Unreal Estate

April 11, 1993|By Robert de Gast

My interest in abandoned structures began about 10 years ago, when, for nearly $5,000, I bought a lot on the main street of the charming village of Harborton, on the Chesapeake Bay side of the Eastern Shore of Virginia.

There was, to be sure, a small house on the lot, but it had been unoccupied for several years and seemed unsalvageable; it was assumed by the seller (and the neighbors) that the house was to be torn down, and perhaps a new one built. My father, who had survived two wars in Europe, refused to go inside when I proudly showed him my new acquisition. It looked, he said, like it had been bombed, and it certainly didn't look very safe.

But, in fact, it was safe. It had been built with care and sound materials. I thought I could salvage it. Certainly the task seemed daunting: Windows were broken; doors were off their hinges; trash was everywhere; the floors and walls signaled decades of neglect. There was no running water and no electricity. But, after nearly 100 years, the house was free of termites and rot and once even had been pretty. An entire summer and part of fall was spent restoring and updating the house.

For nearly five years it was a comfortable and cozy residence for my wife and me.

[Restoring an abandoned building] is not something I would recommend for everyone, but it solidified my interest in abandoned buildings of all kinds, and in their place in the American landscape.

There are, of course, abandoned buildings to be found anywhere, but not, I think, in the same astonishing profusion as on the Eastern Shore. The small size of Virginia's Eastern Shore emphasizes the number of derelict structures. There are no laws requiring the demolition of abandoned buildings, and many people would resent them. Proud of their independence, they don't like any one telling them what to do about their private property.

"Besides," a Shoreman noted, "our local artists would have nothing to paint."

ROBERT DE GAST is a photographer and writer with a lifelong interest in architecture and landscape. His book, "Unreal Estate" (the Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), is available at area bookstores.

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