They are like the terrestrial version of James Cameron.
Instead of plumbing the briny deep to film the barnacled carcass of the Titanic, documentary-makers Rusty Tagliareni and Christina Mathews explore above-ground shipwrecks, forgotten places with histories just as sad.
Places like Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary and Overbrook Asylum in Cedar Grove. And now, just ahead of the wrecking ball, they have aimed their cameras at Greystone Park State Psychiatric Hospital on the border of Morris Plains and Parsippany.
“It’s hard to go through a place like that and not feel something. You know it was a city at one time. And now, it’s just you,” said Rusty, 29.
When Greystone opened in 1876, it was considered a progressive beacon of psychiatric care, with rolling lawns, vegetable gardens and magnificently crafted Second Empire Victorian structures like the 675,000-square-foot main building, now known as the Kirkbride Building. Thousands of patients, including folksinger Woody Guthrie, passed through its wards.
The old Greystone was replaced in 2008, a few years after most of the property was given to Morris County as parkland. Some of the original hospital buildings already are gone. The crumbling Kirkbride is next.
Despite at least six proposals from potential re-developers and fervent pleas by the volunteer group Preserve Greystone, the state plans to demolish Kirkbride by 2016. Renovating the building would cost north of $100 million, a consultant estimated last year.
‘I SHOULD BE FILMING THIS’
Rusty and Christina will show the trailer (above) for Greystone’s Last Stand, their documentary, at Preserve Greystone’s annual meeting, on April 17, 2014, in the Morristown & Township Library at 7 pm.
A longer version, with interviews and archival footage, is scheduled for a May 10 premiere at the Barnes & Noble store on Route 10 in Morris Plains. Their final cut should come later.
“This is the only way to educate people about what happened there,” said Christina, 28, who lives in Milford, Pa. “They’re going to demolish it. Once it’s gone, that’s it.”
Rusty, who studied graphic arts at Sussex County Community College, and Christina have been a couple for seven years. They are regular contributors to Weird N.J. — Rusty as a self-taught photographer and journalist, Christina as a self-taught videographer who has accumulated a small arsenal of cameras, lights and computer-controlled tracking rails.
Freelance gigs help pay the bills. But their passion is documenting dilapidated hulks of history, a labor of love that dates to Rusty’s teenaged fascination with abandoned farmhouses.
In 2009, while they were poking around the remains of Overbrook Asylum, Christina said the idea hit her: “I should be filming this. And we just got better and better at it.”
The couple’s photo expeditions inspired them to start researching their subjects; invariably, the back story hooks them. Results are displayed on their website, Antiquity Echoes.
BEN FRANKLIN AND AL CAPONE
One of their favorite shoots was the Eastern State Penitentiary. Conceived in Benjamin Franklin’s parlor as a model for prison reform, the facility was erected in 1829 and a century later it held gangster Al Capone. A crusade by preservationists saved Eastern State from demolition; today it’s a museum.
“It’s hard to imagine Philadelphia without that penitentiary,” Christina said. “Same here–I can’t imagine this area without Greystone.”
The Greystone project began in January, when Rusty met Adam McGovern of Preserve Greystone at a Morris Museum party for a new book about Woody Guthrie’s hospital days.
“We think this is a very moving portrait of a treasured place [that] paints a full picture of the kinds of lives that have passed through Greystone,” Adam said of Greystone’s Last Stand.
“We hope the film will help spark even more interest in this fascinating structure, and connection with the importance it holds for people who remember it and those who want to keep it around to learn from.”
CHAPELS AND LOBOTOMIES
Rusty is mum about how he and Christina gained access to the ghostly, peeling wards of Kirkbride, corridors so dark that the filmmakers had to painstakingly piece together thousands of still photos in time-lapse fashion to simulate interior videos.
To some, it might seem macabre to memorialize a venue that has housed so much suffering.
“New Jersey would like nothing more than to knock over the building and not have anyone know what the building was and what went on there,” Rusty said.
But he thinks it would be a mistake to bury this history, and the lessons it can teach.
“Concentration camps were some of the worst places on earth. Yet there were great efforts to save them for future generations to see,” Rusty said.
Greystone was built with “the best intentions,” as evidenced by Kirkbride’s hand-carved workmanship and a chapel that still echoes with hope, according to Christina. Lobotomies were abolished thanks to a Greystone study, Rusty said. In his view, dwindling state support sent this once-noble enterprise into a death spiral.
“You can see the Greystone asylum as an archaic relic of psychological medicine,” he said. “But it’s also a great monument to how far we’ve come. It’s not just a sad place. It’s a symbol of progress.”