I am fascinated with the past; we often learn great lessons from history. It is the reason we study design history, the world is a changing place, striving for the latest and greatest, though sometimes I wish I could just go back for maybe a day and see the world as it had been in the past.
This idea of going back in time, is what drives my fascination with derelict buildings, these abandoned structures act as a time capsule, containing constructions methods, and artifact of the time. They offer a brief look into the past. The United States is littered with structures that have gone unused for decades, varying from derelict military bases, to abandoned hospitals, each offers it’s own unique decay. This past weekend, a good friend and myself embarked on what some could call an expedition to one of these sites. Located roughly 20 miles outside the greater phoenix area, just over the south side of Interstate 10, lies a large structure that is often overlooked by travelers passing by.
The Phoenix Trotting Park, also referred to as the ghost horse track, was first constructed in the year 1964. Placed in the town of Goodyear, AZ it was almost destined for failure from the beginning. The Interstate had yet to be built meaning the 20 mile drive was difficult for patrons, along with the fact that track was built on a flood plain, making it inaccessible after any amount of rain. These remained minor oversights to James J. Dunnigan of Hamburg, New York, making this his second harness racing facility. Constructed primarily of concrete, the initial cost of the build was set to $3million, however went over budget to $10 million. The construction of the track caused Mr. Dunnigan to file bankruptcy, keeping the track open only until December of 1966. From that year forward the site was left abandoned and to decay, until early 2000 when it was used during the filming of “No Code of Conduct”, a Hollywood blockbuster featuring Martin, and Charlie Sheen. The building has remained derelict for four decades, since its close.
Finding ourselves roughly two hundred yards from the structure we encountered our first barrier, a chain link fence riddles with signage warning of the consequences for a breach. Stopping to discuss for a moment, we opted for the “Its better to ask for forgiveness, then to get permission” stance and simply climbed over a three foot tall wall. Closing in on the first building, it was concluded that this must have been the horse stable, as it featured multiple bays where the horses could be housed in between races. Up a overgrown set of stairs was a small viewing room, with a quick glance across what was once the track, there stood the trotting parks main grandstands, missing all of its glass façade, filled with darkness waiting to be investigated.
Crossing the open field, we kept our eyes peeled for any movement around us, looking for a breach in the second fence line we came to find a small section of chain link peeled back, an open invitation. We were now within the first two barriers, but now found ourselves pushed back by large permanent steel fences. There had to be a way in, so traversing to the rear of the building, we found our ticket in.
A small two and a half foot section of the entry gate had been liberated from its place with an angle grinder, a gift from a past explorer, We had to squeeze through, carefully passing our cameras and pack through one at a time.
“With great risk comes great reward”, as we were greeted with a mystical entryway leading upward, centered around a large picked apart escalator. The exposed mechanicals were too much to pass up for a brief photo shoot. Eerie would hardly describe it, as the escalator rose deep into the internals of the building little could be seen as it faded up into blackness, a tease prompting us to venture further.
Up through the stair well littered with graffiti, we treaded lightly as to not disturb anything or anyone who lay ahead of us. Our journey would take us level by level as we investigated the ruins, each floor teaching us something new about the building and its purpose on every floor.
The second floor was filled with darkness; a small amount of light illuminated a second escalator set just on the edge of the darkness. We approached with caution, flanked by an open elevator shaft. The air was cold and quiet, spending little time, due to the shear creepiness of this floor, we snapped a few photos of the escalator and carried on.
We soon reached the main grand stands floor; the escalator joined us however a collapsed ceiling had blocked the exit. Venturing out towards the light we walked through the skeletal structure of what were once the bathrooms, ticketing stand, and out into the stands. The ceilings were ornate, some aisles still remained labeled, and since it was nearing golden hour the lighting was prime. We spent a fair amount of our time within here walking up and down the stands, wondering what it would have looked like filled with patrons. This area was also filled with the remnants of materials used to cause the massive explosion during the filming of the movie No Code of Conduct, a combination of burnt ceiling, dead pigeon, and other things we wish no to know.
By this time we had gained a fair amount of confidence in ourselves and realized the building was allowing us to rise up level by level. The thought came to mind, “The Top”, following a staircase exposed within the raw wall structure we entered a dark area most likely not intended for patrons, this was the boiler area filled with pipes and air condition ducts, we knew we were on the right course. Light poured down a set of stairs across the room and we rushed for it, climbing up a short stair set we stopped halfway up, our eyes able to peer out the open doorway.
We had made it to the pinnacle; across a rather a suspicious walkway was the announcing booth, where men had once called the buggy races. The roof itself was constructed of a series of concrete slabs interlaced with wood paneling between, we opted to stay safe and remain on the solid concrete portions. Though we had been far from the first to be here, in many ways it felt untouched. The sun began its daily ritual of falling beyond the horizon as we sat there mesmerized by the changing colors.
The moment was bittersweet and cut short as a security vehicle neared the building, having spotted him from the rooftop we quickly went into incognito mode. Our confidence had cost us, as we must have been easily spotted from the exposed rooftop, silhouetting ourselves from the geometric make up of the roofline. Debating on our next move we headed back within the derelict building, beginning what would be a game of cat and mouse. Working our way carefully down the flights of stairs we had timed our exit so that as security was on the opposing side of the building we would be exiting the ticketing gate. However there was one issue, our only way through the second gate, was where we had entered before, and the man in the truck knew that. After discussing our options, we opted to simply walk out in the least suspicious fashion possible, and hope for the best. Greeted by the usual “you are not allowed here”, we kept walking, all the way out, and regret nothing.
More of Reid's photography and design work can be viewed at his website
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