Places left abandoned, but not forgotten

Published 9:42 pm Friday, February 15, 2019

John Plashal has spent years on the back roads of Virginia, capturing haunting structures that lie in disrepair and decay. But he also discovered the stories of the beautiful people that made these places beautiful places to live so many years ago.

Plashal is a photographer, author and speaker based out of Richmond. The Virginia native travels throughout his state in search of places that have fallen into beautiful states of disrepair to capture mesmerizing photographs.

He goes to very small towns across the state to strike up conversations with locals, and those conversations point him in the right direction.

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“Virginians are delightful,” he said to a packed room of more than 60 people at the Lake Prince Woods retirement community on Feb. 11. “They have no problems talking with strangers. Once I disarm them with charm, tell them that I’m a native Virginian and all I want to do is learn about their community — I have a harder time getting out of conversations with them than trying to get information from them.”

Plashal was at Lake Prince Woods as a member of the Statewide Faculty Speakers Bureau for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and in partnership with the Suffolk Art League.

He discussed the work that went into “A Beautifully Broken Virginia,” his coffee-table book that’s filled with abandoned churches, houses, schools and other structures that populate Virginia’s lesser-known countryside.

“It’s almost like Virginia has 10,000 or more beautifully abandoned places that hold these unbelievable memories, and often too many are an eyesore or are completely dismissed,” he said.

His PowerPoint slides showed some of the properties featured in his book: exterior shots of buildings, weathered over decades and seeming to be just teetering towards collapse; interiors like bedrooms, classrooms and church halls filled with split plaster and rusted metal.

Many of the buildings were still fully furnished, Plashal said. Classrooms still had report cards on the tables. Pianos and rotary phones still gathered dust inside homes.

“It brings you back to yesteryear. You just see a scene like this and all of a sudden you can just envision someone sitting in that chair next to that phone,” he said. “It’s been like that for 50 years. Then you add the decayed walls to it, and it just makes for very interesting photography.

Many of the photos are taken under night skies or dark clouds, or in just the right amount of ambient light for Plashal’s camera. There’s a scariness to the photography and its bleak details. The journeys to get the shots themselves can be harrowing, sometimes requiring protective wear or flashlights after dark.

But over the course of his work, he realized how integral people were to these buildings and the stories behind them.

“I needed to know about these places. It just started with taking pictures of cool exteriors. Then I started going into these places, started getting a feel for the people,” he said. “My intrigue was so intense that I needed to know about them.”

He told a story about getting caught in a fence of barbed wire beside an old plantation house. He was rescued by the owner of the property, right near the sign that said “no trespassing.”

Plashal told about what he was doing there, and how he wanted to know more about the house. This man immediately invited him over for three hours of coffee, blueberry pie and stories with him and his wife.

“I was some stranger that he caught in a barbed wire fence, I expressed an interest in their universe, and all they wanted to do was share,” Plashal said.

When Plashal takes his photos to nearby retirement communities, he realizes what these places truly mean to the people that lived in them.

One house had caught his eye in Essex County, so he started knocking on doors. He’s never encountered a negative situation when talking to people like this, not in nine whole years, he said.

“I think that’s a testament to the friendliness of all of our fellow Virginians,” he said.

One helpful woman explained to him that the woman who lived in that abandoned house was known to make “the world’s best coconut pie.” He found out more about that pie just four months ago, when he presented the photo at a retirement center.

When the photo of this mystery house came on the screen, an elderly man in the audience had to be consoled. That man was “Uncle Charles,” as his nephew called him at the presentation, and that house was his boyhood home.

Plashal was blown away, and he had just one question to ask. He asked the 95-year-old man whether or not anyone there made really good coconut pie.

Absolutely, the old man said, “because I was the one cracking the coconuts. That (woman) was my momma,” according to Plashal.

Then this elderly man took him to dinner, and for an hour they looked through the pictures of his boyhood home on Plashal’s phone.

“His (69-year-old nephew) said to me afterwards, ‘I’ve never seen uncle like that, in two decades,’” Plashal said. “For him to be able to see these images that I’ve taken on my phone, and then share these unbelievable stories with me from his boyhood, was just so meaningful to me.

“For a project that just started as taking pictures of creepy exteriors, that has now escalated into something so much more profound — that I’m now providing seniors a beautiful opportunity to reminisce. That is so special, and it happens all the time.”

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