Exploring America's Ruins

U.S. Architecture
U.S. Architecture

Southern New Mexico is the site of some of America's most spectacular ruins.

Photographer Arthur Drooker traveled America for two years taking pictures of places like the Quarai Mission, which was built in 1622 as Spain expanded its empire.

"Well just think of it," he told CBS News correspondent Jerry Bowen. "If we were here about 350 or 400 years ago on a Sunday, there would be a mass going. We'd be walking through these walls, which probably would have been plastered white. There'd be gold ornamentation. Crucifixes. The Indians who were converted would be probably on their knees praying to their new god. So all that goes through your mind as you're walking here."

Quarai and the nearby Abo Mission are among two dozen man-made structures that have weathered time and now fill the pages of Drooker's new book, "American Ruins" - from missions to ante bellum mansions to Alcatraz, the prison that was home to Al Capone and Machine-Gun Kelly.

"I like to think that my book is almost a guidebook, if you will, to some of these places," Drooker said. "Because most Americans just don't know about them and they should be visited. I think it'll give people a certain kind of depth and appreciation for our history and heritage."

To make Drooker's list, the ruins had to meet certain criteria: They had to be part of a preservation program, and had to represent the geographic and architectural diversity of America.

Drooker decided that Knapp's Castle in Southern California met that standard.

And like the 1916 Knapp Castle, the ruins needed to look good in infrared. Drooker believes infrared photography and ruins go hand-in-hand.

"Well, the effect that infrared gives is ghostly, haunted, other-worldly," he said. "And that was the kind of effect that works really well for a subject like ruins."

Drooker's favorite ruin is another castle on the East Coast, Bannerman Castle, built in 1901 on a small island in the Hudson River north of New York City.

The Bannerman family was in the army surplus business and built the castle to store their huge arsenal of weapons from the Spanish American war. It's a Scottish castle, no less.

"Francis Bannerman who was the patriarch of the family was not a trained architect," Drooker said. "And he designed his castle on the back of envelopes and stationery and he gave it to contractors. And to this day it looks like "Macbeth" could be staged there or something. It's pretty spectacular.

"It speaks to, I think, an American desire to reinvent oneself. To think big. I think from the beginning we were a melting pot, and these ruins are literally touchstones to the cultural diversity that was with us from the very, very beginning."

All that is left of Windsor, an ante bellum mansion built in 1859 near Alcorn, Miss., are the columns. A guest's cigar started the fire that destroyed the place.

"And if you look at that, it looks almost like it was a Greek temple in a clearing in the Mississippi woods with the Corinthian columns," Drooker said.

In Arizona's Canyon de Chelly, the abandoned dwellings of the Anasazi, caught Drooker's eye. The structures are 17,000 years old; Antelope House is the most famous among them.

And were it not for President Theodore Roosevelt, the Indian ruins might not have survived turn of the century looters and thieves.

"Theodore Roosevelt was enamored with the ruins of America," said presidential historian and CBS news consultant Douglas Brinkley. "He was enamored with anything that had an American attached to it. He felt our ruins were as great as anybody else's ruins."

Brinkley wrote the forward to the book. He says Roosevelt's Antiquities Act of 1906 gave the ruins federal protection and saved them for future generations.

"And when you stumble upon it or purposely go to look for a ruin it kind of transports you back in time," he said, "and reminds you not everything is permanent."

The Mission San Antonio de Valero is ghostly white; most know it as the Alamo. That and the 1904 Bethlehem Steel Mill in Pennsylvania are also included in the book.

"A hundred years ago, Bethlehem Steel was really the engine that was promoting industrial America," Brinkley said. "Now it's boarded up. It's locked down. It's a ruin. It was Bethlehem Steel that created the empire State Building and the Golden Gate Bridge ... one can go on and on with iconic American sites. And now Bethlehem is closed."

Drooker believes the ruins are inspiring, inviting the visitor to relive the past.

"When you're in the presence of these places and you walk in these sites and you touch these walls and you see these places and you," he said, "there's a mystery about it that I think is very compelling. Because there is something in the incompleteness of the ruin - it's a blank for you to fill in. And that's where the mystery comes in. Like, what happened here? What does it mean? It's a real engagement with the visitor."