At that moment, we were less a married couple deciding what to do with our afternoon, and more like two gunslingers from the old West in the midst of a showdown. We had squared off. On his side there was law, order, good sense; on mine, a dare. He envisioned the consequences of my proposal – a stairway could buckle, a ceiling might collapse, one of us could fall through a hole in the floor; I envisioned a picture from a glossy print magazine of a great blue room with a series of arched windows and doorways and a magnificent glass dome.
I asked again, “Will you come with me?”
“No.” My husband explained that he’d driven by recently and there was no way to get over the twelve foot fence which was topped with barbed wire. He said if we did manage to find a way in, the place was unstable and dangerous.
At the sink, my father processed the grapes we had picked earlier in the day as a family. Our son Cal napped, and Sam was busy with my mom. It was now or never.
Most of the time, in these situations, I relent. Dave’s position is chock full of research, thoughtfulness, and a desire to do the right thing. Rarely do I insist. But for this, I was determined. Last month we celebrated 13 years of marriage. Before we started a family, one of our favorite things to do was to take excursions together, but kids and jobs and homes and a lack of funds all too frequently now trump those impulse jaunts. Family life takes time, maintenance, stability; it precludes random explorations of haunted asylums. I longed for that old sense of adventure. This was not the first time I had brought up this particular site. In my mind, I blazed a trail to our younger, freer selves.
The J N Adam Memorial Hospital in Perrysburg, NY was established as a sanatorium for those afflicted with tuberculosis (TB). Perrysburg was chosen for its remoteness – to ward off further contagion – and for its lake breezes. It was thought that the cure demanded fresh air, exercise, healthy food, and sunshine. Buffalo’s mayor James Noble Adam bought the land and gave it to the city. The J N Adam Memorial Hospital opened its doors on November 12, 1912. The centerpiece of the facility (the one I saw in the magazine) was a circular dome window in the dining room which had been transferred from the Temple of Music Auditorium, built for the Pan-American exposition. Under this same domed roof, President McKinley had been assassinated. The sanitorium closed in 1960 and reopened as a state “mental hygiene facility.”
All that history played like a siren song in my head. This time, Dave relented.
With our children safely in the care of their grandparents, we drove to Perrysburg. The campus spans 239 acres surrounded by 500 acres of forest. Only a swath of it is visible from the road. Set further down the hillside, you can see the abandoned buildings – the red terracotta roof tiles, the brick exterior and white columns. The buildings were modeled after those on southern plantations.
As we neared the campus, we spied a police car hidden down a side road. We spotted an old snowmobile trail down the hill. We looked every bit the middle-aged couple about to take a relaxing stroll through the woods.
While I might appear older and less adventurous, I still have my teen-age brain. Dave followed when I swerved off the trail to walk along the fence line. And there it was – a break in the chain link. Someone had even bent it up so you could easily scoot underneath.
Here I hesitated. I could now see the campus more fully. The place was a shambles. Weeds grew through cracks in the concrete. Broken glass and the wreckage of staircases littered the grounds. Dave pointed out the black cage that ran along the top porches which were installed to keep people from jumping off the ledge. Was Dave right? Was it too dangerous? While I might still possess a teen brain, I no longer enjoy that youthful sense of immortality. And if this place had a voice, it would scream a litany on the indignities of death.
Before I could speak, Dave scooted under the fence. He is sensible, but lives under the creed, “As well hanged for a sheep as a lamb.” When he is in, he is all in.
As we approached the rotunda of the main building, I was reminded of one of the reasons I had been attracted to this place. For a brief time, I worked in Troutdale, Oregon, which is about the same distance from Portland as Buffalo is from Perrysburg. I visited Edgefield Hotel, a hotel, restaurant, spa, golf course and venue that was once the county poor farm. I wondered if J N Adam Memorial Hospital could be re-imagined and reconstructed. What if this campus could be salvaged and turned into an Edgefield-like facility? Couples might escape the city to take a cure from the ennui of maintaining a marriage and raising children. The demands of family can cause couples like Dave and me to miscommunicate, bicker, forget to remember we’re on the same side. Here would be a place where no one was allowed to begin phrases with “Can’t you just…” “When will you …” “You really should …. “ A couple like Dave and me, who are somewhere far from the beginning and nowhere near the end, a couple that needs an excursion to breathe in the restorative powers of breezes off the lake in a respite by the sea.
We went under the fence and onto the grounds. Here in Western New York, freezing temperatures, snow, ice, rain, wind and humidity can destroy even the most solidly built structures. Add to that the crumbling years of abandonment. A vast shambles of wings and buildings. We could easily end up lost here. I was already becoming disoriented. Once we entered, would we find our way back out?
On one of our first dates, we parked the car on a side street in the Elmwood Village and spent the day drinking coffee, perusing a local bookstore, strolling along Lafayette Avenue, staring up at the great houses. And then we couldn’t find the car. I thought it was hilarious that neither of us had any sense of direction. We have gotten lost many times since. While I try to pay closer attention to our whereabouts, I didn’t realize it was possible to lose track of each other until recently. We do try to check in, but there are fewer and fewer times like this one to work together to find our way back.
Dave strolled around the outside until he found stairs that might support our weight. He showed me where to step along the supports. Along the corridor, rows of doors were swung open, hung off their hinges, or had been ripped away altogether. Many of the rooms sported verandas. These rooms were not suites but cells. The place seemed lopsided – one part curative, one part asylum. While both histories were evident, the hard despair of the latter began to work on me.
For a place to truly be haunted, misery needs to be so profound, entrenched, and constrained that it infects what surrounds it. The very woodwork must be versed in human despair.
The walkway was layered with a deep pile of dust and Dave covered his mouth with his sweatshirt, “God only knows what we’re breathing in.”
While the years of abandonment, economic despair, and unrecoverable illness seem to be peeling off the walls, everywhere there are the signs of teen angst AKA graffiti. In addition, there were children’s toys strewn about the floor. This place had become housing for the homeless.
As we walked into the very pink inner room of the rotunda, Dave said, “Look at the walls, there are no corners.” He explained that the architects of these sanatoriums used rounded corners to prevent dust from collecting – a hazard to tuberculosis-infected lungs.
“How do you know all this stuff,” I asked.
“I looked it up. You’ve been talking about this place for a while.”
And then we entered the room I had seen in the magazine. It was even bigger than I expected. The glass dome was completely intact. Lighting fixtures hung from the high ceilings. I lifted my camera and clicked image after image. The blue paint on the dome was stripped in places and the plaster rotted to expose the wood and brick frame. Water damage created white, wavy lines between the arched doorways. Here were the elegant shambles which had inspired me!
I swirled around the room snapping it all up digitally. Lost in the whirl and whoosh of history and wonder. I peaked over the camera lens to ask Dave about the entrances. Why were there so many? But there was no Dave. I was alone in the rotunda.
I yelled out, “Dave? DAVE!”
Alone under the same dome that housed the McKinley assassination, I was suddenly spooked. Where had my husband gone?
“Please don’t jump out at me. I would really hate that!”
Scared to move. Panic. I tried to reassure myself like the Cowardly Lion petting his own tail: he will come back, he will come back, he will come back.
Scared out of my wits, I screamed his name. “Dave!” What if he fell through the floorboards? My mind reeled with scenarios where I lost him forever simply because I had been a little bored by date nights.
Just as suddenly, he reappeared under one of the many arched doorways completely unaware of the alarm that his disappearance had caused. “Did you see the kitchen? It must have been state-of-the-art at one time.”
“What? The kitchen? Ugh.” Too creeped out to continue, I pleaded “I’ve had enough! Let’s go home.”
One of the doors in this round room led to the front entrance. We avoided the front where the cop might see us. I took ever more pictures of cells, graffiti, and ever more shambles until we found the concrete stairs to take us to the grounds. We were a little lost but not enough that we couldn’t find our way. We walked to the fence line until we found a gap in the fence. We couldn’t find the snowmobile trail we used to get in, so we waded through a pasture until we heard the sound of cars. There we found the road and eventually our car.
Our excursion to this place served to remind me that one slip could take me from a mild case of marital ennui to tragedy. This walked served to remind me of the despair that riddles humanity. Sometimes marriage can be an asylum from the curse. Whatever curative this haunted walk provided, I was happy to be back on the road to my family.