- David Linde / Abandoned Oklahoma / provided
- Most abandoned buildings are hospitals and schools like Chilocco Indian Agricultural School near Ponca City.
Before Michael Schwarz could even fully process the orange flames jumping on the television screen, he jumped in his car and made his fastest-ever drive on a familiar trek down to Spencer where the historic Dunjee School — a place he had visited 20 to 30 times after getting involved with the group Abandoned Oklahoma — burned beyond recognition in 2012.
The Dunjee School was a relic of Oklahoma’s segregated school system, and Civil Rights pioneer Clara Luper once taught in the school, but it was closed in 1972 and sat vacant for years until former student Theotis Payne reopened the building as a school for at-risk youth in 1998. Payne ran into legal trouble and then died suddenly in 2004. The school closed almost overnight and was abandoned with assignments written on whiteboards and open textbooks on desks, and it became a galvanizing point for Schwarz as he began contributing to Abandoned Oklahoma.
When he pulled up to the Dunjee School as fire crews were leaving, a husk of a building sat waterlogged and charred with a woman standing in the hall, crying. Schwarz approached her and realized that it was Theotis Payne’s widow, Margarett.
“She couldn’t keep up with the school anymore, and she told me that this was the last tangible memory she had of her husband and there were a lot of family photos in there; his personal belongings were all ruined,” Schwarz said. “I was able to give her all of the pictures I’d taken. That’s when I made the switch from ‘These are really cool places to go into’ to ‘People have history at these places.’ … It’s not just the buildings that need to be preserved, but it’s also the people’s stories that need to be preserved.”
Sparking curiosityAbandoned Oklahoma was founded in 2009 by Cody Cooper and Justin Tyler Moore, the latter of whom is no longer with the group. Cooper has been passionate about Oklahoma’s history and architecture since high school, but he said The Skirvin Hilton Oklahoma City, aka Skirvin Hotel, which sat vacant and abandoned for nearly 15 years, sparked his fascination with abandoned buildings.
“In high school, I took a photography class, and Page Woodson and the Skirvin were two of the buildings that I photographed,” he said. “The stories behind the locations are incredible. The stories make the buildings have so much more personality. To envision the lives that the building themselves lived as well as the people that were in them, it’s just fascinating to research that type of thing.”
Through Abandoned Oklahoma, Cooper was able to merge many of his interests.
“We started to notice that Oklahoma didn’t have an urban exploration resource like most other states or sites had,” he said. “So we decided to go ahead and start our own and to turn a hobby into more of a preservation-type effort.”
After receiving some media attention, Cooper said the site started to attract more users who would leave more comments and even contribute to posts. In fact, the current Abandoned Oklahoma team came together slowly as the site’s web presence grew.
- Michael Schwarz / Abandoned Oklahoma / provided
- Before historic Dunjee School in Spencer burned down in 2012, it still held furniture and schoolbooks as well as personal items from its caretaker and former student Theotis Payne, who had reopened the building as a school for at-risk youth in 1998.
“They kind of reached out and we started doing meetups. A few other people started to join the meetups, and it kind of snowballed,” he said. “It’s difficult to find people who are interested in this type of photography or preservation work, so the people that were interested in actually meeting up were slim. But the core group of people that did come out were true enthusiasts, and we all worked together to pool our resources and our talents. It was really exciting to see the passion in people’s eyes.”
Johnny Fletcher and David Linde were some of the first people to join the team. Schwarz joined the group in 2011 after touring abandoned Gandini’s Circus in Edmond. Schwarz also founded Abandoned Arkansas while attending University of Central Arkansas in Conway.
Fletcher, aka psychosaw13, first began exploring abandoned buildings as a child in Bartlesville, playing hide-and-seek in a vacant house in his neighborhood where a “local youth organization” had installed a slide and other haunted house props.
“It’s long gone,” said Fletcher, who still lives in the same neighborhood. “It’s just a field now.”
It didn’t occur to him to take photographs until he found a website documenting abandoned buildings in Arkansas.
“I spent hours going through every one of their posts,” Fletcher said. “I was immediately obsessed.”
He was especially drawn to photos of Dogpatch USA, a Marble Falls attraction built in 1967. Slate described it as a “hillbilly-themed amusement park centered on a trout farm” featuring “Barney Barnsmell’s Skunk-Works, Rotten Ralphie’s Rick-O-Shay Rifle Range and a roller coaster called Earthquake McGoon’s Brain Rattler.” The park closed in 1993. Fletcher took a road trip to see it for himself and took hundreds of photos.
“Pretty much everything is there still, to this day,” Fletcher said. “It’s cool to find old log rides or roller coasters in the woods, overgrown.”
Abandoned Oklahoma hosted meetups all over the state, but Cooper said the most memorable one for him happened at Chilocco Indian Agricultural School, a boarding school for Native Americans that provided academic and vocational education and sought to assimilate them. It served students from Arizona, New Mexico and even Alaska but eventually closed because of low enrollment.
“The history around the Indian schools is equally if not more interesting than that property,” Cooper said. “They were whole little cities, and people don’t even know they existed. … That place was probably the most memorable just because of the history and the size of the location.”
Fletcher’s favorite sites to explore are still abandoned amusement parks, but the most common type of abandoned building he comes across, by far, are former public schools with hospitals a distant second. A 2013 study by Pew Charitable Trusts determined that “large-scale public school closures have become a fact of life in many American cities, and that trend is not likely to stop now.” Though some former school buildings are sold and repurposed, others sit vacant for years because demolishing them is expensive and sometimes controversial.
- David Linde / Abandoned Oklahoma / provided
- In the future, Abandoned Oklahoma would like to focus some of its coverage on buildings like Page Woodson that have been saved and restored for reuse.
“Given all of these factors, it is no surprise that some buildings sit empty for decades,” Pew reported. “And the structures, which are costly to maintain, can deteriorate rapidly; the longer they sit vacant, the more expensive they can be to reactivate. … The buildings can become eyesores, magnets for illicit activities and symbols of neighborhood decline.”
Schwarz’s favorite sites to tour are abandoned schools and hospitals, particularly ones that have a lot of things left behind from the building’s operation. Abandoned Oklahoma and Abandoned Arkansas do not condone trespassing and recommend using local chambers of commerce to get in touch with property owners to request permission to tour the site or to just ask a neighbor.
“If someone lives next to an abandoned hospital, you can bet they know something about it that will help; it’s just a matter of asking,” Schwarz said.
While obtaining permission to enter a former nursing home in Arkansas, the building owner told Schwarz to enter through a basement window because all of the doors were locked. A neighbor saw his crew enter through the window and called the authorities.
“The cops showed up with their guns out,” Schwarz said. “After they saw our cameras, they apologized and ended up walking around with us, and they were exploring just as much as we were; it was so funny. They told us how many teenagers break in and have parties there, which is sad.”
Abandoned Oklahoma has countless posts of abandoned locations with articles varying in length about the history of the locations. While Oklahoma provides a lot for the Abandoned Oklahoma team to work with, Cooper said the state might actually not have as many abandoned places as other states.
“I like to call it Abandoned America. It’s not really unique to Oklahoma,” Cooper said. “Every city, state, town has buildings that have reached their end of life. I would say we have very few as far as abandoned buildings go just because of how young as a state we are. If you go to Kansas or Missouri or even Arkansas, there’s a lot more, and if you go to Europe, God knows.”
—Michael Schwarz click to tweet
Fletcher met future Abandoned Oklahoma teammate Linde, aka Fiend, through the Arkansas website, and the two decided to meet up and explore the Lincoln Beerblower Power Plant in Ponca City, a coal-burning facility decommissioned in 1983 and declared an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site due to asbestos and other toxins. Fletcher called the plant “very, very dangerous” but said avoiding injuries when exploring it was “mostly common sense.”
“You have to look ahead of you, and don’t step in any puddles because you don’t know what’s underneath the water,” Fletcher said. “There were a lot of metal grates in that power plant that had just dropped straight down and a lot of stairways that have fallen down. … Some of the younger kids, they’re more adventurous and will climb stairwells or steps or things like lead up to rooms, but at the time, I had a young daughter, and you’ve got to think about that too. You’ve got to think about your family. You don’t want to disappear in a pit or something and nobody knows where you’re at.”
The feeling of exploring such a large abandoned site is powerful, Fletcher said.
“This was somebody’s job,” Fletcher said. “The power plant probably had 40 employees or something at one time. You would see old lockers with names on them. It’s the wonderment of, ‘People used to be here, and they’re no longer here.’ And there’s trees and stuff growing up through the concrete, and it’s amazing.”
While exploring an abandoned Tulsa warehouse that would later become the site of Woody Guthrie Center, Fletcher forgot to watch his step.
“I did actually step down in a puddle, and my leg went all the way into the ground up to past my knees,” Fletcher said. “But I was lucky there.”
Though Fletcher is an avid horror film fan, he said he doesn’t believe in ghosts.
“I used to, until the ghost hunter TV shows kind of ruined everything,” Fletcher said. “I had an interest in the paranormal early on before exploring. We kind of become friends with ghost hunters because we steal each other’s locations.”
He has seen a few “spooky things,” though.
“There was a shadow figure in a doorway that was unexplainable to me,” Fletcher said. “It wasn’t there when I took the photos. There was an abandoned mental hospital in Sand Springs … and there was some playground equipment, and we were there at night, and the merry-go-round started moving by itself, but there was no wind or anything to move it.”
- Johnny Fletcher / Abandoned Oklahoma / provided
- Abandoned theme parks remain a popular attraction for explorers.
“I think that the awareness is there now, where it really wasn’t so much in the past. I think the state and the city have come a long ways in the last 10 years to adaptive reuse than they had previously thought of it before,” Cooper said. “Having the city council weigh in on issues like that, I think it’s important, especially to have citizens heard regarding their feelings of something that makes up the architectural fabric of our city.”
The website includes a community of members and users who add information and context.
“The comment section is just as important as the pictures and the history because people provide perspective and history,” Schwarz said. “There are so many memories out there; it’s not just about the building itself.”
Abandoned Oklahoma is currently undergoing a revamp. After months of low activity, the team is regrouping and planning to hit the ground running in January.
“We do have plans for 2020 to grow the website with more content and just kind of rebranding,” Cooper said. “In the next year, I hope that we continue to do what we have always done, which is bring attention to the public about architecturally significant structures in our state and the history behind them. … We’ll have some activities planned for the next year, but we don’t really have anything set in stone just yet.”
Schwarz is currently living in Los Angeles, but he’s moving back to Oklahoma in early 2020 as he finishes work on a feature-length documentary called Forever Majestic about the historic Majestic Hotel in Hot Springs, Arkansas, that was demolished following a fire in 2014. He hopes to have the documentary finished in time for the prestigious Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival in October. As Abandoned Oklahoma makes a new push, Schwarz wants to document success stories as well, like a feature he’s working on for the old Sunshine Cleaners building that was refurbished as saved by Stoneclound Brewing Company.
“We don’t want to see these places as trash or thrown away, but as an opportunity,” Schwarz said. “If we can do success stories, it will show that things are possible.”
- Ingvard Ashby with photography by Michael Schwarz provided by Abandoned Oklahoma