Weird NJ (Contemporary)

After writing on the humble beginnings of Weird N.J., we now jump forward in time to investigate the urban exploration content in some of their contemporary issues. Though Weird N.J. has long since gone glossy and begun running ads, they still retain the spirit of their zine era, as well as an assortment of Weird content. This specific selection of issues was provided by the creators, who selected them as recent examples of urban exploration content in Weird N.J.

Our fast-forward drops us in 2012 at issue #38, the 20th anniversary issue. In these times, the magazine’s content is sorted into a plethora of sections, including: Roadside Weirdside, Unexplained in new Jersey, Local Heroes and Villains, Cemetery Safari, Weird NJ Signage, A Weird NJ State of Mind (a showcase of found objects with the bean-like shape of the State of New Jersey), Fringe Tour (covering locations in neighboring states), and Endangered New Jersey, which contains some of their UE content. The magazine has by this point built up a dedicated following, with a constant flow of letters (some critical of previous issues). It is also the target of advertisers who know their target audience (or think they do), and place advertisements for paranormal media and equipment, record stores, offbeat entertainment, and the like.

Some of the content is written by the magazine’s proprietors, Mark Sceurman and Mark Moran, but much more of it is sent in by contributors. One of the contributors for this issue is Wheeler Antabanez, who writes in with the “Mystery of the Passaic River Gravestones,” a story of the impromptu salvage of some gravestones washed up on a river bank. We will return to Mr. Antabanez later (or he to us). The first example of urban exploration in this issue is a story on Camp Evans, a military base in New Jersey, written in by Bill Pane. This camp is part of Fort Monmouth, in Wall Township, and has served a number of governmental and non-governmental functions since its construction in 1912. It was a Marconi wireless station, a Naval base, a sketchy cult compound, a Jesus camp, and most famously an Army Signal Corps base. Nowadays it is host to several educational centers, and a multitude of abandoned buildings. These are only touched upon in the text, but are the main subjects of the pictures.

The Army Signal Corps ran the base during WW2 and the Cold War, and the base was the site of various experiments involving radio waves and communications. One of the more interesting sites in the photographs was the mural in a radioactive lab that Dr. Stanley Kronenberg painted to resemble an ancient Egyptian papyrus scroll. The base is perhaps best known to history as the site of the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1953, where the fever of the Second Red Scare finally broke (unfortunately, the author botches some of the details of this history). The article is followed by an interview with the director of InfoAge, Fred Carl, who is in charge of running the educational institution that currently uses the unique site.

The net urbex story in this issue is on “The Ruins of Oldfield,” by Rusty Tagliareni, who will also reappear subsequently. The ruin in question is of the mansion built by Gustave Reinberg in 1896, and which largely burnt in the 1990s. This story include the exploration of the ruins, as does the story on the next location (also by Rusty) about the Outlook Lodge, which is on Lusscroft Farm in Wantage. This deteriorating building was built in the 1930s. Its interior is built from the salvaged remains of two dozen antique barns and houses, “a Frankenstein’s Monster among abandoned buildings.” The exterior includes a crude concrete mural in the brickwork, of an owl perching in a tree.

Finally, this issue includes another story that features photography of an abandoned building, but devotes most of the text to the history of that building. “One Snuck Into the Cookoo’s Nest” regards Marlboro Psychiatric Hospital, one of the state’s many derelict psychiatric institutions. This institution, built on the cottage plan, was made infamous in the mid-1980s when State Senator Richard J. Codey (later President of the State Senate and sometime-Governor) went undercover to expose abuses in the state’s mental health system. He was hired as an orderly, despite providing the identifications of two convicted (and deceased) criminals. The abuses he revealed would prompt an overhaul in the hospital’s staffing system, and after more scandals, the hospital would ultimately close in 1998. Codey has long worked as a political advocate for the mentally ill, including an effort to identify the resting places of many of those interred on the grounds of the state’s psychiatric institutions. The article, written by Mark Moran, includes pictures of many of these abandoned asylums, including the infamous Greystone Park.

The next issue provided was #42, from 2014. This is also an anniversary, this time the 350th anniversary of the creation of New Jersey, almost named New Cesarea by Charles II. According to Mark and Mark, the state was weird starting on day one. This issue includes news on the planned demolition of Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital, despite a long-running grassroots effort to preserve the building. This building, built on the Kirkbride Plan, was 138 years old at the time. The story of Greystone is combined by Joanne Austin with the story of Action Park, an amusement park that closed in the late 1990s. The park was the subject of many nostalgic memories by New Jerseyains, despite the closure being related to numerous safety failings. At the time of this issue, Action Park was re-opening, while Greystone was being demolished. Time softens the memories of some locations, and sharpens those of others. As Austin says, “Like Action Park, Greystone left some scars. Unlike Action park, it’s only a matter of time before Greystone’s are likely covered up for good.” Greystone was also the home for several years of Woodie Guthrie during some of the final years of his life, as he suffered from Huntington’s Disease. A later note in the issue showcases a book, Woody Guthrie’s Wardy Forty; written by Phil Buehler, a documenter of “modern ruins” who photographs the abandoned hospital for the book. [0]

More pictures of abandoned buildings are provided by Robert Gilinsky in his book Monmouth County Through Time, contrasting well-known buildings in that county in the past with their boarded-up present. Next comes “The House of Secrets,” an account of exploring an abandoned house in Aberdeen by Glenn Ferguson, who maintains a blog of similar content. This is followed by a local historian’s account of the house’s history. The town appears later in an account of an abandoned glass factory in the same town, this time provided by Frank Villafañe from Urban Industrial Imaging. Other brief UE content includes a story by anonymous contributors of being caught exploring an abandoned elementary school undergoing demolition in Pennsauken, and a sidebar about exploration in the early 1960s of exploration of the then-abandoned Snake Hill asylum, with old pictures.

In some oddly specific deja vu, this issue also has the history and abandoned photography of another communications installation; in this case the AT&T ship-to-shore station wireless in Ocean County. This contribution by Erik Weber notes how the square brick building, opened in 1931 and operating until 1999, was a pioneer in wireless communications, but fell victim to technological obsolescence. Many pictures of its vandalized interior are included, with a plea for some form of useful restoration.

Finally, the issue concludes with another contribution by Rusty Tagliareni, regarding Penn Hills Resort. This was a once-thriving honeymoon resort on Route 477 in Pennsylvania, with very distinctive architecture that must be seen to be believed (I would encourage an image search). With my limited education on the subject, I was unable to identify the resort’s architectural style; so I consulted with my former architectural history professor, Richard Longstreth, who assessed it thus:

I would not try to pin a specific “style” on this. It’s a very freewheeling, expressionistic design. It owes some debt to the work of Paul Rudolph, but it is also rendered in a popular, exaggerated vein that seeks to evoke fantasy, just like many resorts developed in the Catskills during the 1950s-60s.

The site makes a very picturesque ruin; but Weird N.J. takes an extra step that I would not have thought of:  printing customer reviews from TripAdvisor. The resort limped along into the internet age, by that time decrepit and unmaintained (having re-opened in that form in 1955). These reviews from the latter years are not kind.

Rusty writes in to the next issue provided, #44 (2015). In Union Township, he documents the Bethlehem Baptist Church, abandoned for over a century, with trees long-growing inside it’s hulk. This is an interesting look at advanced decay, a building abandoned far longer than the usual decade or two that is most often photographed (probably because the longer a building has been abandoned, the more likely it is to be demolished). Also in this interesting is a brief sidebar sent in with a couple of pictures of an abandoned building, with a plea for more information and the building’s location. Clearly, Weird N.J. has by this point become known as a chronicler of abandonment. There are also pictures from the abandoned Moon Motel, checking the boxes of both abandoned sites and a roadside attraction.

Issue #45, the other issue from 2015 (issues are biannual), notes the demolition of Greystone in the summer of 2015. The main UE content, however, is “Ghost Ships of the Arthur Kill,” by Wheeler Antabanez. Wheeler has been published in the magazine several times, and writes both fiction and nonfiction about urban exploration. This piece is about his travel with a friend around the Staten Island ship graveyard in the Arthur Kill (a.k.a. Staten Island Sound). The team boards several ships, such as a WW2-era tugboat, and the half-sunken McMyler Coal Dumper. Pictures from the waters and inside the ships are very impressive. Antabanez reminds me strongly of a theoretical contributor to Infiltration, and not just because that ‘zine did an “At Sea” issue. Like many contributors to that ‘zine, he has his own website and publications, where he pursues urbex and other projects.

Otherwise, this issue has a few pieces on abandoned rock and roll clubs, and an abandoned (bootleg) record factory. These are again mostly histories of the location juxtaposed with photographs in their abandoned state. The most famous of these is the Satellite Lounge, a long-running club with a colorful owner who allegedly once threatened Bruce Springsteen with a mob hit. Finally, there is also an essay by Mark Moran on the St. Nicholas Coal Breaker, a large industrial facility in the process of demolition.

The final issue provided was #46, from 2016. In the opening miscellany that contains the letters section and news, there is an ad for Wheeler Antabanez’s book The Old Asylum and Other Stories, which is a book of fiction “structured around [two asylums] which both figure heavily in Antabanez’s real life early urban-ex experience.” Urban exploration isn’t always named as such in Weird N.J., so it’s nice to see the terminology used.

The issue contains an article on the restoration of Bloomfield High School, a currently-abandoned building being turned into condominiums. With many pictures, the school is shown to be a decaying and graffitied institution, and I am somewhat surprised by its renovation project. Apparently appearance isn’t tied into structural integrity. This is a welcome fate, however, as the building is an historic site, an Art Deco creation from the depression and one of the first elementary schools “to be designed based on a predetermined school program.” Though the building is being obviated as a UE destination, this is preferable to the wrecking ball. The article is mostly an interview on the restoration with Aaron Iskowitz, of the company restoring, Urban Smart Growth.

The other urban exploration article in this issue ties into the story of eccentric heiress and socialite Doris Duke, who lived her life in her massive family estate in Somerset County. There are images of the vacant mansion, slated to be demolished, from Vacant New Jersey, and a story from Rich Robinson, a neighbor of the estate, trespassing on the property. Finally, the issue concludes with reviews of two books of abandoned photography. The first is Away to Awaken, A Photographic Collection of Light and Color from the Road by Tiffany Harned, who photographed abandoned asylums and other Weird N.J. locations for school and for work, and whose book documents a cross-country road trip. The second is by Rusty Tagliareni and Christina Matthews, and is called Antiquity Echoes: A Photographed Journey Through Abandoned America. I am a major fan (of course) of abandoned photography, and Weird N.J. apparently fosters such a market for them that their contributors are able to spin them off (or those already working on such projects add on Weird N.J. contributions, whichever comes first).

This update on Weird N.J. is very welcome, and with almost fifty issues, there is doubtless more urban exploration to cover. I am hoping to return to the magazine in the future, as it is a prominent example of a fanzine that managed to thrive in its niche, going strong after over two decades at this point. Urban exploration is featured prominently by this point, to the point where letter-writers complain about abandoned buildings (and other content) displacing “scary stories;” and others know to write in in search of information on abandoned buildings. Weird N.J. may not be dedicated to urban exploration, but it prints a lot of it regardless.

[0] To put aside for the moment Ninjalicious’ warning about taking souvenirs from exploring: Buehler found what is probably the best artifact of any ever recovered when he found Guthrie’s mugshot in Greystone’s darkroom.