Urban Explorers

Take an exciting excursion into the bowels of deserted St. Louis buildings

May 25, 2005 at 4:00 am
One of the best first dates that Dave (not his real name) has ever been on was when he took a girl up to the top of the Syndicate Trust Building, the downtown sixteen-story, Chicago-style structure on Olive, between Ninth and Tenth streets.

"I knew I would have fun, and I figured it was a good test of her personality," he recalls of his idea a few years back. "If she was going to complain about how dirty it was or ask me to hold her purse, I'd know she wasn't the right kind of girl."

The point of the date was not to enjoy a romantic rooftop picnic or to stargaze. No, it was, quite simply, to make it all the way up to the roof. This would mean more than an elevator ride, for at the time, the Syndicate was abandoned.

Naysayers may dismiss such excursions as illegal trespassing. But for a small yet dedicated group of enthusiasts -- who prefer to call what they do "urban exploration" -- finding their way into deserted structures and discovering their nooks and crannies is much more than a cheap thrill. It's a consciousness-raising step toward highlighting the importance of preserving the past and its architecture. It's witnessing historic edifices at their most vulnerable and exposed.

"It feels like you're going to ruins," says Dave, "like you're going into the Pyramids."

The phenomenon of urban exploration that began in the early 1990s stretches worldwide, but remains mostly underground -- and online, where Googling "urban exploration" yields more than 55,000 hits.

"The Internet made it easy to share with others how much cool stuff is out there waiting to be found," says Ninjalicious, the fanciful pseudonym used by a publisher of Toronto-based Infiltration (www.infiltration.org), one of the most popular online 'zines covering urban exploration. "It also allows someone to be an armchair fan, though I've never quite understood those people."

In fact, it's just the opposite of the stay-at-home, virtual-reality mindset that Ninjalicious believes has made urban exploration so popular. "There is a genuine and largely unfulfilled longing for authentic experiences in authentic places," he says. "Satisfaction for this craving can really only be earned, not purchased."

As in most cities, a few of St. Louis' urban explorers are unabashed about chronicling their expeditions online -- the most well-known local sites are Ecology of Absence (www.eco-absence.org) and Sonic Atrophy (www.sonicatrophy.com) -- but virtually nobody pursues the hobby as if it were a tour-guide business, leaving beginners largely on their own.

Such Web sites provide a good starting point, though, with plenty of detailed first-person accounts of how other folks found ways into and around specific structures, what hurdles they encountered and what bits of architectural relic to look out for. Once armed with such information, says Dave, the novice explorer "just has to go out there and do it. It's like going camping -- you read up a bit on the area beforehand, you dress in gear that will protect you from the elements, you put your hiking boots on, you grab your flashlight, and then you just go and find what you find."

For better or worse, St. Louis -- chock-a-block with abandoned buildings downtown and points north and south of there -- may be one of the America's ripest cities for urban exploration. Explains Ninjalicious: "Declining cities, like Detroit of Buffalo, offer more opportunities for abandonment exploration, but a revitalizing city would also be filled with prospects -- restoration projects are very fun to explore."

Dave's involvement with urban exploration began when he was an undergraduate at Saint Louis University some dozen years ago. At the time, the nearby Continental Building in the Grand Center district was unoccupied, and breaking into it was, Dave says, "almost a SLU-student rite of passage."

But his hobby didn't turn into a full-blown obsession until five or six summers ago when, Dave remembers, "I broke into a whole string of places. For a while, I was going every week." His conquests included the Arena, Dogtown's wooden stadium that dated back to 1929, and whose fate was sealed in the 1990s with the construction of the Kiel Arena (now the Savvis Center) downtown, the Lemp Mansion south of Soulard and the Michigan Theater in Carondelet.

Though Dave insists he's strongly opposed to tampering with or damaging the sites he explores -- "I will remove a door from its hinges if I have to, but I don't like breaking a door" -- he admits he did take about 50 wood bricks from the Lemp Mansion, which he described as "dripping with history" and gave to friends as gifts, and that he stole a pair of bolt cutters from the Arena, which was in the process of being torn down at the time.

"I was really unhappy they took such joy in demolishing that building," Dave offers as reason for his spiteful steal. "When they tear down Busch Stadium soon, I don't think people should cheer. It's like putting a healthy dog to sleep."

Like most St. Louis urban explorers of recent years, Dave was a big fan of canvassing both the Century Building downtown (since demolished) and City Hospital on the outskirts of Lafayette Square (currently being converted into condominiums). The Century Building was one of the few places where cops fingered him, but that was just when he was casing the building, not doing anything outright illegal. Once that incident passed, Dave found that the Century was actually quite easy to penetrate.

"They did such a half-ass job protecting that place. There was a barrier around it, but it was solid wood, so once you slipped past it, nobody could see you from the street." He and a friend took a video camera inside the Century to document the building, and even found the theater space that was built inside the circa-1896 office building.

By his recollection, Dave explored City Hospital about a dozen times (at about three hours apiece, the average length of one of his stays) before reconstruction began on it. For a number of reasons, he believes that City Hospital was "probably one of the most broken-into buildings St. Louis has ever had. It's a series of structures, and when they deserted it, they left all the old medical equipment and files inside, so there was just tons of stuff to explore." On one of his visits, Dave took a bunch of newborn-baby records. He still displays some of the pictures of the newborns in his house. "So people are like, 'Where'd you get this baby picture?' And I'm like, 'Off the floor of City Hospital.'"

Another reason Dave cites for City Hospital's popularity was that "you didn't have to break into it. You could just walk right in." Once, he encountered a homeless person squatting inside the building. Dave simply told him in an authoritative voice that he was there to do an asbestos check.

Obviously, as much fun as urban exploration might be, individuals need their own certain set of rules and precautions in order to make each expedition a safe and successful one.

Dave's number-one rule, as evidenced by his asbestos story, is to "go in with the confidence that I'm supposed to be there." Beyond that, he always carries a flashlight, a couple tools for making his way through dead bolts and jammed doors, and a cell phone. And he knows that patience pays off. "If you're trying to explore a place that's going to require a good degree of breaking-in, sometimes you have to go visit four or five times beforehand to figure out your strategy before you make an attempt."

Though Dave hasn't broken into a building for about six months, he still keeps a list in his head of new places he'd like to check out; the General Douglas MacArthur Bridge, the in-use railroad bridge spanning the Mississippi, has been on his mind lately. (Other destinations popular with local ubran explorers include the McKinley Bridge, which crosses the Mississippi from the north side; the Carondelet Coke plant at 526 East Catalan Street; and parts of the old Gaslight Square district on Olive Street near North Boyle Avenue, toward the north end of the Central West End.) He knows that, with so many reconstruction projects and loft-conversions happening around the city, it may become harder in the future to find buildings he can explore.

"At this point, I've gotten so brazen that I feel like it's my right to go into these places. On the other hand, the love of urban exploration is intrinsically tied into the desire for old buildings to be put into good use today and tomorrow. So in a way, I wish I couldn't break into any of these buildings at all."