A tour guide to dark places, their people long vanished

Jason Baker likes taking pictures of abandoned buildings, inside and out.

Armed with his trusty flashlight and camera, Baker recently visited the long-shuttered Lakeville State Hospital, where he captured haunting images of empty hallways and dilapidated examination rooms.

The 29-year-old calls himself an “urban ruins photographer,’’ and his passion for documenting decaying places has brought him into the darkened corridors of insane asylums, closed schools, and other deserted institutions.

Baker just published his third book, “Abandoned 2,’’ which features his photographs accompanied by a collection of short horror stories. He will be showing some of his work at Gallery X in New Bedford this month.

Baker, a Marlborough native who now lives in Malden, has spent the past six years exploring out-of-the-way places. His interest in the subject really took root in 2004, when he went on a tour of the former Danvers State Hospital.

“The thought of what was left inside intrigued me,’’ he said.

Baker then made visits to other abandoned institutions in Massachusetts, such as the old Lakeville hospital, which was recently in the news when its neighbors fought off plans by Sysco Boston, a food service company, to turn the property into a $110 million distribution center.

He also took photographs at the former Northampton State Hospital, Worcester State Hospital, Foxborough State Hospital, Plymouth County Hospital, Middlesex County Hospital, and Metropolitan State Hospital in Waltham.

Baker said he was surprised to see how many large buildings sat vacant and neglected, and how much property was seemingly “abandoned and left to rot.’’

Empty chairs. Broken bed frames. Rusty wheelchairs. Autopsy tables. Decades-old doctors’ schedules tacked to bulletin boards. Those are just some of the things Baker encountered in his clandestine visits.

Getting into these forbidden places is risky. Asbestos, lead paint, and other hazards abound. Some rooms are pitch-black — so dark sometimes that Baker doesn’t even know what he’s snapping pictures of, he says.

There may be a random beam of sunlight here and there, but “in most places, it’s just blackness around you,’’ he said. “All you have is the light from your flashlight.’’

Floorboards can give way. Holes can be anywhere. In some places, entire floors have caved in. “You always have to watch your step. Always,’’ he said.

Baker spends a lot of time doing research, reading about the history of the institutions, and poring over annual reports and documents in the Massachusetts Archives.

“I’ve been chased by security, but I’ve never been arrested or anything,’’ he said. “My ultimate goal is to document these places before they disappear, and not let them be forgotten.’’

The state sees it differently: Unauthorized access to state-owned surplus property is considered unlawful trespassing, says Kevin Flanigan, spokesman for the state’s Division of Capital Assets Management.

“Also, for reasons of personal safety, people must avoid going into these buildings,’’ he said. “Large abandoned buildings can be extremely dangerous due to their age, deteriorated condition, lack of lighting, and other inherent hazards.’’

Several of the buildings Baker has photographed over the past six years have since been demolished. Some have been redeveloped. Others have fallen into further disrepair.

At the Lakeville hospital, which opened more than a century ago to treat tuberculosis patients, he said he could see the difference when he was there in September, four years after his previous visit.

“The TB ward is falling apart,’’ he said. His photographs show the deterioration: Sunlight pours through gaping holes in the building. Walls are cracking. Wires dangle from the ceiling. Chunks of plaster have fallen off the walls. Layers of paint have peeled away from every surface.

Neglect takes a toll on buildings. So does vandalism. Baker said vacant buildings are a popular target for vandals who cover the walls with spray-painted graffiti, steal copper piping, break windows and mirrors, and start fires “for no reason.’’ Many of the places he photographs have been trashed by previous visitors.

“It’s sad,’’ he said.

Baker said he wishes more of these old state institutions would be preserved, and put to use once again, perhaps as museums.

“I hope more of these buildings get restored . . . not demolished to make way for Wal-Mart or condos,’’ he said.

In the meantime, Baker continues to take photos of urban ruins. He posts his photos on his website,, as well his Myspace and Facebook pages.

He also puts them into books. His first, “Urban Decay: Abandoned Asylums in Black & White,’’ is a photo book of institutions including Northampton State Hospital, Metropolitan State Hospital, and Danvers State Hospital. His latest, “Abandoned 2,’’ features more than 50 of his images along with seven short horror stories by various writers.

Some of Baker’s photography will be shown today through Nov. 21 in a group exhibit called “Eye on the Orpheum’’ at Gallery X, 169 William St. in New Bedford. An opening reception will be held Saturday from 5 to 8 p.m.

Emily Sweeney can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.  

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