'Urban explorers' discover sad scenes, patient records at abandoned asylum
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- (Photo: Gabe Joselow/TBD)
Pat lays out the game plan on an iPad. It’s early on a Saturday morning on one of the coldest days of the year, and there are about 12 of us here at a café in Laurel. Pat points to a Google Maps satellite image of where we’ll park and the quarter-mile path through the woods we will take to get to the old Forest Haven asylum.
Photography is the primary motivation for many of the explorers, and several walk through the woods with tripods strapped to their backs. There are a couple of professional photographers in the group, but the rest are enthusiasts; when they’re not exploring abandoned hospitals, they work in real estate, in IT, in accountancy.
And while most “urban explorers,” as these folks call themselves, prefer to hunt solo, this crew will often explore in large groups. “I like having people around,” Pat says. “You start to see things in a new way.” Following reports of security guards spotted at Forest Haven, the group tried to limit the numbers of this outing; those that came were excited to see the dereliction of the notorious institution.
Forest Haven has a dark history. The institution was founded in 1925 as a home for mentally disabled adults and children. But it was ordered shut in 1991, 15 years after the parents of several residents filed a lawsuit outlining serious claims of abuse and neglect at the facility. Vincent Gray, then the director of the D.C. Association for Retarded Citizens, headed the effort to close the asylum and to relocate Forest Haven’s 1,100 residents.
Pat has been back to Forest Haven five times and has never exhausted the photographic possibilities of the place. “It would take a very long time to go see every room in every building,” he says, “which ultimately should be the goal of any explorer.”
We hike through the woods and enter the first building through a wide broken window, climbing over a knee-high sill. Every building we visit is exactly this easy to get into.
The first rooms are tiled; there are names written on the wall in bubble letters, apparently marking the placement of children’s beds or desks. The hallways are completely dark, with overhead beams sagging in or completely fallen. A soft rubble covers the ground — a combination of crushed drywall and insulation.
Urban explorers live by the old “leave only footprints” rule. But less conscientious visitors have ransacked these rooms, bashing in the drywall to strip out copper, leaving empty Four Loko cans in their wake. They’ve also overturned file cabinets that have remained behind in administrative parts of the facility, leaving medical records and other files strewn on the ground.
Pat fingers through a few papers sticking out of one of the undisturbed file cabinets and says ruefully, “if you were ever going to steal an identity, somebody that’s locked away in a mental institution would probably be the best guy to steal from — he’ll never find out.” He notes that the last time he visited Forest Haven, there were files with people’s Social Security cards stapled to the back and that they have since disappeared.
Leafing through some of the papers scattered on the floor I find logs detailing a young resident’s misbehavior and a sheet of ruled paper with a handwritten list titled “10 Things I Like About Myself.” There are hundreds of documents like these, spread across several rooms and buildings.
Some past articles about Forest Haven mention the patient files as a kind of curiosity. But the haphazard way in which they were left behind raises the question of why these buildings were abandoned so hastily.
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