A Haunting Place

 


Photo: Chandra Lampreich

We don’t have much truck with ghosts here at Hidden City HQ, or those phony ghosts tours, but there is something haunting about standing in an abandoned place where thousands of people suffered over the course of many decades. That’s the feeling one gets at Holmesburg Prison, with its history of riots, abusive guards and medical testing on inmates, and that was what drew what later came to be called “urban explorers” (along with scrappers and partying teens) to the Philadelphia State Hospital at Byberry after it closed in 1990. Indeed, the history of the two institutions turns out to be intertwined. The land Byberry was built on was previously used as a farm by Holmesburg Prison, and like Holmesburg, Byberry also allowed extensive, and largely unregulated medical testing on patients, in its case by Philadelphia pharmaceutical company Smith, Kline & French.


Photo: Chandra Lampreich

Byberry’s fortunes tended to reflect those of the Philadelphia city government. During those “corrupt and contented” years between its founding in 1907 and the start of World War II, many officials were incompetent, and conditions ranged from inadequate to appalling. An expose by the Philadelphia Record brought the situation to the attention of the general public in the late 1930s (as it did in a 1922 investigation of Holmesburg Prison) There was an outcry, hand-wringing, and finally a wave of new construction, expansion, modernization starting in the early 1940s, and lasting through the 1950s that mirrored the rise of reformist mayors Joe Clark and Richardson Dilworth. Yet even during this period, the institution was still underfunded and understaffed, leading other exposes, this time from Life magazine in 1946 and again in 1951. The 1960s were the beginning of the end for Byberry, as mental health advocates questioned the wisdom of warehousing thousands of patients in one location. Downsizing started during the Kennedy Administration, but somehow funding and staffing always shrank faster than the number of patients.


Photo: Owl’s Flight Photography

Bleak conditions, shocking crimes and newspaper exposes continued intermittently through the 1970s and 1980s. Life at Byberry was not all bad–there were plenty of dedicated nurses and fine doctors–but the overall drift was downward. The State finally shuttered Byberry in 1990. This was not the end for the massive complex, however. The buildings and grounds had a second life as one of the most popular spots in the country for what came to be called “urban explorers.” A kind of community developed over the course of the decade, who had to contend with a flood of new visitors in the early 2000s who had read about the spot on the Internet. The end came in 2006, when the site in Northeast Philadelphia was bulldozed. Click HERE for an excellent history of Byberry by Goddog, who has probably explored more abandoned places in Philly than anyone else.


Photo: Chandra Lampreich


Photo: Chandra Lampreich


Photo: Chandra Lampreich


7 Comments


  1. Can anyone confirm if the place documented here is Byberry? Ive always been curious. http://youtu.be/Yi7e90VNZzc?t=31m16s

  2. Yes, it is. The video says it was somewhere in New England which was likely just to keep people away. The security guards had a hell of a time keeping locals out as it was. I’m sure they were less than thrilled about Byberry being on national TV. It also became a haven for scrappers.

    I’ve been there dozens if not a hundred times. It’s creepy but nothing to keep you up at night. It’s gone now. Completely leveled. they built a retirement community on the grounds

  3. Hi, I’m currently writing a book about Philadelphia State Hospital and am looking for a few photographs to include in the final chapter about the 16 abandoned years. I particularly like the one you have posted here of the auditorium, since I have several photographs of the auditorium in “full swing” during 1930 concerts, etc. Anyway, if you’d be interested in contributing and having a few photos published in the book, please contact me at HannahKJones10@yahoo ASAP. My deadline to the publisher is in a week (I know, super last minute) but I wasn’t originally planning on having this last chapter, but I realized the book really wouldn’t be complete without it. You would get full credit, of course. I hope to hear from you soon!

Trackbacks

  1. Lunchtime Quick Hits | Philadelphia Real Estate Blog
Recent Posts
With Ice And Coal Building's Murals Gone, Is Italian Market Development Coming?

With Ice And Coal Building’s Murals Gone, Is Italian Market Development Coming?

January 26, 2015  |  Vantage

The community mural wall at 9th and Ellsworth is all but a gray-washed memory today. A barrier for the empty lot where the Ice And Coal building once stood, it stands a fine example of artists pitching it to tackle urban blight. Daniel Shurley takes us down to South 9th Street, where plans for a Business Improvement District, and possibly a new, creative life for the wall, are currently in the works > more

Furness Church Escapes Demolition, Will Be Reused For School Space

Furness Church Escapes Demolition, Will Be Reused For School Space

January 23, 2015  |  Morning Blend

Penn professor preserves Episcopal Church of the Atonement, a remnant from the early days of the Lincoln Highway, SOSNA considered Washington Ave mixed use, and some "Vintage Vaudeville" on display at the Barnes > more

J.T. Riley Lumberyard Yields To Mixed-Use Development

J.T. Riley Lumberyard Yields To Mixed-Use Development

January 23, 2015  |  News

Big development plans are in motion for the former site of J.T. Riley Lumberyard on East Girard Avenue. A leader of the lumber industry for over a century, the recently closed location in Northern Liberties-Fishtown will soon give way to modern apartments and retail space > more

Gray Area: The Future Of

Gray Area: The Future Of “30th Street Station”

January 22, 2015  |  News

In August, the President's signature enacted a law that renamed 30th Street Station for former Congressman Bill Gray. So does that mean we should expect a blitz of Amtrak marketing announcing the change like SEPTA did with "Jefferson Station?" Not exactly, if the new sign facing Center City is any indication. Brad Maule rides the rails to find out > more

Comcast To Monopolize Office Space In Next Skyscraper

Comcast To Monopolize Office Space In Next Skyscraper

January 22, 2015  |  Morning Blend

David Cohen speaks at Union League, Francophilia in mid-nineteenth century Philadelphia architecture, chaperoned “urbexing” in the old Thaddeus Stevens school, and development delays for one South Philadelphia restaurant > more

Preservation And Contemporary Design For 36th And Walnut

Preservation And Contemporary Design For 36th And Walnut

January 21, 2015  |  Morning Blend

The Ronald O. Perelman Center for Political Science and Economics to open in three years, annual homeless census tonight, Woodford Mansion in need of stewards, and a look the Bicycle Coalition’s goals for 2020 > more