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 said, “Will you come with me?”
Dave said no. He said he’d driven by recently and there was no way to get over the twelve foot fence 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. 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 chockful 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.” By 1995, ownership had changed, the facility was closed, and the property’s ownership remained in dispute.
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 this really 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 had visited McMenamins Edgefield. This hotel, restaurant, spa, golf course and venue was once the county poor farm, converted into a resort. 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 arrive 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.
But then we went inside. 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 shambles.
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.
Not that we wouldn’t end up getting lost here. I was already becoming disoriented. I worried. Once we entered, would we find our way back out?
Dave found stairs that might support our weight. He showed me where to step along the supports. We walked a corridor where doors swung open, or hung off their hinges, or had been ripped away altogether. Many of the rooms sported verandas, but the number of them along the passage gave the impression less of accommodations than of cells. The place seemed lopsided - one part curative, one part asylum. While both histories were evident, the last one 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 sweatshirt, “God only knows what we're breathing in.”
While the years of abandonment, economic despair, and unrecoverable illness seems to be peeling off the walls, everywhere there are the signs of teen angst AKA graffiti. Children’s toys are strewn about the floor. I guessed that in better days it had housed 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 took picture after picture after picture. 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. What a beautiful shambles!
I tried to take it all in digitally. I looked up from my camera to ask Dave about the entrances. But there was no Dave. I was alone.
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 yelled.
Too scared to move, I waited. Panic caused my chest to seize. I tried to reassure myself: he will come back, he will come back, he will come back...
I shouted his name once more. "Dave!"
And there he was, returning under one of the arched doorways.
“Did you see the kitchen? It must have been state-of-the-art at one time.”
Relieved but thoroughly creeped out, I asked “Can we go home? I think I’ve had enough.”
We checked the door in this round room to avoid the front where the cop might see us. We traversed more of the building and found concrete stairs to take us to the grounds. We had been so enthralled, neither of us remembered the way back. We walked to the fence line until we found the hole. We couldn't find the snowmobile trail, so we waded through a pasture until we heard the sound of cars. There we found the road and our car. We headed back to our family.
Our excursion to this place served to reminded me that despair, even when not in our own lives, walks alongside us. Haunted walks make this real.
Maybe marriage can be one part curative and one part asylum. Maybe we look to each other to offset our crazy.