Beautiful Ruins

I have featured many abandoned or seemingly-abandoned buildings in varying stages of decline and disrepair on this blog–houses here in Salem, nearby and far away. Ruins stop me in my tracks as I’m driving down the road, like a car crash from which you can’t turn away. So when I read about a new exhibition at Tate Britain called Ruin Lust I went there (digitally) in a flash. My limited view from afar did not allow me to see the full sweep of the exhibition, of course, but I came away a bit disappointed by the preponderance of painting–beautiful as Turner’s Tintern Abbey ruins are, they’re soft, not stark. What draws us to the ruin is the stark contrast between what once was and what remains: to capture that, only photography will do. Picture John Armstrong’s Coggeshall Church, Essex as a crumbling stone ruin, perhaps with creeping greenery engulfing it, like the “feral houses” of Detroit (which you can see here and on the great blog Sweet Juniper).

Coggeshall Church

John Armstrong, Coggeshall Church, Essex, 1940. Tate Britain

There are several houses in Salem to which I return again and again if I want to behold beautiful ruins, most prominently the long-abandoned but still-stately c. 1810 brick house bordering the Ropes Mansion garden, built for Captain Jonathan Porter Felt around 1810 and occupied by his descendants until nearly 1970. Things are (slowly) starting to happen at this house, so I’m wondering if its ruinous days will one day be over. Walking by a month or so ago I noticed that some window replacement is going on, and it really startled me, and last summer someone mowed the lawn. Who knows what will happen next? It’s like the house is slowly “waking up”.

Snow Showers 044

Snow Showers 046

There are books that I also turn to again and again for regular doses of beautiful ruins. When I wrote my first post on the house above, several of the commentators mentioned the work of Brian Vanden Brink, and I’m so glad they did! Amazing, and again: images you can’t turn away from–or look at just once. I also admire the work of photographers Susan Daley and Steve Gross, especially their interior shots. They don’t just do ruins, in fact their latest book is about revival, but their Old Houses is pretty much always by my bedside, and the images in their 2008 book Time Wearing Out Memory: Schoharie County (NY) define the term weathered.



Images from Susan Daley’s and Steve Gross’s Time Wearing Out Memory: Scoharie County (2008).

13 responses to “Beautiful Ruins

  • Helen sides

    There is a real beauty on Rt 133 on the left after exiting 128 toward Essex in Gloucester. I’ll take a picture next time I go by. Was viewing it yesterday with my favorite old house builder on our way to a job site…

  • Cotton Boll Conspiracy

    I love old abandoned houses. Any chance I get when I pass one in the country that I haven’t seen before I’ll stop and try and inspect the inside. Usually they’re empty or full of nothing more than debris, but once I came across a six-foot long snake skin. I don’t mind snakes like some people but it did make step a little more cautiously.

  • Steven McCabe

    I saw a crumbling castle in Italy. It was a small castle as castles go. Somewhere in the Bologna/Molinella region. I was shocked at how small it was. Utterly overgrown. I wanted to go inside but our guide said it was full of snakes. The textures, edges, collapse were all intriguing and full of crashing time. Regarding the softness above, there is a certain ‘surreal’ quality to the Armstrong painting. Almost like an architectural model for dreamy dissolution. Or something in a surrealist manifesto: soft decay. Thanks for this intriguing post.

  • Brian Bixby

    Besides liking ruins, I had some training in urban sociology, so when I see them I’m always trying to figure out the processes that created the original structure, and then why it would fall into ruins.

  • jane

    Now I’m dreaming of a trip to the Tate! And hoping you will continue to post about the Jonathan Porter Felt House.
    Is the book about Schoharie County annotated? The doorway is probably a copy of Asher Benjamin’s ‘The Architect’, 1830 – Plate XXX, . It would be fun to know if there is documentaton

    • daseger

      No, it’s not, Jane. Love that doorway–there are 2 I think in Salem, and I spotted one on a beautiful Brooklyn house last fall.

      • jane

        I imagine the joiner with Asher Benjamin open and annotated on his bench as he lays out the design and begins the carving …

  • upatthevilla

    Not so beautiful, but almost a ruin at this point: the Council on Aging on Broad Street. An 18-foot soffit fell off the left front side about two weeks ago and the building (an Enoch Fuller beauty) is simply being left to fall away. Sigh.

  • Robert Warnock

    I’m another who counts Susan Daley’s and Steve Gross’s “Old Houses” as a favorite book. Their photographs of the ruinous and the heavily patinated focus always on the architecture and the space and have a time mysterious quality that steers clear of the kitschy details which distract other photographers.

    Going to see the exhibit at Tate Britain next week but, a bit wary of disappointment, have avoided reading much about it.

  • Tim Jenkins

    I would love to see further progress on both sides of the lovely Ropes Garden. I am chagrined to see the ongoing deterioration of the lovely wooden fencing at the rear of the Ropes Mansion, and the greenhouse is well on its way to becoming a ruin.

    Regular maintenance is key and when you have deep pockets and a great deal of extremely significant historic architecture in your care, it is tragic to let the elements win without a fight. That said, it is great to see the rehabilitation work being done on another Enoch Fuller designed building–the west side of the Phillip’s Library, also owned by the PEM. On the other hand, the State of Massachusetts builds a new superior court building, while essentially abandoning the older Enoch Fuller designed Superior Court just down the road. It is a remarkable building worthy of much better treatment.

    Peer reviewed evidence compiled by the National Trust For Historic Preservation shows that, in almost all instances, it is more environmentally friendly to restore/rehabilitate a building than to construct a new one. And because of the higher local content more of the construction cost stays in the local economy. This is particularly true of municipal construction. It is sad to see the deterioration that has befallen so many of Salem’s City owned buildings that have been neglected for many years. The solution isn’t always to build anew, rather learn from past mistakes, establish best practices for building maintenance and reuse and modernize the remarkable structures that you already are blessed to own.

    A friend once told me that building maintenance is all about moisture management–snow, ice and rain will eventually level the tallest mountain range and it will do the same to a building no matter how well built. Regular maintenance, repair and upgrading can forestall the inevitable for generations–for future generations. It is great to see the trend in recent years in Salem that has reversed the trend of demolition by neglect. The old police station and jail were given new life and repurposed to housing or mixed use and that is a beautiful thing too.

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