Columbus Alive! – 3/30/2011

Left and Found: Random oddities from abandoned buildings
Creepy dolls, ’70s porn and more discoveries from Columbus buildings

Wednesday, March 30, 2011
By John Ross

The doll might’ve been a birthday present once, standing slim and shiny in her own box, with bright colors and soft features.

Now, cracked and lonely with black hair messy and tangled, she sits waiting for another day to dawn through the saw-tooth windows of 400 West Rich, a forgotten Franklinton industrial building being resurrected as an arts complex. Her only friends are a few barrels of spare glass lamp globes and a needlepoint that reads, almost desperately, “God Bless Our Home.”

How she ended up here remains a mystery.

That’s kind of how things work in this Dada daydream of vintage machine presses, spare parts, building supplies and a mining cart once used to haul dynamite. The building at 400 W. Rich St. measures roughly 103,000 square feet, and something strange lurks in every one.

“I was kind of overwhelmed,” project manager Chris Sherman said of taking over the building. “I was sort of intrigued and sort of excited. Obviously, I anticipated sorting through all that stuff.”

Ever wonder what’s hiding in the vacant factories, offices, hospitals, mansions and barns of Central Ohio’s changing landscape? Everything you’d expect – and a few items you’d never guess.

Though it’s sat almost completely vacant and unused for years, the building saw small civilizations come and go several times after opening in 1910 as the D.A. Ebinger Sanitary Manufacturing Company.

A Taco Bell regional office is remembered in a few cream-colored restaurant booths now sitting in a makeshift break room. Machine parts and electrical wire speak of the building’s time as a union-run machine shop.

Eras left their mark in scraps, supplies, spare parts and weird additions with no explanation. As Sherman became the superintendent, he doubled as an archaeologist, finding whispers of past lives preserved only in a few odd souvenirs.

One room held a collection of touchtone phones, toilet seats, a lone orange sock and dusty fans with spare steel blades. Others stored rusty garden shears, vintage safety goggles and a refrigerator full of ’80s-era salad dressing.

The strangest thing Sherman found?

“The gear presses were pretty odd, and I wasn’t quite sure what they were used for,” he said. “And the ’70s Penthouse mags were kind of strange – that’d be at the top of the list.”

To reinvent the space as studios and offices for artists and creative-class manufacturers, Sherman plans to recycle what he can, scrap some metal and keep any interesting industrial pieces.

These will live on as relics – personal items and consumer detritus transformed into art and artifact.

“I think there’s just generally a lot of curiosity about how people lived in the past,” said Lisa Wood, curator for visual resources for the Ohio Historical Society. “It kind of sparks your imagination – you find something, and it’s evidence of somebody and someone’s life.”

Some with found objects are motivated by dreams of striking it rich with a rare heirloom, while others just want answers about where stuff came from and how it got into their hands.

“People call us quite often with things that they’ve found,” Wood said. “People do find things in old houses – maybe a print or newspapers in the attic or an old book.”

Almost always, she said, found objects aren’t worth much money.

To have historical significance, archivists need to know an artifact’s provenance, or details of context, ownership, era and origin. To fetch big money, an antique dealer prizes an object’s rarity, original value and good condition.

The finds’ value lies most often in the oddity department.

“Many of the things that are found in abandoned places aren’t always that valuable, because we don’t know that much about it,” Wood explained. “When we can get a background from people, that’s valuable for us.”

Every so often, Wood hits pay dirt, like when she and some colleagues explored a Toledo residence sitting in probate court after the homeowners died without close relatives.

“It was kind of like walking back in time,” she remembered. “We just sort of walked in and pieced together their life story – when they grew up, where they were from – and we never met them.”

Clothes were found in drawers. Church programs lay open on tables. The team took what could be used – business cards, some photos, a few pieces of clothing – and left the rest.

In addition to an owner’s death, buildings become vacant or abandoned for a number of reasons, said Dana Rose, administrator of code enforcement for the City of Columbus.

An owner falls behind on mortgage and suffers foreclosure. An investor buys up properties only to find he’s in too deep. Factories and commercial centers imply run their course or fall victim to changing markets.

Buildings and the odd stuff on the inside get lost in the shuffle.

Sometimes it’s easier, less painful or more cost-effective just to leave everything behind. Sometimes whoever comes next stumbles onto a scene preserved in amber, save for the addition of a little dust.

That’s exactly what Josh Quinn and his Wonderland partners found when they wandered into the former Wonder Bread factory in Italian Village.

“It honestly felt like people had gone home from work and not come back the next day,” Quinn said.

When demolition crews dismantled roughly six miles of bread-moving conveyor belt, they found remnants of a functioning business frozen in time.

Jackets were left in lockers, papers sat in stacks on desks, and special clocks urged the empty confines to “Think Safety!” A banner commemorated the lifetime service of an employee remembered today only as “Bill.”

Each room had its own motivational poster still plastered to a wall.

“I’m excited to preserve as much as possible for the retailers there,” Quinn explained. “I’m really excited about seeking a desk used for 60 years coming down and having jeans folded on it for a retailer at Wonderland.”

For some, the lure of things like this is too strong to resist.

“When you go in, you just imagine what it was like when it was still being used,” said Jason Robinson, founder of the Ohio Exploration Society. “People drive by these places every day, and they might glance in the direction. I want to go in and see what was there.”

During the past decade or so, his group has grown to more than 25 active urban explorers, who have wandered through hundreds of old or abandoned Ohio structures. The goal is to enter with owner permission, though they’ve risked criminal trespassing charges to check out spaces before they’re boarded up, bulldozed or about to collapse.

Scrappers in search of copper pipes and criminal looking for privacy usually force owners to close off entry points of old or abandoned structures. Most urban explorers, though, hope only to peer into another world and document it before it’s lost to decay.

Their motto is simple: Take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints.

“I would’ve never known this stuff was there, had I not gone out and looked for it,” Robinson said.

Broken-down houses have contained plenty of beds, furniture and newspapers – but also old gaming systems and, once, a vintage record player/TV/radio console.

In crumbling medical centers, Robinson has found broken equipment, cabinets full of prescription drugs, blood and urine samples and syringes strewn across a dingy, dusty floor.

Over the years, OES members have learned one thing from their time on the inside: They never know what they’re going to find. As interesting as the buildings themselves are all the peculiar things that’ve been left behind.

“After your first time, you start to get the itch to go and check out another place,” he said. “You can find anything in these places.”

Left and Found: Urban exploring

Itching to find out what’s inside that abandoned building down the block? Before you get busted or break your neck, here are some things to remember.

Get permission. Just because no one’s living in a building doesn’t make it legal to go in. Without a property owner’s permission, those who explore buildings can be charged with trespassing. Heed all posted signs. If you aren’t sure if it’s cool to enter, don’t go in.

Consult the experts. Organizations such as the Ohio Exploration Society have gone through hundreds of buildings, so they can tell you how to venture places safely and legally. They’ve made agreements with some owners who let people look around their buildings.

Watch your step. Even if you can enter a building legally, it can be extremely dangerous. Floorboards break, nails protrude, mold abounds and structures collapse. Always tell someone where you’re going. Never go alone.

Walk softly. The urban-exploration ethic is simple: Take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints. This way, others can enjoy the experience, too.

Copyright © 2011, The Dispatch Printing Company

Thanks to John Ross of Columbus Alive! for interviewing the OES for his article about items left behind in abandoned buildings.