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It's not uncommon these days, if you live in a city, to see vacant houses.  The foreclosure crisis has touched so many urban properties, depending upon what city, and what neighborhood, you live in.  I can walk 9 blocks to my local Trader Joes and pass by three such homes.  Two of them have plywood in the windows.  The other one, I'm guessing, soon will.  I pass by them and wonder...who lived there?  What happened?

But mostly they don't hold much allure for me.  They are, more than anything, sores upon the neighborhood at large.  A missing tooth in what might otherwise be a bright smile.  A blemish of sorts.

But before the Great Recession, when such houses were rare...and going back much further to my younger years, I must confess that such houses, especially in the country, always exerted a strange tug at my consciousness.  They caught both my attention and my imagination.  There have been many occasions where I have seen an abandoned house over the course of my life, and it didn't immediately speak to me of sudden misfortune, or some precipitous downturn in the housing market...instead, it seemed to whisper to me.  

I would look at such an empty house, paint fading and chipping, perhaps a gutter coming loose...weeds high...and for some reason I felt a sense of sorrow.  And then, mystery.  Who used to live there?  Why did they leave?  Why didn't the house end up in someone else's hands?  Why is it now empty?  Did something tragic happen there?  What was it like when it was full of life?

Abandoned House

In 1964 I was just turning 8 years old, and my family was living in Hayward,California.  We lived in a small apartment complex, and directly across the street was what used to be, I'm sure, a grand old house. It was an old Mission style home, long abandoned, and it was the playground for me and my friends during the time we lived there.  None of us knew anything about the former was 1964 and everyone in California, it seemed, had only just arrived from somewhere else.  That was certainly the case with my family.

The house was simply vacant.  And mysterious.  And magnificent.  There were old grape vines that had sprawled out, unattended to, upon an ancient arbor that could barely support them...but which bore quite delicious fruit.  Huge walnut trees in the large lot, which I would collect by the bag full and take home to my mother.  Inside the house, there were old wooden floors, and the front room had a massive fireplace with a mantle that I can still picture.  There was no furniture left in the house, but there was a big pile of books, both soft cover and hardcover, that for some reason had been swept up into a heap in the middle of the floor and left there.

I used to go through the books, even at the age of eight, and look at them.  When and if one of them caught my eye, I would take it home with me.  But otherwise, nobody ever messed with the place.  We would play there, mostly outside...climbing the trees and such, but whenever we stepped was as if a cast had been spelled upon us.  There was a sense of reverence, perhaps, or fear...was it haunted?  I can't really explain it.  We felt as, we knew...that we were trespassing, even though the house was completely abandoned.  We tread lightly.  I remember this distinctly.  And we were a bit spooked by the least on the inside.  Yet there was almost a Siren's call that demanded we enter.

Years later, my experiences with old, abandoned houses were more rural in nature.  


Born in Southeastern Ohio, my family would make an almost yearly pilgrimage back to our hometown growing up, after we had moved to California.  I always had one foot in California, and another in Ohio during my formative years.  By the time I was a teen, my friends and cousins would do what just about every teenager in a small town does.  Head to the one or (if you're lucky) two carryouts in town that don't card teens, pick up a case of beer, and after driving around the loop in town for awhile try to pick up some girls.  Failing that, we would head out onto the backroads and find a place to hangout.  Two of the places we used to hang out were also old, abandoned farmhouses.  

One of them, it should come as no surprise, had a reputation for being haunted.  Is there a small town anywhere that doesn't claim to have a haunted old, abandoned house?  Again, though, while we used to congregate there, and drink a few beers, I don't remember any vandalism.  We may have littered back then, but nobody ever entered the house and tore anything up.  Unlike Hayward, the kids in my hometown at least knew who the house had once belonged to...even if they had been dead for 20 years.  

Over the years I have always felt a strange attraction to abandoned houses...especially old farm houses.  I can't tell you the number of times I have driven a back road, come upon an obviously abandoned house that is down on its heels but still hints at some former grandeur...or at least a former vitality..and pulled over to look at it for a moment.  Many times I have been drawn to get out of the car and walk up to the front door to see if it is open.  If it wasn't, I have walked around back.

I have entered many of these houses, don't ask me why...and looked around.  Sometimes it is depressing.  Things are falling apart, and there are signs of wildlife encroaching.  A papery husk of skin that some Black Snake shed long ago.  Rodent droppings.  Sometimes there are signs of teen vandalism.  Empty beer cans.

But there have been a couple of times when it seems like time stood still.  The place was unkempt and dusty, to be sure, and empty...yet it almost felt like someone simply walked out the front door and never came back.  The house itself endured, seemingly awaiting, still, its owner's return.  I can't explain the thoughts that go through my head when I come across these houses, or why they exert such a pull upon my imagination.

Abandoned Farmhouse

They simply do.  I can hardly drive by one, on the rare occasions I come across them, without wanting to pull over immediately and explore them.  They fill me with curiosity, and not just morbid curiosity...but that, too.  I can't help picturing them in there former glory.  Painted.  A dog in the yard.  Kids playing tag, and a mother hanging her wash out to dry on the clothesline.  Life.  Laughter, one would hope.  The smell of dinner on the stove.  A radio playing.

What life took place there, before the long quiet and the inexorable deterioration that has marked this place for so long before I came upon it?  If you creep inside and listen closely, can your senses detect anything of what once transpired here?

Those are the thoughts that have compelled me on many occasions to pause...step out of my car, walk across an overgrown yard and enter an abandoned house.

I've never felt any rush of spirits or memories lingering in the air, waiting for someone to enter that empty and forlorn space so they could attach themselves to another living soul.  It always feels a little sad, sometimes brooding, even.  Yet...for some reason...these places call to me.

Originally posted to Keith930 on Sun Jan 06, 2013 at 08:59 PM PST.

Also republished by Appalachian Journal and Headwaters.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Am I the only one? Or can you see (24+ / 0-)

    the houses I pictured and see them not as they are, but as they must have once been?

    Oregon:'s cold. But it's a damp cold.

    by Keith930 on Sun Jan 06, 2013 at 09:14:43 PM PST

  •  I took one of those old empty farmhouses (18+ / 0-)

    and turned it into what I consider a beautiful, comfortable old farmhouse.  It had belonged to an old couple who lived in just a couple of rooms the last years of their lives and then it sat empty for nearly a decade.  The windows were broken, and it looked much like the pictures you've shown above.  I stripped it down to its frame, did all new electrical, new plumbing, insulation, walls, windows, etc.  Tried to keep what I could of the old, although it didn't end up being as much as I'd hoped.  Ended up with a lovely place.  It probably cost as much as building new would have, but I love the character and the history of it.  I've lived here now for nearly 20 years, yet when people ask me where I live, I still say "the old Jane and Bill Smith house".   It's only been the last couple years that there are sometimes people who don't know which house it is by that.

    "If you trust you are not critical; if you are critical you do not trust" by our own Dauphin

    by gustynpip on Sun Jan 06, 2013 at 09:16:57 PM PST

    •  Bravo...I would love to do that (8+ / 0-)

      and I'm sure it would be more costly than starting from scratch.  You either feel that in your bones, or you don't.

      Oregon:'s cold. But it's a damp cold.

      by Keith930 on Sun Jan 06, 2013 at 09:21:21 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  not necessarily more costly (6+ / 0-)

        I think it'd depend largely on what the original had.
        FWIW in my teens we did exactly that with my mother's parents' house, which had stood empty for several years after Papa's death (he'd been in a nursing home for some time before passing away, so the house really had been empty for, oh, a decade or so).

        We replaced door locks and rotten pipes, after moving the house 50 miles. I'm absolutely certain we spent less, even with having to get the honeybees out of one of the bays between studs in the north wall, than starting from scratch.

        But we kept a lot, too -- we paneled over cracking plaster because the cloth-and-lath behind it would've been irreparable, and for some time we had the original lino in the kitchen. Mom insisted on adding a bathroom inside the house, so the back porch got closed in, plumbed, and heated -- with a little gas heater you had to light with a match.

        It was a comfy farmhouse after all.

        LBJ, Lady Bird, Anne Richards, Barbara Jordan, Sully Sullenberger, Ike, Drew Brees, Molly Ivins --Texas is no Bush league! -7.50,-5.59

        by BlackSheep1 on Sun Jan 06, 2013 at 09:41:57 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  Thanks for writing this diary... (14+ / 0-)

    and putting into words something I've felt inside for a long time. I've also got a fascination with old abandoned houses, and it's one of my dreams to fix one up... to breathe new life into it and make it my own.

    I was born and raised in Flint, Michigan, and just moved away from there. Needless to say - there are a LOT of vacant, abandoned houses there. Unfortunately, I I'd be one lonely raindrop swimming upstream if I tried to do something like this there.

    But if I ever had the chance to find an old farmhouse out in the country... something secluded... yeah. That'd be my style.

    Because this community is worth staying and fighting for.

    by Great Lakes Liberal on Sun Jan 06, 2013 at 09:40:33 PM PST

  •  Urb-ex, loved it long before it had a name :) (5+ / 0-)

    Great job capturing the fascination someone can have for it.

    Old abandoned theaters, hotels, and old retail businesses I find interesting, tunnels, hospitals, and factories-not so much.

     I am not able to do that kind of exploring anymore, but enjoy reading about others experiences w/UE. You probably already know about this site, dammit links wont work oops.
    Flicker, Urban exploration, Urbex-also some good stuff on U-tube. Corny music sometimes.

  •  all my life I've seen houses gone to waste (9+ / 0-)

    for whatever reason, they were left unattended, then the assholes (really no other word fits) break in and make them uninhabitable. With so many homeless people, there is no excuse.

    This Rover crossed over.. Willie Nelson, written by Dorothy Fields

    by Karl Rover on Sun Jan 06, 2013 at 09:46:17 PM PST

    •  waste is the only word for it (6+ / 0-)

      It seems like it should be so easy to address, but obviously it's not.

      I haven't done any reading on it, but I wonder of Habitats For Humanity is changing it's SOP in light of all of the foreclosed/vacant homes and entering into that market?  It's a great project, and I do know that it has evolved a long way from where it began when Carter started it.

      Oregon:'s cold. But it's a damp cold.

      by Keith930 on Sun Jan 06, 2013 at 10:18:31 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  There is an abandoned home across the street (5+ / 0-)

        from me.  For the past 5 of 7 winters there have been a homeless family that moves in.  2 yrs ago the police came up and asked if I had seen anyone there.  I told them the previous year, yes, but not lately - which was the truth as 2 weeks later a family showed up.  I was hoping they would stay, but they left as soon as it was warm out.

        "Death is the winner in any war." - Nightwish/Imaginareum/Song of myself.

        by doingbusinessas on Sun Jan 06, 2013 at 11:49:15 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  I completely understand. (8+ / 0-)

    You might enjoy exploring this site.  I barely made it out.

  •  well, my house is kind of like that now (5+ / 0-)

    I've been staying with my in-laws due to (their) health issues for over a month now... I had a dream that some street people moved into it. Still haven't been back there since that dream...

    When Fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in excess body fat & carrying a misspelled sign.

    by InsultComicDog on Sun Jan 06, 2013 at 10:12:05 PM PST

  •  My first job out of college (8+ / 0-)

    in 1973 was in Davenport, IA, and I lived about 15 miles up the Mississippi River in the small town of LeClaire, IA. I had an apartment above the A&A Dairy Bar, reached by an outside wooden staircase, in an old red brick building that had been, among other things, a movie theater and mortuary.

    Out my back window were railroad tracks, and across the tracks it was about 15 feet to the river. Next to my building was a single family house, but next to that was an abandoned house.

    From what I could find out, it had been owned by a riverboat captain before the lock and dam below LeClaire went in. There were rapids there at the time, and LeClaire was somewhat of boat building center I gathered.

    The house was built into a hillside, so if you came in at street level from the front, in the back of the house you were one story up, and there was a porch the full width on the back of the house from which you could watch the river.

    One summer day not long after moving there I decided to investigate - you could get in from the river side pretty much unobserved. On the first floor there was a parlor or living room in the front separated by pocket doors (the kind that slide into the wall) from another room with a river view. In that room still sat a grand piano.

    Upstairs where the bedrooms were there were stacks of old magazines and paperbacks, but one of the bedrooms had a bed in it, all made up. Running out the bedroom window was and extension cord that went to an outside outlet on the hardware store building next door.

    There were occasionally hobos along the tracks, and apparently the house was being used at the time for some transient lodging.

    Unlike the diary pictures, this house was on a busy street (US67), with occupied houses and stores all around it, about 3 blocks north of downtown.

    I've always had a fascination for abandoned houses, and have poked around several in N WI and in the CO mountains or MT. The Iowa house was the coolest, though, and if I had stayed in that job I would have loved to have bought and renovated that place (that one, or an abandoned limestone schoolhouse farther out in the country, but next to a pig farm).

    In Soviet Russia, you rob bank. In America, bank robs you.

    by badger on Sun Jan 06, 2013 at 10:19:43 PM PST

  •  In Northern Wisconsin, (10+ / 0-)

    near the place where my grandparents tried (and failed) to make a living farming a piece of clear-cut forest, there were a couple of lumber boom-towns. Shanagolden and Morse still have a few inhabited houses and exist as rural townships.

    In the late 1800's both of these towns had thousands of inhabitants, lumber mills, rail yards, stores, saloons and brothels. Morse had a jailhouse. Shanagolden had a school, city water and fire hydrants.  Most of the housing went up in a hurry and many of the buildings were never even painted. By 1920, the boom was over and the lumberjacks had moved on to the west. The merchants, saloon-keepers and other hangers-on followed the money.

    Rows of empty wooden houses stood empty, surrounded by a forest of stumps. Only a fraction of the population remained. Shoots emerged from the roots of the stumps. The forest renewed itself and worked inward, swallowing up the town.

    On a July morning, half a century later, my brother and I munched blackberries as we walked with our father into the forest, behind the stone remnants of the Morse Jail.  You wouldn't have noticed it from the road. The silhouettes were obscured by the tall trees. The plank siding was grayed and speckled with lichen. Suddenly we were standing in front of a house, half-consumed by the land.

    One empty house, decaying in the forest is a sad sight, but as I gazed to the left, to the right and beyond the derelict in front of me, the silent horror was almost overwhelming. An entire town was being slowly digested by the earth. The valuable window glass was gone. Some of them had trees growing up through the porches or even through the house itself with limbs protruding from dormer windows and pushing aside the broken rafters. Wild grapevines climbed over railings and gables.

    My brother and I were both horrified and fascinated. My dad looked forlorn. He was a child of the great Depression and fully understood what it meant to "go bust" and head for the big city to look for work.

    We went swimming that afternoon, forgetting the haunted houses in the big woods. We splashed and hunted minnows in a lake whose copper-colored water was darkened with tannin from the trees that lined it's shores.

    You're not the only one, Keith390. I've seen them too.

    I started with nothing and still have most of it left. - Seasick Steve

    by ruleoflaw on Sun Jan 06, 2013 at 10:20:01 PM PST

  •  Oh, yes! (6+ / 0-)

    I think it may be instinctual for some of us. Maybe a trait that helped us early in our evolution. But some of us still have it. It's what makes us read Stephen King books and explore wild places....

    When my husband and I first moved up here to the Seattle area, we'd go out for a drive every weekend, to explore our new home. One day we drove out into the Maple Valley area, where there are old farms and homes on acreage. At the intersection of the highway we were on and another small highway, we saw a magnificent old house, with outbuildings and set on a small rise. It was obviously abandoned. We drove up the driveway and parked in the side yard to explore. It never occurred to us that it could be unsafe. We found the back door open and slipped inside. The front windows were boarded up and the living room area was dark so we stayed away from it - we could smell something funky, too. We looked around the huge kitchen and dining room with built-in cabinetry, went up the still-safe stairs and looked in the bedrooms and bath - with a claw-foot tub. There were no furnishings but there were fixtures. There were many built-in features and we talked about how cool it would be to have a house like this.

    The outbuildings were the usual farm stuff - a barn, tool shed, work shed, etc. We never did find out what the story was but it was a neat excursion.

    Thank your stars you're not that way/Turn your back and walk away/Don't even pause and ask them why/Turn around and say 'goodbye'/Just wish them well.....

    by Purple Priestess on Sun Jan 06, 2013 at 10:34:50 PM PST

  •  Nice (6+ / 0-)

    I know exactly what you mean.

  •  The largest abandoned house I know... (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Keith930, hnichols, bumbi, foresterbob

    I went to college at a Temple University campus (Tyler School of Art) at the northern-most edge of Philadelphia . Across the street was this abandoned mansion that we used to jump the fence late at night and climb to the roof. From on top, you could see all of Philly.

    This was NOT your run-of-the-mill old mansion...

    This thing was/is incredible from its shear size, opulence, and heartbreaking years of neglect.

    Please read about it in the Wikipedia link below.

    Lynnewood Hall Wiki - "An American Versailles"

    Too often, the defenders of free markets forget that what we really want is free men. - Mathew Crawford "Shop Class as Soulcraft"

    by withayou on Sun Jan 06, 2013 at 11:59:57 PM PST

  •  Added tag: OHIO (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    hnichols, foresterbob

    When I was still going about in the country, I used to go look at old places.

    No longer really travelling anywhere, these days...

  •  Good diary! When the home is one you know .. (6+ / 0-)

    While visiting a close relative in Southern California, my wife had a desire to visit her long-estranged father's home in Studio City, in which she spent time when she was younger. She knew that he had recently been admitted to a home for the elderly, and while she was unsure when he had last lived there, no face-to-face encounter with the bastard himself could occur.

    She navigated to the address, where she found the original house more or less intact, looking out over Coldwater Canyon, clearly abandoned.

    We entered through a breezeway and found a mostly furnished house in disarray, with personal items, artwork, and furniture strewn about, books everywhere, but few signs of actual vandalism. Although everything was thrown around, it looked as though her father could have just been there. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up just a bit.

    My wife then began (with her absolutely frightening powers of recall) referencing episodes from her past that we'd discussed, punctuating each with "..that happened right over there." Talk about spooky. I was feeling somewhat light-headed, experiencing the surreal levels of sensory overload. Even I was noting objects and optics that made details of her stories suddenly come to life. It seemed that nothing much had changed there in many years.

    I pulled Mao's Little Red Book from a bedside shelf (he was an established, unapologetic, Hollywood lefty) as a souvenir, while my wife continued making her way into the bedroom, noting a pair of slippers casually left by the bedside.

    It was right at this time that I looked up and out the bedroom window, but instead of seeing the opposite side of the canyon, I was looking at a wall of wood (deck flooring as it turned out). I was suddenly very disoriented. I gradually noticed a fairly pronounced downward slant to the bedroom floor. That section of the house was gently collapsing, forcing the deck upward in a "V" shape, and blocking the window's view.

    I calmly requested that my wife not make any sudden moves, and slowly make her way back "up" to the doorway, as we had to leave. right. now.

    I shudder slightly, 20 years later, just thinking about the house, the spiritual eddy of a man I never met, and the physical danger present there.

    Thanks for a thought provoking diary., where did I leave my torches and villagers?

    by FrankSpoke on Mon Jan 07, 2013 at 03:01:32 AM PST

  •  I've always been fascinated by abandoned places (6+ / 0-)

    When I was young, my grandparents lived in an old colonial-era farmhouse in rural Pennsylvania. The house itself had been greatly renovated over the years, although signs of its heritage were still all over the place. The basement, in particular, always captured my imagination. But the most compelling thing about the place were the neglected farm buildings elsewhere on the site. They were nowhere near as old as the house itself, and had only been abandoned a decade or so earlier (the farm itself remained operational until my grandparents inherited it from my great-grandparents in the mid-1970s). I was constantly told to stay away from the buildings, and, in hindsight, they probably wouldn't have been entirely safe even if they were in good condition. But there was something strikingly beautiful about the overgrown fields and the tiny, slowly decaying buildings standing proudly amidst them.

    It was an experience I seldom got to experience anywhere else. I was raised in a suburb of Washington, DC, during a period of explosive growth, so no houses stayed abandoned for very long. But, to this day, any time I'm visiting some place and happen to come across a sufficiently old house (abandoned or otherwise, really), they never fail to capture my attention and my imagination.

  •  American Foursquare (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I did this.  Found a sturdy brick farmhouse in Ohio and checked out of life on the east coast.    Sold my home of 30 years in Ct, and as it is said, "timing is everything", it suffered the Long Island Sound's 14 foot waves 4 months later during Sandy.  I am one lucky girl.

    The house was in an estate and had been on the market for two years. I found it after a long real estate search, by accident, after failing to type in a "minimum" on the search page.

    Although there are no structural problems with the house - there were plumbing and electrical issues.  These were budgeted for, but the summer heat and drought forced some backyard bathing and water hauling.  The home is served by a 2500 gallon cistern - which has been the most fascinating part of the restoration.  

    I plan to become a Great Black Swamp gardener while fully restoring the property. Although I was born in Ohio - I have never lived rurally. It has been an awakening of self-sustainance that I never expected!

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