Detroit, Michigan, was once a bustling industrial hub, but it’s now a notorious symbol of urban decline. Since its heyday in the 1950s as America’s fourth biggest city and a center for automobile manufacturing, Detroit has lost more than half of its residents. And as a result, the city’s landscape is nowadays littered with unkempt roads, ghost-town-like neighborhoods and skeletal structures. It’s thought that Detroit is home to around 70,000 abandoned homes, schools and churches, in fact.
One example is the Woodward Avenue Presbyterian Church, which was constructed in 1911. The gothic-style building stood out as one of Detroit’s most unique architectural feats, and in the 1920s well over 2,000 parishioners were attending its services. In the mid-20th Century, however, Woodward Avenue fell victim to the city’s financial decline, and in the ’90s membership numbers had dwindled to just over 200. The church finally closed its doors in 2005, and today, with its crumbling walls and eerie silence, the site is a magnet for urban explorers.
Take photographer Chris Luckhardt, for instance, whose snaps of deserted spaces have earned him international acclaim. The Toronto-native has ventured inside hundreds of abandoned places around the world, in fact – from haunted theme parks to disused aircrafts. “I don’t break and enter,” says Luckhardt of his adventures. “I just enter.” And in 2011 the cameraman chose Woodward Avenue as his next exploration site. The following is an exclusive first-hand account from Luckhardt, detailing his observations of this hauntingly beautiful building.
The rickety wooden ladder trembles and shakes as my feet navigate its broken and missing rungs into the subterranean depths. My trusted fellow explorer, Ed, stabilizes the ladder’s base with a firm two-hand grip and buttressing feet and leads our afternoon exploration of Woodward Avenue Presbyterian Church. The decrepit structure – more colloquially known as St. Curvy – is hallowed ground amongst those of us who love to explore and document abandoned buildings.
The soles of my boots make contact with the basement room’s grungy floor, while our other companion Sarah awaits her turn to join us below. Like a fire bucket brigade, she passes her camera bag and tripod into the darkness and toward my outstretched hands. And her right foot then connects with the first intact rung.
Before descending, Sarah slides the formerly secured steel panel window cover back into position with a gentle but firm pull to reseal the makeshift entrance. Obscured from street view by a group of shrubs, the recently breached enclosure has become the de facto access point for a handful of knowledgeable urban explorers who desire to see St. Curvy’s legendary interior.
Taking over the role of stabilizer from Ed, I keep my eyes on Sarah’s footsteps leading her to safety and act as a steady guide. She clears the final rung and pats down her worn-out jeans, brushing off the bits of dirt and dust that have collected during the descent. Ed and I follow suit.
The cool basement provides instant relief from this sweltering hot June afternoon. Taking only a few seconds to enjoy the respite, however, we proceed to exit the room, traversing the pitch-black underground hallways with care toward the church’s breathtaking sanctuary.
A familiar musty and damp smell permeates the darkness of St. Curvy’s basement. Like rings of a tree, the intensity of a scent is an indicator of a building’s years of dormancy. I’m guessing that this church has lain empty for more than five years – but less than ten.
“When was the church abandoned?” I whisper to Ed. He whispers back, “I heard the last service was in 2005 or 2006.” Turning toward the stairs, we begin the climb over chunks of plaster and other debris to the sanctuary. Sarah and I follow Ed’s calculated steps; he’s been inside the structure a few times, after all, and knows the route well.
As we walk through a set of large doors, an upward gaze leaves me spellbound at the church’s vaulting grandeur and elegant curvature. Ed’s insistence that this building, with its English Gothic architecture, become our top priority for today’s exploration is suddenly completely understandable.
Like most photographers who enter St. Curvy’s breathtaking interior, I intend to document its uniquely curving balcony and pews and its distinctive lantern dome. My companions remain on the first level, then, as I ascend a creaking set of stairs. And they give way to one of the most incredible combinations of elaborate architecture and decay that I’ve ever seen. Mesmerizing is an understatement!
Harshly contrasting light from St. Curvy’s surprisingly intact stained glass windows glistens along the tops of the curved pews. It’s an incredible sight to behold, but the human eye is infinitely more advanced than that of the camera; adjusting for wildly varying light is certainly a difficult task.
Unlatching each tripod leg lets them drop into position among a random scattering of debris. While securing my Canon onto the tripod’s head, my mind drifts into the past and imagines the early-1920s congregation filling the sanctuary with its membership of over 2,200 people.
It’s almost as though I can hear the hushed rustling of hymnals and service programs in the devoted hands of the faithful. And after a couple of tripod head adjustments, I’m ready for the day’s first photo. A few seconds later, the LCD screen shows my very first shot.
An intangible presence exists in older abandoned buildings. And Woodward Presbyterian, which is now more than 100 years old, is no exception. Countless human stories – saintly and otherwise – live on in the decaying walls of this gorgeous church. After all, while emptiness pervades the space, it also brims with a rich history. Said tales may be muted forever, but St. Curvy still has its own secrets to share through the curving wood and textures of its incredible architecture. We’re here for a brief moment in time to listen to St. Curvy silently narrate its story.
So, satisfied with several angles from the side and center of the balcony, I gather my gear and continue on my exploration of St. Curvy. With my camera bag securely on my back and my tripod in hand, I make my way to the church’s rear wing. This area was once home to classrooms, recreational facilities and Sunday school. And the wing’s simple design pales in comparison to the rest of the church.
A grand piano bearing the namesake Lester occupies an otherwise nondescript scattering of yellow chairs, foldout tables and one rather creepy – or amusing, depending on your level of desensitization – plastic bear head. After surveying the rest of the room, though, I decide that the only worthy photo opportunity is the instrument.
Detroit seems to be the epicentre for discarded pianos. I’ve lost count of how many I’ve discovered in almost ten years of exploring the city’s infamous abandoned buildings. They’re found in every empty school, church and many other types of derelict structures. And often, the forgotten instruments are still playable.
Like many people, pressing a few keys when I’m near a piano is an irresistible urge. But causing loud noises in a deserted building is a potentially risky operation, so it requires a soft touch. A piano’s white keys are a non-pianist’s best friend; I form the simple shape of a C major chord, lean my right ear toward the piano and press gently on the ivory.
Surprisingly, the piano is in tune! The same chord is even in tune across other octaves, too. But while I’d love to try a few more note combinations, time is tight, and I’ve barely photographed St. Curvy yet. I’ll grab a snap of the piano and move on to the heights of the church’s lantern dome.
A slow tug on a slim door reveals darkness where I’m expecting there are stairs hiding. Pausing for a few seconds allows my eyes to adjust and see a narrow set of wooden steps approaching the top of St. Curvy’s famous dome. Wedging the door open a few more inches gives me enough room to slip past and climb the musty staircase.
Knowing that other explorers have made this climb successfully reassures my senses that I’ll be able to reach the top of the staircase. However, said confidence doesn’t change my expectations that it’ll be a treacherous ascent up this unmaintained passageway.
Upon reaching the top of the stairs, a labyrinth of catwalks and more steps appears to my right. Instincts – developed after years of exploring numerous abandoned barns in my youth – tell me that the wood will be sturdy enough to continue onward and upward on a wing and a prayer.
The walkway extends over the sanctuary’s auxiliary seating area. Here, relatively new boards cover what was a gaping opening in the roof, yet copious amounts of light leakage expose a hasty patchwork. Punctures in more than a dozen of the auxiliary room’s stained glass ceiling tiles reveal not just random vandalism but what appears to be a 50-foot drop from the flexing catwalk.
The next set of steps lead to a pair of planks. Their placement across the precarious gap between the sanctuary’s ceiling and the dome’s vertical framework looks somewhat improvised. And so, cautious explorers know to take each step like it might be their last; this feels like it could be mine without ultra-careful coordination. Or perhaps it’s just my fear of heights kicking in.
So, gently pushing with my boot on the thick right-hand plank causes a slight bow, but it feels more than strong enough to support my weight. Let’s try it. I step forward with my full weight onto the century-old piece of wood, which causes it to produce a loud crack! And my left hand grabs hold of a supporting beam with lightning speed.
“You okay, Chris?” Ed, reaching the start of the walkway behind me, calls out. “Still alive, but I think we should crawl across these boards to evenly distribute our weight,” I shout to him, and he offers a possible explanation. Getting down on all fours, then, I crawl across the boards and arrive – via a tiny doorway that would be better defined as a large hatch – onto the lantern dome’s catwalk.
Looking over the dome walkway’s ledge provokes a vertigo-inducing sense of uneasiness. What am I doing up here? I hate heights! However, with a camera in my hand and physics in mind, the feeling, as usual, soon subsides, and I’m finally able to get to work.
Even at this height, the ornate design of the dome – which would’ve been mostly indiscernible to parishioners – is stunning. Carved tridents, vines and crosses adorn the circumference of the dome’s balcony walls. Peeling paint doesn’t diminish its simple but elegant artistry, either. It’s clear that the $100,000 that was invested in 1911 in the church’s construction – equal to around $2.7 million today – was used auspiciously to craft a grandiose landmark in Detroit’s then-northern Woodward area.
As Ed joins me on the lantern dome’s walkway, Sarah remains on the sanctuary floor getting her shots. She looks like an ant from up here. Ed sets his camera bag down and throws one leg over the ledge – and then a second leg – to become seated on the precipice. Certainly, the ledge is stable, but I’ll keep my feet on the catwalk, thank you very much. A few more photos, and I’ll begin the climb down to a less heart-stopping level of St. Curvy.
Descending from the church’s beautiful lantern dome brings me back to its educational wing. Another quick survey of the floor eventually leads to me setting up in the center of the church’s nave for a series of symmetrical shots of the sanctuary. I’ll focus on the chancel, organ remnants and pulpit before turning the camera toward St. Curvy’s lantern dome for a few wide-perspective photos. It’s the best vantage point in the sanctuary, after all, and I want to do justice to the church’s gorgeous architecture.
The final moments of photographing an abandoned structure always leave me with mixed emotions: awe, melancholy, wonder, emptiness, pride, concern, wistfulness and accomplishment. For a brief slice of time within a building’s storied history, I have the privilege of experiencing its past, present and potential future.
All of these thoughts combine into a sensory overload. This isn’t just a building; it’s living history to cherish. And I take none of it for granted. Often, the structures that I explore feel like old friends who guide me through chapters of their lives and share new stories with each careful footstep.
St. Curvy is an exceptional example of religious architecture and has unquestionably become my favourite abandoned church to explore and photograph. Successfully composing several symmetrical shots, then, I move in close to capture the pulpit and a stray Bible that hangs off of its ledge. A green cross adorns the back wall that’s flanked by decorative pillars. Next, I’ll snap the majestic lantern dome.
St. Curvy’s lantern dome illuminates with a glorious glow from a break in the clouds. A quick pivot of the tripod head positions my camera precisely to capture the church’s heavenly upper section. The dome is St. Curvy’s most impressive feature. Its octagonal shape – illuminated by eight stained glass windows – casts light onto the curving sanctuary below. And eight lantern lights hang from its underside – each with their own octagonal form – while an array of large windows enhance the colorful spectacle.
Photographing the dome is a fantastic conclusion to an outstanding afternoon of exploration; the amazing light makes for a great series of photos. Ed and Sarah pack up their belongings as I take my last shot. I restore my camera to its cozy position and pull the bag’s zipper closed.
Pausing for a moment before following my partners through the main doors, I turn to take one last look at the sanctuary. My left palm gently comes to rest on the wall. It’s a ritual that I’ve repeated in every abandoned place – a way to feel the heart and soul of the building and, in some way, to “mind meld” with it for a moment.
Ed and Sarah are waiting patiently at the base of the ladder as I approach the basement gateway through which we entered the church. Minutes later, Ed pauses at the top. The summer heat – awaiting our slightly dishevelled appearances from exploring – flows in as he slides the steel panel window cover out of our way.
Another few minutes pass, and we’re safely outside and walking down the street to Sarah’s car. While St. Curvy’s continued existence may not be certain, the memory of exploring the magnificent Detroit church will last a lifetime.