The old farmhouse looms above us on the hill, fractured gray clouds framing its shape. As we approach, I see that a huge branch from a dead tree has fallen toward the stone porch, just missing its mark.
There is no front door to the graying, brick structure and we can basically see through to the back of the old house. This is when photographer Michael Maes notices the big difference since the last time he’d explored the structure about a year previously.
“Someone took the railing out,” he says, slowly approaching the naked, dangerous-looking staircase that winds upward and to the left. A few jagged balusters resemble a mouth of crooked teeth. “That’s a shame. This was a really nice staircase. Scavengers.”
This drives home what Maes had told me as we started our trek to the Mt. Washington area in search of abandoned houses — that there are a few extremely important rules in effect when exploring and photographing an abandoned house.
First of all, don’t jump any fences, and if it’s posted as private property or you see a “no trespassing” sign, don’t even go onto the property. Perhaps most important of all, don’t reveal locations of the houses you photograph, because even if they’re not being actively protected by locks or signs, the property belongs to someone. Because of scavengers, that beautiful staircase is forever fractured.
“We’re real protective of our locations,” says Maes, 50, whose passion is shooting abandoned homes, buildings, properties. He is an active participant in a group of such enthusiasts who belong to the 42,000-strong Facebook group Abandoned Kentucky. The mission among most of these some-amateur, some-professional photographers is to capture the beauty in photograph, share with the world and then let the structure be, so that another photographer can capture it later, and the slow descent into memory can be documented along the way.
In essence, whoever ripped out that once-gorgeous banister, Abandoned Kentucky believes that it wasn’t theirs to “save.”
INTO THE WILD
I slide into the passenger’s seat of the white Hyundai Sonata, sort of the Batmobile for Maes and his wife, Samantha, who accompanies him on his journeys as the navigator. We head down Interstate 65 toward Mt. Washington, Michael driving and “Sam” in the back seat.
I learn that he owns a photography company called As We See It with his friend Tascha Sodan, who also is an Abandoned Kentucky member; by day, he manages a Qdoba on the UofL campus. His passion is photography, and abandoned places are a particular fascination. But As We See It will shoot everything from a wedding to a senior portrait, and Maes says he basically invests the money he makes from photography into new equipment. Better equipment, better pictures.
“I just have an obsession with abandoned places,” he explained along the way, “and a good eye. To me, if I get a good image, I convey all these emotions.”
Michael has a salt-and-pepper beard and wears a black hoodie, jeans and a heavy metal band T-shirt; Sam wears a similar combination. Ozzy’s “Boneyard” plays on SXM radio as we drive. Michael pulled a tattered map from the glove compartment and handed it back to Sam, who opens it and shows me that all the Kentucky towns they’ve explored for abandoned houses are marked in yellow. There isn’t much of the state still white.
They’ve also explored Indiana, Illinois, Maryland, Colorado, Wyoming and other states, but their home state of Kentucky is a favorite.
“Kentucky has the most abandoned houses of any state I’ve been to,” Michael says.
Basically, the couple will pick a small town they’ve yet to explore, and they’ll head off onto the back roads once there, freelancing. On this day, we’re returning to sites visited previously. Something is always different, Michael told me.
Together 28 years, the couple has the easy interaction and mutual comfort to prove it. As Michael talks, Sam tracks, on a mission to find a small house along a county road they had visited a year earlier.
We ditch Interstate 71 into Mt. Washington, then onto a side road into a neighborhood with a lot of newer homes and other scattered houses that have been around awhile. Eventually, Michael spots the target house, a small, fading, white-shingled structure surrounded by lifeless trees and weeds, and he pulled into an adjacent road that actually seems more like a driveway.
When a house is found, Sam takes over driving and drops off Michael to do his work alone. She will take the car somewhere and wait. On this day, the first concern is making sure the people in neighboring houses don’t get suspicious that they may be vandals.
“There’s an old lady who sits on her porch, being nosy,” Michael says. But the woman’s porch is empty, so we approach the house as Sam drives away. We push through some thorn bushes and toward the front of the house. Michael walks to the front door, opens it and steps in.
Suddenly, we are in the ruins of a time capsule.
Floral wallpaper that probably dates to the 1940s lines nearly every wall. Clothes and random junk covers the floor. A 1960s-era television sits on the floor. I see a Prince Albert tobacco can on what used to be a shelf or a mantel.
Michael makes his way around what once probably was a warm living room where families gathered. As he moves he is spotting and shooting ready-made still life portraits randomly. He shoots doorknobs. He shoots the tobacco can. He places a mason jar in a window for a haunting image.
We move about the house, through a bedroom with bare bed springs lying at awkward angles and torn curtains framing a window that looks out onto the main road. Cars go by in the distance, reminding us of a dimension we left outside the door.
I find a 1974 Louisville phone book with Daniel Boone on the cover, and a green Diet-Rite soda bottle. We chat about what this place might have been. He suggests it probably was the home of an elderly person who passed away at some point and the children simply didn’t want to deal with the aftermath. And so, the place was left to slowly rot away with the passage of time.
“A couple more years,” Michael says, “and it will be extinct.”
At one point, he opens a doorway that looks like a closet from my vantage point. He tells me he’s going up to the attic. An attic of perhaps the spookiest house I’ve ever been into is not the place I want to be, but I’m keen to follow him up the built-in, ladder-esque steps. When we get to the top, the first thing I see is an antique doll, covered in dirt and sick with neglect.
Michael picks up the doll and gingerly places it on a chair, then commences shooting. I walk past and look back into the rest of the attic, where more chairs and other junk lay strewn about. I resist going farther, lest I step into a weak spot in the floor and go crashing through to the main room.
Finally finished, we walk out the back of the old house, the wall of which is essentially gone. When we exit, we see that Sam has returned and we get into the car. I notice I’ve got cobwebs on my sleeves.
“Michael always comes back with cobwebs,” Sam says.
SHOOTING FOR A CHANGE
Michael was an alcoholic in his previous life. He grew up in Laramie, Wyoming and ended up in Denver. Along our trek, we chat about what inspired him in 2009 to become a photographer, and he calls it a “spiritual exercise.” It was a distraction in a way from his troubled life and often-debilitating alcoholism.
Photography, Sam says, “was a blessing. Michael almost died several times, and he put the bottle down one day and picked up a camera. It definitely changed his life.”
He left this life behind when he moved east to Louisville to be closer to Sam’s family.
“Things weren’t going so well in Denver,” Michael says. “I was a bad kid, so we had to get out of Denver.”
He tells me that at one point he was literally stone-drunk for 15 days straight, prompting a nurse to tell him, “You should be dead.” His response was to tell her he felt like he could use a drink.
“She didn’t find any humor in that,” Michael says.
Sam continually gives directions as we drive, as the couple eschews modern GPS software. It dawns on me that Sam serves as Michael’s GPS in more ways than one.
His transformation has led to more than just a love of photography, but also a personal project to help feed and clothe homeless people. His project, the Love Transformation Project, goes to where homeless people live and roam to bring them clothes, shoes, food, provides haircuts and other such services. A different sort of preservation.
When Steve McManus launched the Abandoned Kentucky group five years ago, he would have been surprised to get more than a handful of members involved. But more than 40,000?
“As a matter of fact, I was sort of amazed when I hit 100,” McManus says. “When I hit 1,000, I say, ‘Wow.’ I really did think I was the only one, but apparently not.”
McManus, a farm owner in McLean County, is fascinated by these places, particularly the huge farmhouses and mansions around the state that sit empty, dying a slow death as time, weather and the earth claims them.
“To me, the abandoned place is sort of like a drama,” McManus says. “You look at it and you can’t imagine somebody would ever let this place deteriorate so badly. There are some fantastic mansions that are just being left to decay.”
He says in many, possibly most cases, the deterioration reaches a point where the cost to restore the structure is more expensive than the value of the house itself. Thus, it’s more cost-effective to simply let the building rot — no matter how beautiful it once was or could still potentially be.
McManus chalks it up to the changing family farm in Kentucky — they are getting larger, but there are fewer of them. When a farm is purchased, often the home that has sat on the land for 100 years simply isn’t needed by the owner. He knows, because he is one of those owners. He purchased a farm in Garrard County a few years ago that had a small house with it. It was livable and, in fact, the previous owners lived there for a while even after he bought the land.
When they moved, he occasionally stayed in the house, but at one point, looters broke into the house and ripped out wiring and copper pipes. He assessed the damage and the potential cost and had to make the call that it wasn’t worth fixing. The house now sits idle, waiting to fall to the ground sometime down the road. But it’s the former farm mansions he feels the most regret over.
“Quite often one of these big old houses I drive by is being dozed into a pile,” McManus says. “I can’t overemphasize how fantastic some of these places are. I can’t imagine we’re just letting our heritage fall into ruins and I wish something would be done about it.”
NOT QUITE LOST IN KENTUCKY
Michael misses a turn as a Nazareth song plays on the radio. “You know where you’re going, Mike?” Sam calls from the back seat.
Now we’re on a winding country road and we exit onto State Road 623. I have no idea where we are, and the bars on our phones fade. I see and hear cows. We cross over Salt River and pass a street called Love Lane.
“You sure this is the right street?” Michael says, although he doesn’t seem concerned. We trek deeper and deeper in, until finally Michael spots the house he seeks in the distance. We turn into a muddy, steep excuse for a driveway that isn’t really there. Above us, the two-story farmhouse looms against the dense, dark clouds. Michael has been looking forward to shooting the staircase and banister, until we walk in and find the latter ripped from its longtime home.
There is no front door, but a splintered part of it on the floor still has a doorknob attached. Clutter makes it difficult to walk in the foyer.
“It gets worse every time,” he says, as we pass the aforementioned staircase into what once was a large kitchen. Graffiti on one wall exclaims “I love” with a swastika at the end of the sentence. Someone has spray-painted “KKK” on a countertop.
From room to room we walk in the L-shaped mansion, and I can’t help noticing how many toys we find. In one room, a lone teddy bear leans against the bottom of a huge, door-sized window that looks out across rolling land with trees dotting the landscape. Michael is looking for textures and edges to create minimalist but effective shots.
One room is huge and colorful, with pastel pink, blue and yellow surrounding a fireplace. Surely, it had been a child’s room. We find a back staircase that once likely was as beautiful as the one in front, once upon a time.
“I can only imagine what this place looked like back in its prime,” he says. It’s exactly the type of farmhouse McManus spoke of.
He casually mentions that last time he and Sam were there, they lost phone service and she got physically lost while driving around. This time, luckily, Sam does not get lost and after detouring to shoot an exterior of another house, we’re heading home. We drive by a large, two-story house that appears to be mid-19th century, a place Michael has explored previously. Several men are up on the roof, working.
“They’re fixing it!” he exclaims. “I’m so happy about that.”
This drives home what I’ve noticed all day — that Michael genuinely loves these old homes and relishes his role in preserving their memories. We cross into Spencer County and I notice vast neighborhoods of new homes, one after the other, all looking vaguely the same. I wonder if, in 150 years, they will still be around and will people like Michael and all those in Abandoned Kentucky still be documenting them with such care?
He talks about the many places he’s photographed that already have been torn down or have fallen down on their own. He talks of the desire to publish a book rather than leave his thousands and thousands of digital images languishing on hard drives or going relatively unnoticed on his website, MichaelMaesPhotography.com.
I get the sense that, if he could, Maes would physically preserve each one of these places. But, again, they aren’t his to save. They represent the natural passage of time and humanity.
It brings to mind something McManus noted during our conversation: “One thing about the [Abandoned Kentucky] group that’s positive: At least we’re going to have pictures of these places.” •