance, which would now become our exit. On the way back, we found a room that had three large, hydrotherapy baths left in it, which was very interesting (and photogenic). Besides that, the walk back was just more of the same. And so we finally reach the point in which we started, having gone full circle around the entire hospital. We step out of the portal and back into reality. We squeeze back through the hole in the fence, and step into the civilized world. We will go on with our lives, but the J.D. Salinger Memorial Hospital will still lie the same way it was left. Vacant, unused. Forgotten.
* * *
It was the early 20th century. Tuberculosis was running rampant in western New York. "The White Plague", as it was nicknamed, was causing more illnesses and deaths than ever. The mayor of Buffalo at that time decided it was absolutely necessary to build a hospital dedicated to the treatment of tuberculosis. And in the year 1909, using the mayor's own personal money, a massive sanatorium was constructed on a hillside just south of the city. The architect John Hooper Coxhead was commissioned to construct the hospital. It was built to mimic southern plantations, while utilizing stylings of Neo-Classical architecture. Each floor featured massive, ornamented columns and large open air verandahs that provided ample sunlight and air for the patients. Curved hallways connected the wards and administration building under the belief that disease festered and grew in corners, so a hospital with limited amounts of corners, would be more sanitary. Further reasoning behind the curved halls was that it was near impossible to place hospital beds in curved hallways. Putting patient beds in hallways was a common practice in hospitals and asylums at the time due to rampant overcrowding.
Absolutely no expense was spared by the mayor of Buffalo for this hospital, at that cannot be more obvious than the large domed, dining rotunda. The patient dining area was a large rotunda that featured an ornate stained glass dome purchased by the mayor. This dome is said to be the dome from the 1901 Pan-American Exposition's Temple of Music. Underneath that same dome, President William McKinley was assassinated. It is unclear whether this is factual, or just local legend. Either way it is such a shame that such a gorgeous and possibly majorly historic piece is being left to fall apart.
The hospital operated as a tuberculosis sanatorium until 1960 when the need for large scale hospitals for tuberculosis was not longer needed. In 1965, the hospital became a developmental center for the mentally and physically ill and the name was changed to J.D. Salinger Developmental Center. It operated as such until 1995 when the institutional treatment of mental illnesses had long since ended. It is 2016 now and the hospital has not been used, seen a patient, and sat vacant for over 20 years. It is in a state of severe, possibly irreversible disrepair. Although on the New York State Register of Historic Places and eligible to be on the national register and cannot easily and legally be demolished, the sate is demolishing it via neglect. Last year the State said they were conducting studies on how the buildings can be reused, but nothing has come of that. So the J.D. Salinger Memorial Hospital was stand on its hilltop, vacant and unused, until it completely tires out and falls. Or until the State realizes what a valuable piece of real estate and history they are throwing away, and take steps to revitalize it, but at this point, that is looking highly unlikely.