photo by Justin Fox Burks
It's late, one or two in the morning. Ben and Sebastian pull into a side street off Lamar Ave. and park between two trucks from a nearby business. They cut the lights and pull out what Ben calls their "nerd gear": LED flashlights, rubber gloves, mace. At one time, they would have taped the bottom of their shoes.
They go into stealth mode, heading toward a break in the fence, climbing through and then running for cover. They dart behind trees and dumpsters as they sweep the perimeter, looking for guards, vagrants, anyone who's not supposed to be there. And at 1025 E.H. Crump Boulevard, that's pretty much everyone ... including them. There are few doors or windows left on the building, and once they've ascertained they're alone, they easily enter the old hospital.
"Once you're over the fence," says Ben, "it's pretty easy to get into any abandoned building."
If the city is a concrete jungle, Ben and Sebastian,* both in their 20s, are its unflinching explorers. In their cut-off fatigues, hand-patched with slogans, they are equal parts artists and adventurers. They never break but they always enter and, under a cloak of darkness, safari through buildings like this hospital or the Coach and Four Hotel on Lamar.
Despite the trespassing, the roommates share a deep-seated sense of morality and social consciousness. Like most independent thinkers, they have a healthy distrust of authority. If you're with them long enough, you can see they would fight for what they think is right.
Ben and Sebastian compare their urban targets to caves and themselves to spelunkers. They try not to take anything. They try not to leave anything.
"The first building we did was the old pie factory [in Cooper-Young]," says Sebastian. "One night, it was just, Do you want to go somewhere?"
"I just wanted to check it out," says Ben. "I'd been in it before, for punk-rock functions. It had been a gallery and they partitioned parts of it off. We just wanted to check it out. We didn't have any ulterior motives."
They probably visited the building three or four times more after that. The first time at any old building, they say, you never stay long. "You kind of advance each time. You do a sweep the first time, search for signs of vagrants. It's usually a quick trip, and it's always been scoped out ahead of time," says Ben.
Why go in at all?
Ben shrugs. He mentions other extreme sports -- mountain biking, fighting -- that he can't do any more because of injuries. He says he's an adrenaline junkie: Go hard or go home. But he also seems to have come down with a case of good old-fashioned curiosity.
"When I was 17, I was with a bunch of people after a punk show and we jumped a construction fence downtown," he says. They climbed up the fire escape and into an open window and found themselves in a building that was being renovated for office space. "We went and sat on this ledge over Court Square. You could see how it was laid out geometrically," says Ben. "After the first time you do it, you kind of lose your fear."
Inside the pie factory, the explorers found a room of old jukeboxes and video games. At the Coach and Four, they found a lot of standing water.
Their hobby probably would have remained in the dark, so to speak, if they hadn't gone to the hospital. But once there, what they found was so disturbing that they couldn't keep it to themselves.
"We were driving around one night and we ended up on Lamar," says Ben. "We didn't have any of our gear together. I just showed him the hospital and said I had always wanted to go in. I thought it used to be a sanitarium. ... Coming from an artistic and photographic background, there was so much I could see in the building."
FROM V.A. TO ABANDONED
"We have a tough time keeping people out," says Louis W. "Tripp" Thornton III, the current owner of the building. Thornton bought the approximately 9-acre property for $10 -- the cost of the filing fee, he thinks -- last fall. "Inside, it looks like a war zone," he adds. "It has probably been abandoned since 1997. Basically, it was the neighborhood crack house, for lack of a better word. There were a lot of homeless in there -- there still are."
Even in bright daylight, the hospital's main building conjures up horror movies and old-time ghost stories. Weedy overgrowth skims the chain-link fence but doesn't quite reach the barbed wire wrapped at the top. At one corner, a green "Baptist" sign is just visible through the brush.
The main building is both imposing and sad, like a former champion put out to pasture. The hospital's hollow brick shell, devoid of doors and window panes, gives a view of silver vents suspended in midair, snarled mini-blinds swinging in the breeze, and hanging ceiling tiles. A building in back seems paused mid-demolition, its roof half-on, half-off, as if the tarred top is slowly spilling to the ground. All that's missing are buxom young actresses running for their lives.
In 1890, wealthy Memphian W.B. Mallory built a stately home at the site. Twenty-four years later, the property was purchased for the Methodist Hospital of Memphis, a joint effort by groups in Memphis, north Mississippi, and north Arkansas. After construction was completed in the fall of 1921, the building was run as Methodist for only a scant six months before the national Veterans Administration bought it and dubbed it Veterans Hospital No. 88. The Mallory home, though later torn down, was used as the nurses' residence.
According to a November 1996 issue of the Baptist Hospital publication BaptiScope, V.A. No. 88 closed in 1940 and remained unoccupied for the next 19 years: "Baptist then purchased the facility and, after an extensive renovation, opened what was called the Lamar Unit in 1962 as a chronic-disease hospital." In the late 1960s, the hospital became geared toward rehabilitation.
Some current staffers at Baptist still call the building "the Lamar Unit."
Rehabilitation nurse and case manager Ruth Reyes, now at Baptist Rehab-Germantown, remembers coming to the Lamar Unit as a young nursing student and falling in love with rehab. When she graduated nursing school in 1966, she got a job at the facility and stayed until it closed its inpatient rehab facility in 1992.
"I helped shut the doors," says Reyes. "It was done in a very orderly fashion. We thought it would be complete chaos. I helped take out all the files and equipment: the mats and weights, the hot-pack machines. I helped move all the charts and the patients. If I recall correctly, we did it all over a weekend."
Because Reyes had a neighbor who had worked at the building when it was still run as a veterans hospital, she was always cognizant of its history.
"The back elevators were the old kind," she says. "You know, the ones that have a gate door and you would have to open the elevator door yourself. The ones at the front were modernized, but the back ones, for the staff, were the old style."
She says that during her 20 years there, the regional rehabilitation center was a thriving hospital. Because the facility was originally arranged as wards, the private rooms were very large. Even the group rooms, which housed four patients, were fairly big.
"The patients had those large windows in their rooms with gorgeous views of the trees and the grounds," says Reyes. "It was a beautiful facility. That's what I remember."
But, she says, by the time Baptist moved out, it was time to go. The air conditioner, which had been renovated 20 years before, had started to go out. And modern medical thinking was for patients to begin rehab sooner, instead of waiting six weeks or more after an injury to begin therapy.
"Because we were getting them sooner, they were more critical. We were also getting stroke patients earlier. By moving to the Medical Center, we would be closer to other facilities so we could care for our critical patients better," says Reyes. "It was sad leaving the big trees and the nice grounds, but it was a move forward. We were excited about it."
When Baptist closed its outpatient rehab center at the Lamar Unit in 1996, the hospital administration tried to donate the facility to the city. But the city could not afford the renovation costs, so Baptist gave it to Mission Corps International to use as a homeless shelter. It seems they couldn't afford the renovation costs either.
"I drove by it one day and I remembered it from when I was a kid," says Thornton of the property. "The gates were open and all the windows were busted out. There were two or three people outside when I drove up, but they ran back inside. I called a friend at Baptist and said, 'What have you done to this property?' He said, 'We donated it to someone and they let it go to wreck and ruin but we can't find them now.'"
Mission Corps International is as ghostlike in Memphis as the building it used to own. The phone numbers are long disconnected; the headquarters closed.
"I said, 'Anybody can find someone if they really want to find them.' Four months later, I found them and called them," says Thornton. "Basically, they locked it up, walked away, and never looked back. I said, 'If you're not going to do anything with it, let me do something with it.'"
By the time Thornton got it, the property was already tied up in environmental court. Gary Kirk, a supervisor in the Memphis Fire Department's anti-neglect division, said the building has been cited for being in violation of the city's commercial anti-neglect ordinance.
Thornton is currently under a court order to bring the building into compliance by removing all the trash and debris, asbestos, and buried fuel tanks from the site.
Previous reports said Thornton was hoping to use the property to care for the elderly, but he says his role is simply to clean up the site and sell it. He currently plans to demolish all the buildings but says he's been in touch with an out-of-state nonprofit that's interested in a feasibility study on saving the largest building.
"They like the campus setting," says Thornton. "It's a pretty, old building, and there's plenty of room out back. [They] liked the big building, but not any of the others. Structurally, it's in great shape, but it would probably need to be rewired and the plumbing redone."
"[The hospital] is like the house in Rose Red. Have you seen that movie?" asks Ben. "It changes itself behind you. All the windows are gone so the wind blows the doors shut. We've been in there so much, we know our way around, but you have to find a reference point."
Ben and Sebastian say that once you are inside an abandoned building, you're pretty much safe. No one is able to see you from the road and the buildings are so quiet, no one will be able to sneak up on you. They've been surprised -- once by a cat, eyes aglow in the dark -- but they've never been caught.
"It's almost unbelievable," says Ben. "Security came up on us one night and just waved at us. We were gloving up in the car, and we said, okay, play it cool, but he just waved at us and drove by."
At night, the hospital is so dark you can only see where the outside light hits. There's graffiti near some of the entrances, and the wall is spray-painted with markings where asbestos lurks. The sinks and toilets have been ripped out and light fixtures hang from wires, but paper flowers and inspirational Snoopy posters still grace the walls.
"You walk by doors that still have the name of the patient who was there -- like it'll say: 208, Miss Clemons," says Ben. "The place is alive in its own right. All the bathrooms have holes where someone has taken a sledgehammer to them. The doorknobs are missing. There's no grace about it."
But it wasn't the building's disrepair that really startled them. It was what had been left behind. Old dialysis equipment. A medieval-looking spa. Tissue samples. "On the first floor is where we found our first box of files," says Ben. "There was just one box sitting there. The files included personal information, psychiatric profiles, anything you'd want to know."
The discovery gave him chills. He only read through enough of the material to discern what it was and then closed it all up, convinced it was none of his business, but it wasn't anybody else's either. On the one hand, he imagined someone looking through the files and laughing at the doctors' comments or the patients' problems. On the other hand, he figured these people (or their families) might need the information.
The files pulled them back to the hospital like a Siren's song. After seeing the medical files, Sebastian says it was like, "I wonder what else they left behind." But their consciences also bothered them. They felt something had to be done with the files.
Ben says that his first thought was to take the box home with him. "Sebastian said, 'Do you really want to try and find all those people?' I wanted someone to do something about it. I felt the information needed to be returned to those people."
When they found a larger stash, maybe 15 more boxes, that's when they really freaked out.
Under new privacy guidelines established by the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), hospitals and health-care providers are under a greater burden to keep patients' information private. Developed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, it's the first law of its kind and gives patients greater control over their medical information. Hospitals must ask patients if they want their room number given out. Even flower arrangements waiting to go to patients' rooms must be turned so that passersby can't see the name on the card. Violations can mean stiff financial penalties.
When contacted, Baptist spokesperson Ayoka Pond said that Baptist had removed all the organization's files and belongings when it was donated to Mission Corps. The hospital is now investigating the situation in more detail, but Pond says she's been assured there are no files there.
A spokesperson at Methodist said the records probably would not be in violation of HIPAA because they predate the law. She also noted that medical providers need only keep records for 10 years but added that the location does not seem very secure.
Owner Thornton says he hasn't seen any medical files in the building. "Our first priority was to take everything out that could burn," says Thornton. He says he threw away about 500 mattresses and got rid of everything flammable in an effort to keep vagrants from burning down the building. "We had stuff stacked up 15 feet high in the back before we got the dumpsters. In the basement, there's quite a bit of stuff. It was all wet and it wasn't going to burn, so we didn't touch it," says Thornton.
He hopes to have the site pristine within the next 12 months, weather permitting, and says he's not sure yet if his $10 was a good investment or not. "We'll see. There's a lot of work to be done, but it's a beautiful nine and a half acres. There are probably 50 oak trees on the property, all about 100 years old."
As for Ben and Sebastian, they're still out there, planning where to go next.