The Sterling Opera House in Derby, Connecticut

Copyright Steven Bley

Copyright Steven Bley

Historic preservation.  It is a controversial topic in small towns across the United States.  How does a small community effectively and efficiently preserve the architecture of its past?  Architecture that cannot be duplicated.  Architecture that tells the story of the people who have lived and died in a community, helped build a community from the ground up.  It is a tall order for any community on a limited budget.  In this era of stagnant economies, the task becomes almost herculean.  Local preservationists must come to a building’s rescue.  Today’s photo shows one such case: The Sterling Opera House in Derby, Connecticut.  The image comes to us courtesy of New Jersey-based photographer Steven Bley.  Bley is particularly interested in abandoned places and has some great shots on his site, located at www.stevenbley.com and on his Flickr page at https://flickr.com/stevenbley.

The Sterling Opera House is not quite a lost place, but at one time it was heading in that direction.  The opera house opened 125 years ago this month, April 2, 1889.  The building served as an arts venue until 1933.  The first two floors served as the community’s city hall and police station until 1965.  In 1968, it became the first site in Connecticut listed for historic preservation status.  Local preservation efforts from the 70’s through the 90’s raised enough funds and awareness to completely restore the exterior of the building.  The opera house hosted some luminaries in its day: bandleader John Philip Sousa, comedian Red Skelton, magician Harry Houdini, actor Donald O’Connor, aviator Amelia Earhart, and no less than three Barrymores: Lionel, John, and Ethel.  According to some locals, including town dignitaries, the opera house still hosts a few residents in the form of ghosts.  Locals have reported mysterious slamming doors and strange sensations in the building.

The sign in the image promotes 19th century French strongman C.A. Sampson.  Sampson was famously defeated in a show of strength against strongman Eugen Sandow.  According to news accounts at the time, Sandow substituted materials prior to the exhibition which made him look much stronger than Sampson.  Sampson walked off stage in protest.  Sampson was a also a writer, penning “Strength: A Treatise on the Development and Use of Muscle” in 1895.  The book advocated, among other things, deep breathing, walking, cold baths and the use of elastic bands tied around the muscles during weight training.  Sandow is by far the more well-known of the two men.  Sandow, born in Germany, measured Greek statuary to build his physique up to the standard of the “the Grecian ideal.”  It is with good reason that Sandow is often called “the father of modern bodybuilding.”

Derby continues to do some body modification on the opera house itself.  Jean Falbo-Sosnovich of The New Haven Register reported in early March that the city received a $20,000 grant from The Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation.  The money will help the city apply for a state tax credit that would significantly lower the cost of continued restoration.  Preserving the past often comes with a high price tag.

Abandoned Psychiatric Hospital in Belgian Limburg

Copyright Karen Baijens

Copyright Karen Baijens

This week’s photograph comes to us from Belgium-based Dutch photographer Karen Baijens.  Karen is an avid urban explorer and her journeys often send her to lost and abandoned places.  One of these journeys sent her to an old building in Belgian Limburg, built in 1830.  Karen writes:

“The building has been used for many purposes.  From 1921 until 1980, it was used as a psychiatric hospital.  Since 1980 it has been abandoned.  The place inspired me so much that I also used it for a wedding shoot.”

Abandoned psychiatric hospitals are some of the most photographed of all lost places.  They combine many elements that make an abandoned building fascinating: an interesting history, unique construction, and an element of fear.  It is hard to argue that few places are as fundamentally frightening as old psychiatric treatment facilities, due in part to the frightening history of how the mentally ill have been treated.  Photographs of forgotten psychiatric hospitals can easily conjure up images of shock tubs, straight-jackets, and secretive experiments on the mentally ill. The sad truth is that, for much of human history, the mentally ill were treated quite poorly.  Old psychiatric hospitals are a tangible reminder of that past.  Regardless of how patients were treated in any particular hospital, these abandoned hospitals were once places where real patients experienced real suffering at the hands of mental illness.  Urban explorers often wonder what would happen if walls could talk–few places give the feeling of lost stories more than the psychiatric hospital.