Pennhurst: A Vision for the Future

September 30, 2010

Some of you may already know the photo and video work I've done at Pennhurst. I completed that work during Pennhurst's last days as property of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania - shortly before the state sold the property to developers.  At that time the end seemed near for the old campus. That's when a grass-roots preservation group called The Pennhurst Memorial & Preservation Alliance was formed.

Shortly after being founded, the PM&PA set about doing a professional Re-Use Design and Feaseability Study, and a video. The video would educate people about Pennhurst, and the work being done by the PM&PA.  It would need to show a vision for Pennhurst's future, and because the study would not likely be complete in time, I was asked to create an illustration that depicted a new future for the old, forgotten campus.

So I got on the phone and spoke with the PM&PA's Nathaniel Guest about what that might look like. We discussed showing a restored campus, manicured lawns, and a memorial. Not a memorial to the suffering that took place there, but a memorial for the victory won at Halderman v. Pennhurst: a battle that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and resulted in de-institutionalization for people with intellectual disabilities on a national scale. The historic court case closed Pennhurst and hundreds of similar institutions, and created a new age of community living. By all accounts the former residents of these instituions led better, more meaningful lives once reconnected to society. So there would be a victory memorial here. My mind went to the Arc de Triomphe, and this was the result:

Pennhurst: A Vision for the Future

So I had the privelege of being the first to create an image of a new Pennhurst campus. Whether this vision will ever be realized, much less what the campus might be used for is still not known. But I hope my image helps inspire people to dream, think and work toward taking the old campus beyond it's unfortunate current incarnation as dilapidated carnival freak show, and into a brighter future that not only honors its former residents, but provides lasting economic and social prosperity as well.

Flying over Pennhurst

In addition to the illustration, the PM&PA also asked me to be the cameraman during an aerial video shoot. In order to convey the size and scope of the Pennhurst campus aerial footage was needed and Heath Hofmeister, director of the aforementioned video, had scheduled a helicopter flyover of the campus.  I had spent many hours inside Pennhurst while shooting Abuse and Neglect, but I had certainly never seen it from the air before.  Me? Flying apocalypse-now style over the old, decrepit institution?  I jumped at the opportunity!

I met Heath at Lancaster Airport on a cold February morning in 2010 - during a particularly bad winter with 2 feet of snow covering the ground. In the helicopter, I was situated on the floor behind the pilot and copilot seats, tethered to the wall behind me. The side door was simply removed and my legs dangled outside. I had to duct tape my shoes on.  We entered the campus from the East, passing close to the giant cooling towers of Limerick Nuclear plant.  For almost an hour we sailed and circled over the campus. The wind was so strong and the chopper so bumpy that I felt I hadn't succeeded in getting even one steady shot. I delivered all my footage to Heath who set about creating the video for the PM&PA. He found some steady shots, and did a wonderful job on everything else as well.

So here's the video. I am honored to be a part of it and the ongoing Pennhurst preservation effort. Enjoy!


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