Written and Photographed by Jennifer Carrera Turner
My love of old houses began when I was about 12 years old. That was 35 years ago. My father was a Union Representative of the Southeastern States and we were afforded the convenience of travel to state conferences in the South. Since we lived in Florida it was best to travel by car through the states. We often did a lot of traveling like this to many other states in the country as well as for vacations as a family, occasionally flying out west to California or Washington.
My father could recount as well as I can, the number of times when I got my first camera how I pleaded : “Please, please dad” to stop at all of the old houses on the side of the road in some small forgotten town on a once well traveled route. Perhaps before some major highway was built or the railroad began bypassing them altogether. These houses with their transparent paint, exposed weathered wood and crumbling roofes and decaying large front porches. They were like these sad discarded works of American history and life that someone left behind to rot for one reason or another. Maybe there were no heirs, they could not maintain the property or pay the taxes. Whatever the reason they stand as monuments of our past. For so many decades America tries to make way for something newer and better. They want to destroy its historic architectural heritage or cover it up.
In the early 1990’s there was a house in New Port Richey built in 1882 on Stevens Drive. It was a two story all wooden house with a porch at the front, both top and bottom. The porches extended the whole width of the front of the house and was screened in. It was painted white with the usual old Florida green trim around the eaves and window frames. It had not been painted in years so you can see the grey oxidized grains of the wood beneath. We had to pass this house a couple of times of year to visit my mother’s parents who lived down that street. I always looked at it wondering about the people who had lived there as it was clearly vacant but not boarded up. I wanted to know who built it and thought about what it was like for them at that time with such limited resources in that rural part of Florida. I never spoke about it to my grandparents I just kept my thoughts to myself. This is a regret I will never forget.
In 1992 on another trip to New Port Richey that old house on Steven’s drive had burnt down. We drove past it and I stared in absolute horror that the entire top floor to nearly the bottom was blackened as coal. We soon arrived at my grandparents’ house. I asked my grandfather (Wilbur Lavonne Underhill) and he said “They believe it was a homeless person. It’s possible they accidently set the house on fire. The night it happened your grandmother and I could see the flames from here while listening to the loud wooshing noise they made” consuming the house. I was so upset that the house was destroyed along with never having the courage to find out more about the history of it. In fact, I could have gone inside to see what it was like. It was only a year later that my grandfather unexpectedly passed away at the age of 67 that we visited again for his funeral. I had a small charred piece of wood from that house (that I took from the heaps) that I tucked into his jacket pocket along with a letter in his casket. After the funeral we returned back to my grandparents home. I walked across the street to speak with the owner of that house that was now gone. I never knew that the family actually lived in a newer house at the back of the property until then. I was in tears telling the man everything I described above. He offered his condolences and then brought out to show me an antique photo from the late 1800’s of the house. It was sepia toned and in a simple wooden frame with glass. He grew up in it and years later it became too much to repair and update to current electrical and plumbing standards so they built the newer house on a different part of the property towards the back.
I have a book titled “A Field Guide to American Architecture” by Virginia & Lee McAlester (1984). One of my most beloved books in my collection. I purchased the book in the early 1990’s. One of the photos is of a federal style architecture house in North Carolina that ultimately became an obsession. The black & white photo is of an abandoned two story wooden house in a rural field of grasses. The only mentioned location beneath it was the county and state. There is no further information. This is at a time when the internet was very new . Google was not the information powerhouse that it is today and Google maps were non existent. There was no shortcut to make this an easy find.
I decided to make a pilgrimage to find the house with only a physical printed map of North Carolina in hand. There was no GPS in these days as well. It was a couple days travel from South Florida to reach the destination county. When I arrived in the county, I went to the local libraries to gain access to local maps, history and to show the page from the book to people who lived in the area. I actually found that house with such limited research its still astonishing. Nothing can describe what I felt when I pulled up to the house for the very first time and to actually finally see it in person. It was incredible. I was in tears. Someone was inside of it in the middle of a full restoration and unfortunately the walls had already been stripped so I did not get to see what the original plaster and molding had been like and the sizes of the original rooms. I was a little late. At least someone had saved it and was restoring it. As a cherished keepsake the owner presented me an enormous tapered wooden pine peg which was used instead of nails to hold the house frame together. I will cherish it always. It was a rewarding journey that can never be forgotten.
I continued to travel and photograph more old structures long before urban explorers appeared on YouTube with their secretive missions to film for our obsessive group of observers from afar. Since the mid-90’s I’ve experienced the interiors of many abandoned properties both being completely untouched and some in the midst of restorations. Everything I’ve written thus far is such a condensed version of who I am and what I’ve seen. Although there is so much more about myself I felt that I need to give at least a small introduction to my project below.
I know that there are a lot of people like me out there – our love for these decayed relics of American dwellings throughout our short history. I only hope that everyone who searches out these places have the respect or very reverence for the sacred experience that can be felt while walking through a place where not many people have been in so many years. Unfortunately there are those who are vandals, and they deface and destroy these incredible gems that have been locked in time.
In 2022 I visited the property below which will remain private to ensure the safety of the location. It is a five hour drive from where I live and I had six months in planning what I was going to bring and do. I photographed everything myself and I needed to be in some of the photos as it is a portrait of myself as it is of the actual house. Everything I photographed has a lot of meaning to me besides just showing the condition of each part of the old house.
It was built in 1900 in an area where the railroad was supplying the merchandise and passengers to the small town. It was a very successful area during the early to mid 1900’s until like so many other small cities – other means of travel like major highways being created and flight bypassed them completely. It left this one as many others nearly as a ghost town.
What is incredible and so valuable about this house is it that you can look past the furniture being piled up and the broken glass every place you step, I can immediately see that the walls, trim and floors are exactly original today as it was in 1900. There are no drop ceilings, no wallpaper, no paneling covering the original plaster. The paint on the walls is still there, the colors they chose. The beautiful dark wooden floors that creak while you walk are still original without any hideous later updates covering them. Even the furniture it is all period correct. This IS the furniture the house was born with. It is all still there. Perhaps a few items here and there are from later decades but if you flip everything over, push in the drawers and move them into place YOU are in the year 1900.
This house lost to ravishes of time for whatever the reason may have been – it had belonged to someone as their American Dream.
At one time this was (as it is now for my current experience) a world of so much to be admired and appreciated. It is so beautiful.
The last printed publication inside this house is from the mid 1980’s. It has stood vacant now for almost 40 years. Interestingly enough the year of vacancy coincided with the removal of the railroad tracks that ran directly across the street in the front of the house.
What this project represents to me is a lifelong dream to look beyond the chaos and into the soul of a house that once stood proud and beautiful but just like us it is fading away as the years pass by.