Images of America: Essex County Overbrook Hospital - A Book Response

Posted: Sunday November 26, 2017

I have a bit of an issue in my life in which buildings, well specifically those of which are currently void of humans, often resonate with and speak to me more than people. I will even go as far as admitting that certain buildings mean more to me than people and physical human connections at times. Now perhaps that's a bit of a fucked-up introvert fueled emotional thought process to admit too, yet it's completely true (especially in regard to the former Essex County Hospital Center, or simply, Essex as I came to refer to the place for the better part of ten years). It's a perpetual habit I wish I could break for it really makes no rational sense to connect to inanimate things. It can't possibly be healthy spending countless hours online looking at buildings as if it were a Playboy Magazine spread. Then once we meet up for a date, wasting even more hours upon hours wandering around their vacant spaces, down their empty halls, and through their darkened basements, just for a quick thrill, and adventure.

I think maybe such a bizarre connection stems from the fact that buildings don't talk back or judge, yet still offer a certain visual appeal like any human could. Buildings tell stories just like people but unlike the aforementioned anthropomorphic life forms, exist as insentient thus they speak no words nor communicate through any one language. So to hear and understand the stories buildings have to tell, humans must first speak for them because after all, brick, mortar, and stone exists as only inanimate story capturing material, like paper pages within a book printed upon with invisible ink revealing the years of memories and accounts that happen within such spaces only to be told by human form.

And so, I often have to remind myself that buildings are merely concepts envisioned by humans, created by humans, and often ultimately destroyed by humans. However the latter sentiment is the greatest issue stemming from creating a connection with inanimate spaces. As unlike human death, once a buildings ceases to exist, it is rarely immortalized for its positive intended purpose, but usually and often for the worst, glorified for blips in history where there may have been wrong doings. Instead folklore and negative history is highlighted for its shock and entertainment value rather than for historical significance and importance. When a human is put to rest we always remember the good times. We are always reminded of how great of a person such a life-form was. But buildings are different, they are returned to the dust from which they were once erected with often a tainted history far from the truth of why they were originally constructed. All this leads to a stigmata and echo-chamber of negativity which spreads like fake news, ultimately working only to destroy great American architecture and diminish histories still incapsulated and untold within current buildings remaining on death row all across the world.

When I learned that aspiring authors and longtime friends Kevin R. Kowalick and Kathryn Cataldo would be taking on the honor and monumental task of speaking for and telling the stories and histories in book-form that Essex, a building close to my heart yearns to exclaim, I was initially a bit nervous that the accounts recollected would be manipulated by the biases inhered within any human mind; for history after all is told from the perspective of prejudices inherited by the way we all individually view and live life.

However my worries were very much unfounded, for the final product which has come to be officially titled, Images of America: Essex County Overbrook Hospital, stands as a testament honoring the history of a great American structure ultimately built to help people and constructed for the greater good of society. I praise authors Kowalick and Cataldo for their hard work as they chose to tell the stories of Essex though photographic and historical pictorial evidence of a building that was built for good and show how it ultimately succeeded at doing good. As one flips though the hundred-odd pages featured within the text, the reader is graced with a plethora of fantastic never before seen historical images and postcards each accompanied by paragraph long caption detailing the historical significances present within each scene. The pictures present within invoke to the reader an underlying internal story that Essex County Overbrook Hospital was place built to help and benefit the community and surroundings for which it was constructed within and for. Essex wasn't some horrific Hell hole that often times lore will have one out to believe. Instead while turning through the pages and studying each image one by one the reader is schooled upon how the hospital functioned on a daily, day-to-day basis and how care for those less fortunate was the utmost purpose of Essex County Overbrook Hospital. To focus on the positive all the while weeding out the few times of negativity in historical story telling is an admirable yet difficult task, thus I was glad to see that underlying theme hold true thought the entire length of the book.

I must offer authors Kowalick and Cataldo a great deal of thanks for choosing to preserve in pictures and words positively, a building that could not otherwise speak for itself. While my personal memories of Essex will always stem from its final years of abandonment; a time when Essex lost its intended purpose as greed won over. However, authors Kowalick and Cataldo have forever preserved in much needed positive light the history of Essex County Overbrook Hospital and perhaps this can serve as a lesson to weaken the ignominy often so unfairly associated with great American buildings, especially those indebted in falsified myths and terrors associated with mental and health issues. The past wasn't all lobotomies and electroshock despite what we may prefer to idolize in pop-culture. The more humans understand about our past the greater our future has the potential to be. The overall positive history of Essex County Overbrook Hospital proves that despite all the technological and medical advances we've made throughout time, we still and always will need places and spaces for humans to obtain and receive help.

Copies of Essex County Overbrook Hospital can be purchased online at:

A promotional image detailing the back and front covers of the book, including a synopsis of the text.

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