Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Last Tunnel of the Essex Mountain Sanatorium

In the early 1900's, tuberculosis was becoming a major problem in America. The booming population of Essex County was no exception. So many people were sick, that two local women proposed  establishing a hospital in the more rural section of the county where they lived. A parcel of land on the second Watchung Mountain which held an abandoned boarding school was suggested to become the new county sanatorium.

There was just one problem. Some residents of the area did not want the illness to spread from the hospital and start affecting the townsfolk. The group decided to ignore the concerns of the residents, and began sneaking patients into the shuttered boarding school in the middle of the night. Once they had established their presence, it was legally very difficult to evict them. As the disease became more prevalent, Essex County decided to take over the small clinic and expand it to the massive building complex it was. From 1917 to 1930, the county added 21 buildings, to accommodate for the growing population of ill people.

The land on which the hospital sat proved to be ideal, as the quiet scenic setting and fresh mountain air helped the hospital become "The Colorado Springs of the East". The sanatorium boasted a 50% recovery rate, which was almost unmatched by every other sanatorium in the world. The hospital was so efficient in its eradication of the disease, the county no longer needed such a large facility to deal with it. The county closed the sanatorium in 1977, and moved the last few patients to other area hospitals. They also closed the small division operating out of the Freeman Pavilion at the nearby Overbrook Psychiatric Hospital.

The sanatorium fell into serious disrepair, and in 1993 most of the hospital was bulldozed. A few small buildings remained on the complex for over a decade. One of my earliest memories was riding bikes by the former hospital with my father. I saw the dilapidated nurses cottage, and asked him about it. He said it used to be a hospital, but they didn't use it anymore and they were demolishing it soon. For over a decade, I thought that was the last I was ever going to see of the place. But that all changed when I found the tunnel that was still intact.

I had heard about the tunnel from other explorers, but I could never find the entrance. I spent dozens of hours over the years scouring the reservation, to no avail. One day in 2014, my girlfriend and I decided to go for a hike. I was telling her how I had always heard rumors that the entrance was in our general area, but I could never find it. I decided right then that maybe today would be the day. Sure enough, after thrashing around in the tall overgrowth, I found the small concrete opening in the earth.

I called over my girlfriend, and prepared for my descent into the earth. I slid in, which was challenging for a person my size. I didn't have my camera with me, so I was just taking a peek around. I turned to face the hole, and I was frozen by what I saw. Cave crickets. Thousands of them. I quickly popped back out of the hole, and said I would return with my camera when the cold kicks in. A few months later, we headed back with a friend and fellow historian from Old Jersey News.

We didn't spend to long in the tunnel, as it only runs about 50 feet or so. As I walked around this time, I got hit with the real gravity of what we were exploring. It was more than simple exploring, it was something more akin to archeology. We quietly took our photo's, and once again exited the concrete expanse before it came down on top of us.

The buildings of the Essex Mountain Sanatorium may be gone, but the memories of the complex remain. For more info, please visit Rich Kennedy's site

Friday, June 13, 2014

The Wind Tunnel Warehouse

This building is one of the things I love to write about most; the building sitting on the side of the road that thousands of people pass by everyday. I remember passing by this warehouse a number of times as a child. The road it's on is a cut through between two busy streets that we found ourselves on often. This was before I really was interested in exploring, but I remember wondering what the building used to be, and why it was abandoned.

Over the years I forgot about the structure, until the first spring break I had my license. Thinking that surely others had to be interested in what the building was, I headed over to see if I could find my way inside.

As luck would have it, I managed to find a door that was ajar. I carefully entered the warehouse with my friend at my back, thrilled that I was going to be able to see what had long been a mystery to me.

The place felt enormous inside. The main sections of the warehouse had gigantic circular holes in the walls, which had since been cinderblocked up.

I came to find out afterwards that this building was built in the 1940's. It used to be part of a large aircraft manufacturing company, who were instrumental in constructing aircraft for the United States Air Force during World War II. The reason for the large holes in the walls were because this structure used to be the wind tunnel area for testing the aircraft's engines. While most of the enormous complex was demolished and re- used as an airport, this building went on to be used by a number of machining companies before eventually being used as a warehouse.

From everything I have seen and read since my visit, it seems like the last time the building was actively being used was the 1990's. I couldn't find and information about why the building was abandoned however.

The structure still held one more secret. As we walked into one of the chambers, we saw the outlines of three cars. A Jeep, a Cadillac, and some kind of car from the 1920's or 30's. I couldn't believe somebody could let a historic vehicle like this just rot away. I was disappointed to find most of the cars had been run through by thieves, and the damage was probably more than the value of the vehicles.

After posting some photo's online, I found out that another explorer had found his way inside the structure a few years before me. After he had posted his findings online, he was confronted by local police officers who tracked the photographs back to him. He was charged at the owners request, but the case was eventually dropped. Still, a few members of the online exploring community were quick to mention it, and tell me that it would probably be in my best interest to take the photos down.

However, this incident was years before my time. It was before the online community had developed into what it was now, and I stubbornly dismissed their suggestions. Nothing ever came of it for me, nor the others who went after me. Since my visit nothing has happened with the structure, other than a "For Sale" sign being posted on the fence. I really have no idea what will happen with this forgotten piece of history. Nobody seems to care about the building's past, and probably fewer care about it's future. But considering what an eyesore the exterior is, and the fact it sits alongside a busy road, it will probably only last a few more years and then end up an empty lot.

Monday, June 2, 2014

The St. Mark Church

This church dates back to 1827, when a local parish decided to spread out from their main building in Newark. Before long, the new group grew into the most wealthy offshoots from the main church.

In 1860, the parish began working on their building as West Orange began to change. A large steeple was built onto the front- left side of the building, as well as some other changes to the structure. The additions, which were in a Gothic Revival style, were designed by famed architect Richard Upjohn.

The church was very influential in the history of West Orange, operating the first elementary and high schools in town.

The group was dwindling by the 1960's, and they were running out of money. It was added to the NRHP in the 1970's, but without the money to properly maintain the building the church soon began to fall apart. Preservation New Jersey listed it as one of the top 10 most endangered historic places in the state in the 1990's.

Despite the church's conditions, different groups held services in the building over the next decade. The current signs on the church said that a Spanish congregation was occupying the structure. However, the tall grass and boards on the doors said otherwise.

The last group to occupy the building left in 2009, and since then water has worked its way into the structure. A section of the roof above the altar area had started to show signs of damage, shedding shingles and slowly buckling.

Signs of hope emerged though, as groups had been seen touring and doing work to the structure in late 2013. The building has been re- secured, and I believe most of the relics left by the last congregation were removed at this time. The church building was officially sold in 2015, and the new  owners did a bunch of work to the structure.  This included illegally removing several of the windows of the historic building. The beautiful old stained glass was removed and several tiny vinyl windows were installed as replacements.

Then on the first day of 2016, residents awoke to news that the church was being gutted by a large fire. Sure enough, the three alarm blaze completely destroyed the St. Marks Church. The renovation of the structure was supposed to give the building a new life. After the the brazen removal of the windows, it was clear to many that the buildings new life was not going to be what we expected. But we didn't anticipate it to  be so short.

Monday, May 26, 2014

J.T.'s Fun Zone

I remember going to J.T.'s as a kid, for birthday parties and such. It was always packed. The skating rink, the arcade, the pools; all filled to the brim with energetic young people.

It opened in 1995, a few years after I was born, so naturally I  found my way there quite often.

In addition to what was mentioned above, they had basketball and racquetball courts, a number of bars, a club, a skatepark, pretty much everything young adults do to fill their time.

As anybody can imagine, with all the danger associated with these activities, there were a number of health and safety standards violations. The indoor amusement park was in constant legal battles circulating around the fatalities and injuries incurred by those who partook in the buildings activities.

The building was shut down in 2003, due mostly to controversy regarding the nightclub housed in the venue. A young, under aged girl was sexually assaulted by a DJ and the club's assistant manager.

In addition to those charges, there were also a number of drug violations and underage alcohol consumption complaints. The venue's owner was issued a number of citations for these actions.

The building was reopened for a short time, but was closed once again at the passing of Jerry Turco, the buildings owner.

It wasn't until I had already been checking out these historical locations for a couple years that I remembered that the medium sized warehouse off of Pleasant Valley Way even existed. I recruited a friend and headed over to the building.

We peeled back a loose board and hopped inside the moldy, moist building. We walked around, took our photo's, and left.

Shortly after I posted the photo's online, I was asked about the place by a number of other photographers. People started flocking to the blighted recreation facility, and unfortunately the vandals came too.

In April of 2011, the building was set on fire by arsonists. The three alarm fire was the last straw for the town, who began to take matters into their own hands.

Demolition of the venue was paid for by the Estate of Jerry Turco, who passed away in the 2000's. It took a while for the building to be taken down, for reasons not clear to me. But by the end of 2012, it was nothing more than a dirt lot.

The plot is apparently supposed to be used to house a new power management facility for the town of West Orange. Not a whole lot has been accomplished on that front, however. While not a terrible loss in terms of lasting history and architecture, it was sad to see JT's go. Just another one of the locals childhood memories gone by the wayside in terms of "progress".

Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Essex County Hospital Center at Overbrook

This historic North Jersey Psychiatric Hospital took patients from all over the state, as well as transfers from other psychiatric hospitals, mostly on the east coast.

What started as one big building, and few other small buildings, soon spread into a vast campus of about 120 acres.

The Essex County Board of Chosen Freeholders purchased the tract of land from farmers in 1896, right on the other side of the mountain from the Essex County Jail Annex. Construction began immediately, and before long, the Star Building was built. It was named the star building because it looked like a star from above (So they say, I don't think it does). Eventually, the wards in the Star Building were very overcrowded, so construction began at the campus. It was around this time that I believe building 11 was built, and then shortly after in 1909 the "Hill Wards" were built, which were buildings 1-10.

Other buildings built were a larger powerhouse,  a larger firehouse (Built in 1915), staff housing, and other miscellaneous buildings.

With the huge influx of patients with PTSD after both world wars, the hospital found itself unable to care for so many people. There were patients in day rooms filled way past the maximum capacity.

Conditions were deplorable, and the hospital was struggling to keep up with the huge amount of patients. Anti Psychotic drugs became more advanced and helpful, and soon the population of patients was dwindling.

 Buildings 30-45 were emptied of their residents, and in some cases used for storage, but they weren't maintained properly.

 Finally, on 2/27/ 2007, the last few patients were discharged from the hospital, and the hospital closed its doors for good. It continued to be a spot for local teens to hang out, and it even worked it's way into pop culture when it was featured in 3 ghost hunting shows and 4 movies. The parcel of land where Buildings 30-45 stood was sold to a developer, and the buildings were abated and demolished one by one.

There were a lot of buildings here, so here is a rundown of how the property was laid out.

The main campus was the Star building, and buildings 1-14. The first five buildings were the wards, built in 1909. Buildings one and two were for female patients, while four and five were for the men. Building three was split, housing both men and women. It was also where the dentist was located, and was close to the chapel and library. It was the victim of arson in August of 2013.

Building 6 was the Administration building. It was built in 1909, and renovated sometime between the 1930's and 1960's. The building was given an extra wing, which is the part of the building angled towards the the street, a new glass and concrete entrance to replace the stone one, and a new roof.

Directly behind building 6 was a mixed use building whose main purpose was to connect the administration building to the wards. It held the chapel, group meetings, a cafeteria, one of the hair salons, and the library. Though nothing more than a glorified hallway, it is referred to as building 7.

Buildings 8, 9, and 10 were the dining group. Building 8 was the main kitchen, where food was prepared and sent down a long hallway to either the female (9) or male (10) dining halls. In the later years of the hospital, buildings 4, 5, and part of building 3 were just used for storage. Because of this, the long tunnel that once ran almost the whole span of the hospital was cut off at building 9.

Building 11 was the "Reception Ward" at its inception, but by the time the hospital closed it was being used to house the criminally insane. I believe it is the oldest ward building still standing on campus, most likely dating back to the last years of the 19th century. It is where the morgue was, as well as another cafeteria/kitchen, another hair salon, game room, and other services for the patients.

The last building built on campus was building 12. Dating back to 1979, it was built on the site of the former main "Star" building which was demolished between 1978-79. It is an ugly, almost Brutalist design, and hold the pools, pool tables, basketball courts, bowling alley, and offices as well. It was used as record storage after the hospital closed, and suffered a fire in April of 2012. The wanna be arsonists torched the basketball court, luckily no structural damage was recorded. Original plans called for the building to be re-used by the local wrestling team, but the current state of the building probably wont allow for that.

Building 13 was a trade building, having held a bakery, tailor, electrical workshop, and other various workshops. It was the first to almost be burned down in 2008. Some teens from Perth Amboy were seen fleeing the campus after smoke began rising from the building, and they were eventually caught and tried. Unfortunately I never made it inside this building, it was demolished during the first wave that took out most of the buildings closest to the Verona side of campus. The footprint can still be seen from building 11.

The last building in the group was the Freeman Pavilion, building 14. It was original built as a tuberculosis pavilion for psychiatric patients, but it was later occupied by a vocational program and the Turning Point rehabilitation group after they were forced to vacate their building at the Essex Mountain Sanatorium. It was the first building on campus I ever got into, and also the first building demolished when the county started taking structures down in 2008.

There is also the powerhouse group, made up from buildings  21-23. Building 21 is the new powerhouse, built after the old one was just not enough to power the rapidly expanding complex. Building 22 is the mechanics shop, which has actually been renovated into an ugly stucco and tar building whose only purpose is for the county workers to have a place to punch in and out. Building 23 is the paint shop for the campus, and is hard to see because it sits behind the former mechanics shop.


The horticultural therapy group was the hospital caretakers house, the gardens, and the greenhouse. The caretakers house was vacated, and a county run gang awareness group filled the structure for a couple of years before they eventually moved out too. I don't have any photo's from inside this group due to a friend deleting them before I had a chance to upload them.

Building 30, the first building one would have passed while driving through campus from the Verona side, was the hospital administrator's house. It was a small mansion, and was used for a period of time after it was emptied as a haunted house attraction. After they stopped doing that, the building was stripped of anything of historic importance and used for police training. It was demolished March 21st, 2011.

The next building along the road (and the only structure still left on that side of the street) is the fire apparatus house. Built in 1915, this castle like structure has been given to the town of Cedar Grove. It is supposed to be restored and re-used by the town, but so far nothing has come of that. There is a short stretch of tunnel in the basement of the building, which runs until the area where the next building down was demolished.

Also along Fairview Avenue were a number of buildings used for staff housing. The original female employees home was building 32, a small 2 story brick dormitory. It changed purposes before its official closure, renamed "The Gateway". The inside was too rotten for us to make it very far off the stairwells, but the building was empty anyway. It was demolished sometime in the spring of 2011.

Set back from the gateway building, the PEER building was the highest point of the hospital complex, not counting the smokestack of the powerhouse. It was built in 1950 as the student nurses home, but was converted into offices before being emptied sometime in the 2000's. It was taken down over a series of months starting on September 28th, 2011 and was completed on December 12th of the same year.

Next to the PEER building was the graduate nurses home, later becoming a replacement for the original female employees home. It was the largest building on the side of the campus it sat on, standing 3 stories tall. This building sat empty for decades before the hospital shut its doors, leading to advanced deterioration. It was demolished in 2011 with the rest of the Fairview Avenue buildings.

After driving past the Female Employees Home, one would pass a couple of empty lots before arriving at the next building. There used to be two structures here, an auditorium and one of the Male Employee's Homes. The auditorium, building 35, was apparently very nice. However, it had been used for storage and not taken care of. It was taken down, along with the larger Male Employees Home without warning one day in the 1980's, which did not go over well with the staff and families still living on the hospital grounds. However, they would soon be forced to vacate the buildings they lived in themselves a few short years later in 1987.

The last big building on the left side of the street was Rawson Hall. It was built in 1950, along with the PEER building, and was built to replace the aging Male Employees Homes. It was the first building on the privately owned side of Fairview to be demolished. Built at a cost of $485,000, it was only used for a few decades before becoming offices, and it was also used for swat training after its official closure. This is the last building on the street to be connected to tunnels, although the collapse of the Female Employees home made them impossible to traverse.

The structure next to Rawson Hall looked like a diner, but it was really a two family doctors home. It was in very bad shape prior to its demolition. We could only walk around the kitchen and living room areas before the ground was too soft to continue.

And finally, the doctors houses were the last few buildings on this side of the street. They were small, but really nice. They were used up until 1987, when the occupants were forced out and the buildings were used for "storage". After they had begun demolition, they spared two doctors houses and moved on to the other buildings. I was thrilled, I figured they were going to renovate these two houses for use in the condo complex. It turns out they were just behind schedule, and the other two houses were demolished a few short weeks later.

A few other buildings on campus were the laundry building, the old male employees home, a separate morgue, and some other miscellaneous buildings which were mostly all demolished long before I was around to document the hospital. The maintenance garages and sewage pumping station on Bradford were also once part of the Overbrook  property, as well as the daycare center on Grove. Unfortunately they too are being demolished in favor of ugly new replacements. My only hope is that they one day have some sort of memorial for the hospital once the grounds have been converted into a park. As much as the county would like it to be true, you can't change history by demolishing it.