Lost and Found: Random oddities from abandoned buildings

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Every so often, Wood hits pay dirt, like when she and some colleagues explored a Toledo residence sitting in probate court after the homeowners died without close relatives.

"It was kind of like walking back in time," she remembered. "We just sort of walked in and pieced together their life story - when they grew up, where they were from - and we never met them."

Clothes were folded in drawers. Church programs lay open on tables. The team took what could be used - business cards, some photos, a few pieces of clothing - and left the rest.

In addition to an owner's death, buildings become vacant or abandoned for a number of reasons, said Dana Rose, administrator of code enforcement for the City of Columbus.

An owner falls behind on a mortgage and suffers foreclosure. An investor buys up properties only to find he's in too deep. Factories and commercial centers simply run their course or fall victim to changing markets.

Buildings and the odd stuff on the inside get lost in the shuffle.

Sometimes it's easier, less painful or more cost-effective just to leave everything behind. Sometimes whoever comes next stumbles onto a scene preserved in amber, save for the addition of a little dust.

That's exactly what Josh Quinn and his Wonderland partners found when they wandered into the former Wonder Bread factory in Italian Village.

"It honestly felt like people had gone home from work and not come back the next day," Quinn said.

When demolition crews dismantled roughly six miles of bread-moving conveyor belt, they found remnants of a functioning business frozen in time.

Jackets were left in lockers, papers sat in stacks on desks, and special clocks urged the empty confines to "Think Safety!" A banner commemorated the lifetime service of an employee remembered today only as "Bill."

Each room had its own motivational poster still plastered to a wall.

"I'm excited to preserve as much as possible for the retailers there," Quinn explained. "I'm really excited about seeing a desk used for 60 years coming down and having jeans folded on it for a retailer at Wonderland."

He's already transplanted several pieces into Tigertree, his Short North boutique, but most have stayed in place to remind the future creative space of what it used to be.

For some, the lure of things like this is too strong to resist.

"When you go in, you just imagine what it was like when it was still being used," said Jason Robinson, founder of the Ohio Exploration Society. "People drive by these places every day, and they might glance in the direction. I want to go in and see what was there."

During the past decade or so, his group has grown to more than 25 active urban explorers, who have wandered through hundreds of old or abandoned Ohio structures. The goal is to enter with owner permission, though they've risked criminal trespassing charges to check out spaces before they're boarded up, bulldozed or about to collapse.

Scrappers in search of copper pipes and criminals looking for privacy usually force owners to close off entry points to old or abandoned structures. Most urban explorers, though, hope only to peer into another world and document it before it's lost to decay.

Their motto is simple: Take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints.

"I would've never known this stuff was there, had I not gone out and looked for it," Robinson said.

Broken-down houses have contained plenty of beds, furniture and newspapers - but also old gaming systems and, once, a vintage record player/TV/radio console.

In crumbling medical centers, Robinson has found broken equipment, cabinets full of prescription drugs, blood and urine samples and syringes strewn across a dingy, dusty floor.

Over the years, OES members have learned one thing from their time on the inside: They never know what they're going to find. As interesting as the buildings themselves are all the peculiar things that've been left behind.

"After your first time, you start to get the itch to go and check out another place," he said. "You can find anything in these places."

Tips for urban exploring