Beautiful Decay

Amusement park at Pripyat, near Chernobyl, Ukraine | Photo: Lynn Hilton

I have a fascination with abandoned places. I find them beautiful, and the tales of their glory and demise are fascinating and intriguing. While I have yet to see many of them first-hand, luckily there are plenty of intrepid travelers, photographers, and journalists to capture them for me to preview from home.

Nursery at Pripyat | Photo: Lynn Hilton

Supermarket at Pripyat | Photo: chernobaevlucy

At the top of my list is Pripyat, Ukraine. It was the city most affected by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986. The horrific incident released massive amounts of radiation, forcing the residents to flee. The spot is now one of the most well-known abandoned places in the world, thanks in large part to gorgeous photographs (and more recently, a series on HBO) of the ghostly reminders of what used to be: toys in a schoolhouse, clocks all frozen at the same time, the famous decaying amusement park, and nature (flora and some fauna) reclaiming the land. Of course, to visit, one has to be willing to travel with a dosimeter to make sure you aren’t exposed to too much intense radiation. And while it is OK to visit for the day, no one will be staying or living in Pripyat again any time soon. Scientists say it will take a good 24,000 years for the site to be safe for human habitation again. 

Welcome to Pyramiden, Svalbard, Norway at 79 degrees north | Photo: Thomas Nilsen

The northernmost sculpture of Lenin in the world remains in Pyramiden | Photo:

Stop number two in the list is Pyramiden, on Svalbard, Norway. Originally belonging to Sweden, but sold to the USSR in 1927, Pyramiden was a Soviet coal mining settlement. It once had over 1,000 inhabitants. Among its amenities were a cultural center with a theater, a library, art and music studios; a sports complex; a cantina open 24 hours a day, and a primary school. The northernmost monument to Vladimir Lenin and the northernmost swimming pool are also located in Pyramiden. In 1988, the mine extracted its last bits of coal and was closed after 53 years of operation. Apparently, the inhabitants left the settlement in a hurry as cups were left on the tables, newspaper clippings on the walls, and skis in the corridors. The extreme cold temperatures in Svalbard have exquisitely preserved much of what has been left behind including great samples of Soviet-era architecture. Pyramiden is mostly visited by seagulls, polar foxes, and polar bears. However, there are now six caretakers living on-site keeping up the grounds and buildings, showing tourists around, and keeping vandals and thieves away.

Stop number three, I missed seeing it while in Iceland five years ago! We ran out of time to make the four and half-mile round trip trek to see it. It’s one of many excuses for me to go back. It is the abandoned DC plane on the black beach at Sólheimasandur, South Iceland. In November 1973, a US Navy airplane—a Douglas Super DC-3—was forced to crash land on the beach. The crew all survived the impact, but the plane was abandoned. The 40-year-old weather-beaten aircraft has become one of Iceland’s most dramatic photography spots due to its remote location on a desolate black sand beach. It looks like a scene out of some post-apocalyptic zombie movie! The wings and tail are missing, it’s full of holes, and the crumbling fuselage is covered with wind-blown black sand. (Note: Iceland also has a plethora of abandoned houses and farms, upwards of 3,000 the government estimates. We did see a number of these eerily beautiful remains in West Iceland on the Snaefellsnes peninsula).

The United States has a zillion abandoned places—416 of them are highlighted on Atlas Obscura‘s website—many of them being psychiatric hospitals, insane asylums, sanitoriums, or prisons. This one, stop number four, takes the cake for me because it was America’s first privately licensed psychiatric hospital and because of its famous clientele.

Interior library at Tioranda/Craig House

Exterior of Tioranda/Craig House at dusk

Just outside of Beacon, New York sits an empty Victorian mansion, originally built for a Civil War officer in 1859. Called Tioranda, then Craig House, the hospital was surrounded by Hudson River views with over 60 acres, including a swimming pool, gymnasium, and golf course. The doctor in charge felt that patients could be cured by intensive talk therapy, fine dining, and recreational pursuits like golf, skiing, and painting. For decades, it was America’s most prestigious rehab home, the perfect haven for patients to be cured. Jackie Gleason sometimes visited to dry out from drinking and Marilyn Monroe once checked in for a while under an alias.

In reality, it was a place of sadness and despair. Frances Seymour, wife to Henry Fonda and mother to Jane Fonda, committed suicide here in 1942. Rosemary Kennedy (JFK’s older sister) was sent here after her controversial lobotomy when she was just 23 that left her with the mental age of a two-year-old. And then there was Zelda Fitzgerald. Suffering from schizophrenia, F. Scott Fitzgerald moved her there in the 1930s, hoping Craig House would cure her. Unfortunately, the fees for a struggling author were too high and Zelda’s condition worsened, so Fitzgerald moved her to a new, less expensive facility in North Carolina where she remained until she died in 1948. Craig House closed in 1999 and the house was bought by an NYC hedge-fund manager in 2003. Unfortunately, tragedy followed the house, and he committed suicide before doing anything with the mansion. It now sits empty, the interior of the house perfectly preserved as though the good doctor and his glamorous patients had suddenly just left the room. Rumor has it, the house may now become an upscale boutique hotel and resort.

Grenoble, France ski jump, 1968 Winter Olympics | Photo: Sports Management Degrees

Finally—to round out my top five—this one isn’t a single location, but a single type of abandoned place: Olympic sports venues. Years are spent planning, designing, and building these state-of-the-art structures around the globe for the world’s top athletes to use for a few weeks every four years. Sadly, once Olympic glory has been won or lost, many of these venues aren’t repurposed or reused by the local communities which boggles my mind. Ok, maybe there isn’t a HIGH demand for a ski jump by your average citizen of Grenoble, France, but couldn’t it have been turned into a hike to a scenic overlook for the city?

Olympic Aquatics Center, Athens, Greece, 2004 Summer Olympics | Photo: Sports Management Degrees

I think the saddest tale of sports arena abandonment may be following the 2004 Summer Games in Athens, Greece. The Greek government shelled out nearly $17 billion—$15 billion over budget—for its Olympic venues, and most of the beautiful buildings and courses have been abandoned for nearly 20 years. The “Athens 2004” logos which adorn every seat in the stadium are faded to almost nothing. The pool where Michael Phelps won eight medals for the US, is crumbling and filled with putrid water and festering garbage.

Olympic Village, Berlin, Germany, 1936 Summer Olympics | Photo: Sports Management Degrees

The most infamous abandoned venue belongs to Berlin, Germany from the 1936 Summer Olympics. The Olympic Village, meant to be a shining example of Adolph Hilter’s version of German ingenuity and skill, is one of the few structures from Third Reich Germany that still remains. It was used as a military academy for German soldiers, then spent 50 years as a Soviet Communist interrogation center. During the games, the Village housed more than 4,000 athletes. Now the buildings stand empty, boarded up, and decaying. Many, including the dining hall, gymnasium, and practice facilities, have been repossessed by nature.

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