Old Houses on Instagram – The New York Times

The Four Percent


Vines crept up the house. It looked like it was about to cave in. The Colonial in Roscoe, N.Y., a hamlet of the Catskills, was decrepit — which made it all the more appealing to Bryan Sansivero, 36, and a friend, who had arrived before dawn. They entered the musty, empty dwelling, which was not really a dwelling because no one dwells there, and sat in the dark for about half an hour until sunrise.

Soon, the living room was aglow and its contents revealed: antique furnishings, a fireplace with a knickknack-lined mantel, and, most shockingly, a tiger skin rug (the creature’s mouth agape) and a hunting rifle. “We were like, this house is insane. How is this just sitting here and completely abandoned like this?” Mr. Sansivero said.

Despite the dilapidated condition, including peeling walls and an unpleasant kitchen, the house was in pretty good shape. He snapped photos and later shared them in a Facebook group dedicated to old houses, where his posts stir emotions ranging from nostalgia to sadness to skepticism that the house was actually found in that condition (Mr. Sansivero said that the houses’ belongings have typically been staged by previous visitors but that he only makes minor adjustments).

Mr. Sansivero is a professional portrait photographer by trade, but taking pictures of abandoned houses has been a passion of his since college, when he majored in filmmaking and shot a documentary short film about an abandoned hospital on Long Island. His eyes were opened to the mysterious world of such properties.

“I think it’s my love of history and antiques that make it so interesting to walk through these places,” Ms. Lombard said. “You don’t see it everyday.” Some houses she’s seen are hundreds of years old. Many are empty, but she has come across items left behind such as ration cards, photo albums, and a letter dated to 1864 written in German. “We have tried to decipher it, but we cannot,” she said. Why, she and other looky-loos wonder, do possessions get left behind?

For some, abandoned houses are muses. Kyler Dannels is an architectural designer in Atlanta. As a child he would explore abandoned buildings there; many have since been turned into luxury apartments. These days, Mr. Dannels, 35, seeks out older houses throughout the United States. He appreciates their craftsmanship; the houses tend to have architectural details not found in newer homes. “You don’t have to go back very far where you’re dealing with rough-sawn lumber that was milled locally, and stone that was quarried from the house site you were building from,” Mr. Dannels said. “Just all of those kinds of details where the hand of whoever was involved in putting it together is much more visible and obvious.”

This exploration has influenced his work, which often involves production art and set building for movies and window displays. Sometimes this requires faux finishing and aging to make the pieces look lived in and coherent. Old houses have taught him what an antique surface really looks like. “It all has a structure and a sort of patina, tells a story,” Mr. Dannels said. If he’s making a contemporary cabin look like it was built 100 years ago, for example, he wants viewers to know that nothing is random, but rather the result of environmental factors, like, say, water running down a wall, causing discoloration.

As much as it might seem like these abandoned houses are left to become playgrounds for photographers, some of them do get another chance at life. In Oakland, Calif., where Redfin reports that the median home price is $950,000, there are houses sitting empty and plenty of people without housing. This prompted Dominique Walker to found Moms 4 Housing, a nonprofit which helps homeless and marginally housed mothers. The group was lauded for taking over a vacant property in West Oakland which it eventually purchased through a land trust. Similar organizations exist elsewhere n the country, like Well House in Grand Rapids, Mich., which revives vacant homes for the homeless.

Even in rural towns there are efforts to preserve decaying houses. In the town of Danville, Va., for instance, a push was made by the neighborhood organization Friends of the Old West End to prevent the demolition of the once-thriving historic district. The town had experienced economic depression after major industries shut down, with Victorian and Edwardian-style mansions left in limbo.

Friends of the Old West End partnered with the city to sell the houses at affordable prices — which mean $1 for a fixer-upper house built in 1907, or $250,000 for a move-in ready Queen Anne. “We’ve been very successful in bringing new people into those houses, with the purpose of rehabbing,” said Paul Liepe, 71, the executive director of the organization. “And in fact, those folks are signing agreements with the city that they will not only rehab, but reside in the houses for five years,” he said. The goal is to prevent people from flipping their properties and instead focus on building a community.

Still, many abandoned houses will crumble or succumb to the vines. For now, they continue to capture the attention of photographers like Mr. Sansivero and Ms. Gomez who hope to preserve the time capsules, if only on Instagram’s grid. “My favorite feeling is a sense of awe or appreciation that I get for a second to stand in this place. It’s almost like a museum that doesn’t have an admission ticket and the velvet rope,” Ms. Gomez said. “I can touch the walls and I can smell the smells and imagine what it might’ve been like to stand in that house, that I think just gives a really intimate view into someone’s life. Rather than just reading a history book.”


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