WPH - A First Impression
This summer was the first opportunity I've had to finally visit what many regard as the UE mecca of southern Ontario - namely the old Whitby Psychiatric Hospital. Although I've looked through many of the photo galleries on the location database, even the quality images pale in comparison to seeing it in real life.
The multi-building complex is quite sprawling and spread out over a large area, linked with interconnecting roads and pathways, like a serpent cutting through the overgrown weeds and tall thistles that dominate the grounds. One of the first things a visitor notices is how the majority of buildings share common architectural elements, design and colour, with the exception of a few structures.
Although its the first and (so far) only abandoned psychiatric facility I've had the chance to visit, its probably safe to say it shares a common feeling of forlorn institutional loneliness. The echoes of former mentally-challenged patients hanging in the air. While exploring some of the darker buildings its easy to allow the imagination to wander with thoughts of a deranged person lurking just around the corner, ready to make an abrupt appearance. I don't startle easily...but I found myself wondering a few times just how I'd react if Jack Nicholson poked his face through a shattered door and yelled, "Here's Johnny!!"
Colorful graffiti is practically everywhere - the buildings have long been a haven for spraypaint artists, both talented and idiotic. A few of the graffiti images almost seem to reflect the obtuse mental condition of former patients, with twisted and grotesque graphics, lewd and profane sayings...and surreal deformities. One can't help but wonder if former patients have made their way back to their old haunts, equipped with paint aerosols and a head full of weirdness.
Upon checking a few buildings out after arriving, I was pleasantly surprised by how many were wide open with easy access to explore. I had little difficulty quietly slipping in to nearly every building to leisurely poke around and take photographs. Several buildings with upper floors provided nice views of the surrounding grounds and buildings.
WPH is so large, that during a first visit its very easy to wear yourself out in a rush to explore as many areas as possible. I did a LOT of walking that first excursion, crisscrossing the grounds from one end to another several times while checking out different buildings and taking as many photographs as possible of stuff I found interesting. Rather than go about systematically exploring, I soon found myself doubling-back to places I'd overlooked the first time. I was having such an enjoyable time that I never realized just how much energy I'd expended. Despite being in reasonably good physical shape and well-accustomed to a lot of walking and hiking while exploring a large location, I was rather surprised how much the old facility wore me out that afternoon.
For me, one of the most interesting (and photogenic) buildings was the old powerhouse at the northeast corner of the property. The array of old machinery (including a massive old diesel generator) was very impressive. Four-storey catwalks in one area were a definite highlight, providing fabulous aerial views of the machinery labyrinth below. The powerhouse also had some of the most impressive decay of all the buildings - rust, peeling paint, soot and grime - a UE photographer's treasure trove. Word of warning, though - be wary of the flooded lower level in the powerhouse.
Another area I found fascinating was the old steam tunnels between a few of the buildings. Despite the rather cramped conditions in the passageways, I was able to haul the camera and tripod along for a few cool shots of the tunnels and the steam pipes. Contrary to the experiences of other explorers, I didn't find the asbestos in the tunnels to be untolerable without a mask - although I still recommend the use of a breathing mask if venturing into the tunnels.
One of the truly sad aspects of WPH is the encroachment of new housing developments to the north end of the property. Its like seeing the big 'progress eraser' attempting to erradicate a piece of history, the former home of tens of thousands of patients.
For anyone planning to visit the old facility - I highly recommend first reading through the online history of the place at http://www.wmhc2.com/history.htm (deadlink - Oct/07) - and get an idea of the historical significance beforehand. As with any UE location, knowing the background of a place before visiting always provides a heightened appreciation for seeing the place firsthand.