A half a mile from the railroad tracks that hug the lonesome bank of the Thames River in the town of Preston, Connecticut, the long-abandoned shells of Colonial Revival-style buildings rise up through decades of fallen leaves to lord over the bramble and broken pavement. Once part of a thousand acre state hospital compound of roughly thirty buildings that collectively housed tuberculosis patients and the “mentally unhygienic,” the view of the remaining structures sitting deserted amid netted ivy and winter-barren trees seems drawn perfectly from a B-movie cliche of the era of lobotomies and experimental psychiatric medicine. Chain link fences and the ominous NO TRESPASSING signs are far less deterring than the darkness behind the busted-out windows of the buildings themselves. Then and now, it seems this has never been a place for the wholly sane.
To photographer Rhanda Gaudio, though, it’s a welcoming aesthetic.
“Even the smell . . . I love that smell,” she says, standing among the debris after a methodical hoist through a second-floor window frame.
This damp space was once an institutional dining room, she explains, stopping to steady her camera bag and pick at plaques of thick black mold with a red fingernail. In the dusty daylight fighting its way around the boards on the windows, Gaudio looks for all the world like a petite Ava Gardner in Adidas shell-toes, sweeping her way through the broken slate shingles and moisture-warped shreds of 1960’s tabloids. For someone with her kind of artistic penchant for finding beauty in even the most forbidding places, her seeming unawareness of her own attractiveness tends to endear people to her. Only at the most fleeting angles can one see the small silver scars that cut across her nose—the result of a three-story fall from a rusted-out fire escape that gave way during an “explore” at a Victorian-era boy’s school in upstate New York.
“My face looked like pounded meat,” she laughs now, “but it was worth it for the pictures.”
It’s always for the pictures.
The seismic clamber of amateur anthropologists, paranormal enthusiasts, and would-be cool kids to anoint themselves real-life urban explorers—or “urbex-ers” in the subcultural common tongue—seems to be a by-product of the commercial “ghost-hunter” craze from the early 2000’s. Cult franchises like History Channel’s Cities of the Underworld, the Travel Channel’s Off Limits, and VICELAND’S Abandoned series have pivoted off our curious fascination with uninhabited spaces and the eeriness of decay, sending ballsy camera crews to pan America’s hidden hellholes: the 18th century plantations of the South, foreclosed mansions, old prisons and train depots, decommissioned mills and the forgotten mines of Appalachia.
“Fifty, sixty years ago, I could have easily been here among them.”
“New England, New York, Pennsylvania… in this part of the country we have so many of these beautiful old places, a lot of this Thomas Kirkbride-style institutional architecture,” Rhanda says. “There isn’t a lot of time left to see them now. I have to soak them in before they come down.”
Down the odd maze of corridors, voices can be heard from somewhere in the building’s belly, and Gaudio’s finger flies to her lips. There’s a suspension of breath and heartbeats. Though a dozen unnamed dangers compete for imagination in a place like this, a criminal trespass charge is the most likely threat — Gaudio’s been arrested before. Her face relaxes at the recognition of one of the voices and moments later she’s in the rotting hallway, sharing a cigarette with a skinny woman with a Polish accent and various GoPro cameras strapped to her body.
“Sydney’s old-school. She’s been doing this a really long time; she’s kind of a legend in the community.”
Sydney straightens up a bit in her combat boots, pleased by the accolade. “Yup. I was nine months pregnant with twins, you almost had to butter me through the underground tunnels,” she says, taking off toward a narrow squeeze-through punched out of the bricks by a staircase and throwing a wave over her shoulder. “Be safe, lady.”
The secretive community of cut-throat competition and strange social hierarchies is complicated by the fact that asbestos dust floating through sun beams makes for the quintessential no-filter Instagram photo, attracting the weekend idiots more and more these days. People used to follow a handful of sacrosanct community rules: never reveal locations to anyone, don’t vandalize anything, and don’t die, start fires, or do anything newsworthy that could put urbex in the spotlight.
“It’s all blown up now, though,” says Gaudio. “Mainstreamers like this Seph Lawless guy come in and get famous off publishing books on it and getting TV deals, and then the whole thing goes to shit. It became the cool thing to do, and then the antique door knobs and light fixtures start showing up on Ebay, and the YouTubers start falling off the roofs, and it all becomes this huge liability so the states tear them down.”
Just this week, Memphis journalist and father of three Eric Paul Jannsen was killed after a misstep on the 20th floor of the abandoned LondonHouse in Chicago. He had been posting photos of the site for his 4,000 Instagram followers shortly before his fall.
Gaudio herself has no interest in getting Insta-famous. Most of her “Beauty in Decay” work includes self-portraits and meticulously-shot architectural images she turns into prints for her own coffee table. Recently she shot a trail of old patient files in the chemical dependency wing, thousands of pages containing the heart-wrenching details of people’s lives in handwritten treatment notes, spilled and yellowing on a staircase.
“Can you imagine posting something so private on some social media page? These were people’s actual lives. It’s like you can’t share it, but you can’t let it go forgotten. It’s what they went through,” she says softly, bending to aim her lens carefully at the place where the rusted springs of an old hospital bed still bowed under the memory of someone’s weight.
“Fifty, sixty years ago, I could have easily been here among them.” Her camera finishes whirring and she creeps over the threshold to the next ward, toe-testing a water-logged spot in the floorboards where a blanket of dark green moss has taken root. “These are resting places, really. They deserve our respect.”