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An Orphan of History

Photos by Toronto's DK Photo Group of the interior of the abandoned German Roman Catholic Orphanage on Dodge Street.
(photo: Sean Galbraith)

Every day residents of Buffalo pass by the city’s historic structures unaware of their existence and past. Within these buildings are stories that indirectly shape the city’s present incarnation. They are histories that have been forgotten; stories that are untold. They hide in parts of Buffalo that people either do not know about or to which they do not wish to venture. They are orphans of time, neglected by the public, waiting to be rediscovered.

The DK Photo Group has made such a discovery. Recently, the five-man team traveled from Toronto to Buffalo to photograph a building about which most people know nothing. This building is the German Roman Catholic Orphanage and it is the focus of the DK Photo Group’s newest exhibition, Orphaned, currently on exhibit at Toronto’s Hang Man Gallery.

The remains of the German Roman Catholic Orphanage sit on Dodge Street off Route 33. When it was founded in October 1874 by the sisters of St. Francis, the orphanage housed 47 children. A fire in March 1919 destroyed a good deal of the orphanage, including the classrooms. The dormitories for students were not harmed and so classes were then held there. Within six months the damaged and destroyed parts of the building were refurbished and rebuilt.

In 1927 a separate building for classes was constructed and a new chapel followed in 1938. Progress in the building slowed during the war but picked up again afterward, though not at the same pace as before. After a disastrous fire in 1956 destroyed the center building, the orphanage closed its doors for good. In its 82 years of existence, it had been home to more than 15,000 children.

As if linked, the orphanage closed as Buffalo began its slow decline. In the 1950s, the city housed approximately 580,000 residents. Today, only about 290,000 call it their home. The drop can be attributed to people moving out of the city and into the surrounding suburbs, but mostly to the steady loss of industry in Buffalo since the 1960s.

As the people moved out, the city began to rot from within. The city that was dubbed “The City of Light” when it hosted the 1901 World’s Fair began to earn its new moniker, “The City of No Illusions.”

On the abandoned grounds of the orphanage, there are no illusions about what happens to forgotten places. Today, the dormitories, chapel, schoolhouse and a few other buildings still stand. Outside, windows are boarded up, the grass is overgrown and a fence surrounds the property. Inside, desks, phonographs, bricks painted by former residents and much more litter the ruins of the orphanage. It looks as if everyone just stood up one day and left in a hurry, not bothering to clear out the structure. It is quite a sight, but unfortunately it is not something just anyone can see, as the building is not open to the public. Not officially, that is.

It is not only local historians and urban development advocates that know of places like the German Roman Catholic Orphanage. An emerging group in Buffalo, urban explorers, can be classified as an adventurous breed of local voyagers. In this modern world where it is easier than ever for people to travel to the most exotically remote destinations in a relatively short amount of time, urban explorers make different travel plans. They head to cities that have fallen from their former glory to explore the abandoned and unused buildings that remain. They have been gaining access to the orphanage for years and will continue to do so, documenting the building’s decline.

Urban Exploration is not for everyone. It is often both dangerous and illegal. So what about the people who wish to see what is inside the abandoned orphanage who aren’t up to breaking into the sealed building, risking either injury or prosecution? They can visit Web sites that document the history of the buildings or visit blogs like Fix Buffalo Today (fixbuffalo.blogspot.com). They can try to piece together the story of a place that they may never see in person, the story that the building has to offer.

(photo: Russell Brohler)

The search for this story is one of the reasons that the DK Photo Group came to Buffalo to photograph the ruins of the German Roman Catholic Orphanage. “Through research and connection a member of our collective came upon the Orphanage,” said Russell Brohier, one of the five members of the DK Photo Group. “Each member of the group went to see it and photograph it during a period we were planning an exhibition.

“The concept of an abandoned orphanage was one that suggested stories. Since we attempt to photograph the stories of a place, this seemed to be a good subject matter for the show. Artistic practice sometimes flourishes with putting limits as to what you can and cannot do. Here we had a location that is fairly small and with limited artifacts, since it has been abandoned for 50 years. Finding the beauty and trying to convey the stories of the children who lived there was a challenge.”

It is stories like those contained within the German Roman Catholic Orphanage that draw people to abandoned buildings.One of the most sought-after buildings in Buffalo for exploration is the H.H. Richardson-designed psychiatric hospital on Elmwood, whose two looming towers are lit up each night. Security is tight around the complex, which sits next to the still operating Buffalo Psychiatric Hospital, but that has not deterred people from finding what is hidden within its walls.

The orphanage, on the other hand, is unguarded. “I unfortunately missed walking through the site with a former resident,” Brohier said, “but those who did certainly enriched their experience of the orphanage. I am hoping we will have some of that insight presented. Even the smallest of information or action can lead to greater understanding of one’s sense of place.”

Each person comes away from an abandoned structure with a different sense of the place. Different aspects of buildings strike people in different ways. When it came to the orphanage, Brohier told Artvoice he “found it a difficult location to shoot.” He continued: “There are strong images. I think it is a location that time may slowly reveal things to the eye. I have only been there twice and I think as a whole we have got some strong images of the place. Does it evoke anything for me? I’m not able to articulate that, you may have to see the images.”

This is something that Brohier wishes would happen. “Well, we would love the people of Buffalo to come and see the show,” Brohier said. The venue of the exhibit is a small one, with each photographer contributing one large photograph and two or three smaller ones. “We are working on the exhibit coming to Buffalo and have been in contact with galleries there,” Brohier added. “I am hoping that we do eventually show in Buffalo.”

He continued: “We have been photographing buildings in and around Buffalo over the last year. All of us have a significant body of work based on buildings in your area. We would welcome the opportunity of showing our work in Buffalo, as well as photographing more of the historic structures in your city.”

As for the Toronto exhibit, Brohier also stated his group is hopes to add some historical information to give the photographs context, but he’s had a hard time doing so. This shouldn’t surprise people in Buffalo. The job of finding the true history of a place is difficult. Many buildings built for industrial reasons are deemed not important enough to keep a history, while others are too obscure to garner public interest. That leaves interested people with the task of finding whatever stories they can within the walls of abandoned buildings.

Brohier suggested that Buffalo residents sometimes look past these buildings. “[Buffalo] has some marvelous architecture which tells beautiful stories,” he said. “Maybe sometimes it is an outsider who may evoke great appreciation of what you have.”

Hopefully exhibits like Orphaned will help people to better appreciate Buffalo’s architecture and history. Not just photographers and urban explorers, but everyone, whether they live in the city or the suburbs or are just passing through.

“I find Buffalo incredibly rich with history,” Brohier said. “The buildings are a testament to the vibrancy of the city and the heritage it has, the role it plays, and the people who live there. There is beauty in the abandoned spaces because of the lives who once occupied those spaces. The stories of life in those spaces. Here in Toronto these places are destroyed, not honored. I realize that you may view this differently, and that leaving the places as they are may not necessarily be honoring them, but at least you still have that chance. Here, we do not.”

There are countless abandoned buildings like the German Roman Catholic Orphanage that gradually fall into irreparable ruin and are demolished. Perhaps places like the orphanage suggest that people need to be reverent to these decaying structures. With each abandoned place that is chronicled—or preserved—another story is learned.

Orphaned runs through November 6 at the Hang Man Gallery in Toronto (756 Queen Street East). For more information visit www.dkphotogroup.com.