Urban Exploring – USA Virginia Lunatic Asylum and the Search for a Magic Staircase

Urban Exploring – USA Virginia Lunatic Asylum and the Search for a Magic Staircase


In September 2014 my travels took me to NYC for a client shoot and once there I took the opportunity to do an awesome 3 day road trip with Shannon and Karen, We drove for miles from NYC to New Jersey, then to Philadelphia, West Virginia and back. It took over 7 hours to get to this asylum in West Virginia, but I had seen the staircase many months prior and knew I had to see it with my own eyes. Knowing that I was even within grasp of seeing such a beauty meant there wasn’t any question asked when Shannon asked if I wanted to do the long drive to see it! Of course!!!!

Just a couple of weeks before the trip I first got my hands on the Mamiya Leaf Credo 80 and I was dying to finally use it and was excited to finally capture something with it. After seeing another hospital in New Jersey that day, we began the long 7 hour drive to West Virginia, it was great spending time with Karen who had never been urban exploring before, we had met in Israel earlier that year in May and when she found out I would be near her home of Boston, she said she would love to come along on the mini adventure and create some video footage of it.Its always nice to have someone who has never been in an abandoned building along on a trip as you watch as their face lights up full of the mystery and the taking in the new senses that you get from being in a decaying building.

When we arrived in West Virginia it was dark, we had driven for many hours, we arrived at the location and scouted it, me and Shannon walked around the asylum a little in the dark, on walking down one corridor, something hit my leg and totally freaked me out, I gulped.. ‘Shannon something just touched my leg’ she thought I was insane, but it wasn’t long before we realised the place had bats inside, we quickly exited spooked out, leaving a door ajar, so that when we returned just before sunrise we would have an easy way to access.

We then found a motel to spend no more then 2/3 hours asleep, it was at the crack of dawn when we got up, as we left the motel. One strong memory I have was Shannon, bleary eyed driving on the wrong side of the road and a large car coming straight towards us, luckily there were no other cars on the road and we were safe very soon, on the right side. We pulled up again at the asylum and made our way to the open door, only to find it was now locked, we looked at each other in disbelief, how could it be locked in just 3 hours of being there? We were worried, especially Shannon as the rules of trespass are very different in the USA, in Europe it is not illegal to trespass and you are only breaking the law if you break and enter or steal thing (which we never do), In the USA you can get huge fines or even jail time, for me I would get deported.

So when we came to realise that there may be some kind of security at the site we only continued after a long discussion and decided that after travelling so many hours for this one photo, we would go for it. In complete silence we cautiously made our way to the staircase, made our photos and then exited quickly. I stood on the landing of the top floor looking up at the wooden staircase, it leads to a cupola and onto a roof deck, a view from which would have made any recovering patient feel alive even just for a few minutes. the whole scene certainly took my breath away

The asylum was a place  for the mentally ill, which was built in 1828. When it first became operational it was a pleasant place, there were terraced gardens, flowered walkways and mountain views, a place that could help with healing patients. The architecture was beautiful, but by half way through the 19th century this pleasant place, became more a place of nightmares and horror. Overcrowding meant patients didn’t get the care they needed and techniques typical of the age of experimentation inside such institutions meant that patients were restraint, put in straight jackets and even techniques such as sterilisation, electric smoke treatment and even lobotomized. It became a place full of terror and pain, no longer did the patients plant flowers in the walkways, but scenes of suffering patients staring into space so typical of what we know of such institutions. In the 1970’s the hospital as moved to a new site and became a prison for medium sector men, this closed in 2003 and the site is now abandoned and in the process of being developed into housing.

By this time it was daylight and as we made our way to the car a resident walking his dog hollered good day. I exhaled and a sigh of relief, the blood had been pumping fast around my body the whole time and I smiled knowing I had captured such a beautiful photo. The staircase was marvellous and seeing it is a moment I will never forget.

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  1. 1
    Lane

    So wait… is it in Virginia or West Virginia. They are two different states. These shots are so beautiful, I would love to do a little urban exploring and find it.

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