Weirdly enough, I’ve dated several women who were into “urban exploration,” i.e. breaking into abandoned buildings. I don’t know what this says about me, or them for that matter, except possibly that we both shared an enthusiasm for dark crevices. But after I was dragged along on several of these nocturnal expeditions (breaking into an abandoned insane asylum is no fun in the daylight, after all), I warmed to it. Urban exploration combines the transgressive appeal of the criminal act, with the childlike wonder of exploration, though I suppose you could say the same thing about some sex acts.
At any rate, the DC metro area has an unusually high number of excellent sites for this illegal activity which I am absolutely not encouraging you to engage in. Seriously, don’t do it. Breaking laws is against the law! Just to be extra safe, check out this list of the best abandoned buildings/sites in the area, so you can be sure to not go to any of them, ever.
I went to this place with an ex-girlfriend who was a photographer. She was really excited about capturing the vibe of this decaying old mental hospital; we even rented a car to get out there, for christ’s sake. After strolling through some of the looted, mildew-smelling buildings, I guess she found the ambience a little lacking, because she took out a small can of red paint and was like, “splash some of that on the wall over there so it looks like blood, and then I’ll take some pictures of it.” Okay.
This used to be the main facility for the District’s mentally disabled, but it was an utter failure; the city closed it in the early Nineties after a series of deaths due to neglect. I don’t know if this knowledge colored my perceptions that day, or if the place has been infused with some clinging trace of all the horrible sh*t that went down here, but the place feels legitimately creepy.
We actually encountered a guard on the grounds, but my ex was so persuasive that she not only convinced him to not arrest us, he even let us stay and take more pictures, despite the fact that he was clearly dying to practice baton techniques on the back of my neck. If you’re willing to drive all the way out to Laurel, Maryland, it’s worth it; of all the sites on this list, it probably has the most “horror movie” type of vibe.
MCMILLAN SAND FILTRATION SITE
Hurry up and check this one out, because the DC government is hot to develop this site as soon as possible. Twenty-five acres of prime real estate smack in the middle of town, McMillan is currently at the center of a tug o’ war between politicians and developers who want to build a huge mixed-use blah blah blah, and local residents who want to turn it into a park. We all know how this one turns out; all that’s left to decide is if it’s going to be anchored by a Whole Foods or a Trader Joe’s.
Originally built as a combination park/water filtration plant, the park was closed after WW2 so communists couldn’t sabotage the water supply (lolwut), and filtration plant itself was closed soon after in favor of a larger, more efficient facility.
I visited this place with a girl who I met while visiting New York and happened to also be visiting from DC, and who lived just down the street from me. This was back when Bloomingdale (where McMillan is, basically) was still vaguely dangerous, and it gave our nighttime explorations an additional frisson of risk. (Of course nothing happened; maybe we heard a hobo urinating in the distance or something.) After our furtive nocturnal lawbreaking session, she was like, “you want to come back to my apartment for pizza rolls?” I was like, “sure, I’d love to come back to your apartment for, quote-unquote, pizza rolls, wink wink.” (I think I even made air quotes.) When we got back to her apartment, she went to the freezer, got out a package of pizza rolls, put them in the oven, and sat and waited while they baked. “What’s the matter,” she said twenty or thirty minutes later. “You haven’t even touched your pizza rolls!” I just sighed.
U.S. CAPITOL EAST PORTICO (?)
Located deep in Rock Creek Park, and unmarked on any map, this site is a huge granite building that’s been disassembled piece by piece, and then piled up and forgotten, as if by a thirty-foot-tall toddler. Very bizarre; there are several theories as to where they came from. (Probably the former East Portico of the Capitol Building?) But even if this or that theory is true, what about the huge mysterious stone pits located around the site? *Cue sinister music* The pits are these huge creepy well-like holes in the ground with stone walls that look like someplace you’d throw virgins into as a sacrifice to the serpent god. There are a lot of unanswered questions about this place.
There are signs around forbidding you from entering the site, and there’s a maintenance facility sort of nearby, but I’ve been here several times and never seen a single person around. I first came here with an ex while we were both on unemployment; I’d contracted to write an article for a local paper after a semi-plausible source had dug up information that there might be a long-forgotten gold mine somewhere in Rock Creek Park. Somehow in the lead-up to our visit, me and my ex had gone from “we’re gonna go as research for an article about a possible gold mine” to “we’re going to find the gold mine and retire at age 28.” What can I say; when you’re on unemployment, you tend to go long periods of time without seeing any other people. You can spin off on some strange tangents. We tromped through the park for hours but couldn’t find the stone obelisk that allegedly marked the location of the mine. Turns out there was a trick to finding it, sort of like how Indiana Jones had to let the sun shine through that jewel thing at a certain time of day to mark the location of the Ark. No, I won’t tell you what the trick was; yes, I eventually found the marker; yes, we earnestly excavated for gold; no, we didn’t find any. (Though I will say that the more research I did, the more I became convinced there’s gold in the park. It’s probably way down under the ground, though; ninety, a hundred feet.)
After a fruitless digging session, my ex and I retired to the granite building blocks to sit and rest. During our walk back, it emerged that I’d “guaranteed” we’d find gold there, and that my ex felt like she’d been misled. (I probably did say it, if only because she had a car.) At one point I was standing and looking down into one of the pits and I heard her behind me and whirled around, and I swear she was going to push me in. I guess she would’ve rather spent that day emailing misspelling-ridden, unironic-emoticonned resumes out into the ether of the internet than to sink and disappear without a trace. (Last I heard, she still hasn’t found a job! Ha ha! “The economy.”)