The world is a vast repository of stunning architectural and engineering relics, from the vestiges of ancient civilisations to modern ruins of the 19th and 20th centuries. Collectively, they represent past epochs and reflect the relentless march of time, as once proud institutions become redundant and all too often fall into ruin due to technological advancement, shifting trends, secularization, conflict, natural disasters and a plethora of other reasons. This article explores ten man-made marvels that, while not necessarily redundant, nevertheless reflect the architectural and engineering prowess of a different age.
The Social Palace (Familistère), Guise, France
When French industrialist and social innovator Jean-Baptiste André Godin set about developing the Familistère, or Social Palace, from 1856-1859, his aim was to improve housing for workers while driving production, trade, supply, education and recreation. The site in Guise consisted of a factory and foundry, with three large, four story buildings developed to accommodate a total population of 1,200. Glass roofs above covered courtyards allowed children to play in all weather, and apartments were accessed via galleries around the courtyards.
Shops and refreshment rooms catering to every necessity were housed in a separate block, while produce and goods were purchased at wholesale prices and sold with little mark-up in shops manned by workers. Developed over 20 years following the Revolution of 1848, Godin’s quest for social reform, symbolised by the Familistère, continued through the Franco-Prussian War. The complex was damaged during World War One and sold off to private buyers during the 20th century, eventually falling into dereliction. The Social Palace is now a national monument, and has now been restored and re-purposed.
Mount St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, Leeds, England
Located next to the Notre Dame Sixth Form College in the Richmond Hill area of Leeds, UK, the abandoned Roman Catholic Church of Mount St Mary has been derelict since 1989. Originally opened in 1857, the church served this burgeoning working class community that boomed during the Industrial Revolution for over a century. Another religious landmark in the area, All Saints Church, was consecrated on All Saints Day, 1850 and demolished in 1980. Whether the same fate is in store for Mount St Mary’s Church remains to be seen. Beyond its bleak, looming exterior, these images by urban explorer Phill.d reveal a grand, ornate building that was once at the heart of community life. Be sure to check out our interview with phill.d.
The Monolithic Churches of Lalibela, Ethiopia
World-renowned for its monolithic churches, Lalibela is one of Ethiopia’s holiest cities and a centre of pilgrimage for much of the country. Cut from the living rock, Lalibela’s churches are an important contribution to the discipline of rock-cut architecture. The rural town is almost entirely comprised of Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, and the layout and names of its major buildings are accepted by many scholars to be a symbolic representation of Jerusalem. As a result some experts have dated the current form of the monolithic churches to the time of the Holy City’s capture by Muslim sultan Saladin in 1187. Others suggest the churches date from the reign of Lalibela during the 12th and 13th centuries. Some have gone as far as positing that the rock-cut churches were built with the help of the Knights Templar, while many maintain they were cut solely by Medieval Ethiopean civilisations.
West Pier, Brighton, England
The scorched framework of Brighton’s West Pier reflects the tragic fate of many of Britain’s historic pleasure piers and represents the decline of British seaside resorts over the past half century. Built in 1866, the structure was looked after by the West Pier Trust after closing in 1975 and conducted tours until a storm caused the partial collapse of the walkway in 2002. Then, in March 2003, the West Pier was gutted by fire, thought to be the work of arsonists, which destroyed the historic pavilion. Efforts to secure Lottery funding to restore the structure were unsuccessful, and it’s now been partially demolished to make way for the new i360 observation tower.
The Lost Palace of Cleopatra, Alexandria, Egypt
(Images: Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation, photos: Christoph Gerigk)
These incredible sunken ruins are the remnants of a palace and temple complex that had once been home to Egyptian queen Cleopatra. The ruined palace, in Mediterranean waters off the coast of Alexandria, is believed to have stood on an island that was submerged over 1,600 years ago due to earthquakes and tsunamis. A treasure trove of ancient ruins, the bay is considered to be one of the richest archaeological sites in the world, a repository of stunning artifacts from the last dynasty to rule Egypt before it was annexed by the Roman Empire in 30 BC. According to National Geographic, the waters off Alexandria hide 26 sphinxes, statues bearing gifts to the gods, 56 ton blocks as well as Roman and Greek shipwrecks. The site was rediscovered by the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology (IEASM) under the direction of Franck Goddio. It is now the subject of UNESCO’s Alexandria Museum Project, poised to be the world’s first underwater museum.
Bannerman’s Castle, New York, United States
When Scottish-born Francis Bannerman VI needed a space to store his collection of weapons and equipment, including 30 million munitions cartridges, that had become too large to legally store in New York, he bought the rocky 6.5 acre Pollopel Island in the Hudson River, and set about building Bannerman’s Castle. Along with a larger warehouse known as Bannerman’s Island Arsenal, the complex was never completed. In 1920, after Bannerman’s death, the main building was damaged by an explosion and was later ravaged by fire in 1969. Today the site is abandoned, a ruined testament to its founder, and finally subject of a preservation effort.
Antwerp Stock Exchange, Belgium
The abandoned Stock Exchange building in Antwerp remains in amazing condition for a disused structure. Popular with urban explorers, the ornate building was constructed during the 19th century to replace an earlier incarnation that burned down in 1858. Featured in our popular 5 Pillars of the Abandoned World, the old Antwerp Stock Exchange has been abandoned since 2003 when it was closed due to fire regulations. It is now reportedly set to be re-purposed as a 5-star hotel and city lounge.
Villa de Vecchi (The Ghost Mansion), Italy
In the mountains east of Lake Como in Italy is a beautiful abandoned Baroque house known locally as ‘Villa de Vecchi‘, or the Ghost Mansion. Built by a nobleman, Count Felix De Vecchi, who had a passion for eastern architecture, this haunting building said to have been the scene of a gruesome murder and suicide. Urban legend holds that the count returned one day to find his wife murdered and daughter missing. Unable to locate her, he killed himself in 1862. Read more about the abandoned ‘Ghost Mansion’ here.
Michigan Central Terminal, Detroit, US
Derelict since January 1988, the infamous Michigan Central Station was the tallest railway station in the world when it opened in 1913. Situated in the Corktown district of Detroit less than a mile from the city’s downtown, the abandoned building has become a regular addition to “Top 10 abandoned places” lists and urban exploration features. And despite being added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975, the grand terminal, like many of Detroit’s abandoned treasures, has been allowed to fall into ruin and decay. But there could be a glimmer of hope on the horizon for Michigan Central Station. Over the past couple of years work has been carried out to shore up the derelict structure, while a new tunnel under the Detroit River, set to emerge nearby, could offer it a new lease of life as a trade inspection facility.
SS United States, Philadelphia, US
Built in 1952, the luxury passenger liner SS United States is a familiar sight on Philadelphia waterfront of the Delaware River, where she has been docked at Pier 82 since 1996. During construction the ship was partially subsidized by the US government, with a design that would allow conversion to a troop carrier if required. Remaining in passenger service until 1969, she retains the coveted Blue Riband even in retirement. With funding from a local philanthropist and support for former US President Bill Clinton, who said on the ship in 1968, the SS United States Conservancy assumed ownership of the historic vessel in 2011. Plans are poised for the development of a new multi-purpose waterfront complex and a campaign is underway to raise the funding needed to rebuild the ship.
Keep reading – explore 5 Abandoned Pillars of the World.