POSTED ON SEPTEMBER 28, 2011:
Footprints and Snapshots
Abandoned Tulsa from the perspective of young, fresh-eyed explorers
He has accidentally stumbled upon a clandestine meth lab, narrowly escaped arrest and torn his clothes on daring climbs over chicken-wired fences into dense, dark alleys.
Billy Dixon is a 23-year-old urban explorer. For fun, he packs up camera equipment and investigates rundown, abandoned properties thick with cobwebs, dust, decay and oftentimes, neat mementoes of times gone by.
Plus, asbestos and transients.
It's a dangerous job, but Dixon and other urban explorers are willing to do it.
"It's like walking into the past, almost, like a snapshot of the past," Dixon said.
Urban exploration, also called infiltration, urban archaeology or building hacking, is the hands-on, informal study of abandoned, rundown, old or otherwise disused buildings.
The hobby has become more popular in recent years, and coincides with new television shows like Urban Explorers on Discovery Channel. The one rule of respectful urban exploring is, "Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints."
This pastime can be dangerous for explorers, and considered trespassing (or worse) by property owners. Dixon tries to contact the owners before checking out the premises. Most owners are cool with it, he said.
And then, with the style of a cat burglar, Dixon and others like him scan an interesting building for a busted door, some loose boards, a broken window. Once he finds his way in, Dixon packs up his camera equipment and begins his investigation.
Dixon lives in Oklahoma City, but has sneaked into some of the Tulsa metropolitan area's most notable rundown properties, including the Tulsa Club Building, Hissom Memorial Center in Sand Springs and the Abundant Life Building.
Each of these properties has unique offerings for the intrepid urban explorer.
After seven trips inside the Tulsa Club Building, Dixon said the once-gorgeous Bruce Goff-designed architecture gets more dilapidated with every visit. He said he found himself in the grand ballroom after one of the fires, and on the ground was a pristine membership card.
"Hey, I'm a member now! It's a sign," Dixon laughed.
The building, empty for years, has withstood fires, vandalism and neglect. In 2008, the city of Tulsa filed foreclosure against the owner, who lives out of state.
Near 13th and Boulder rests the Abundant Life Building, a behemoth six-story, windowless former headquarters for Oral Roberts Ministries.
Dixon said the inside looks more like dark, trashed-out office space than a religious relic of the 1950s. However, he said the building's roof offers an amazing view of downtown Tulsa.
The building opened in 1957, and was used to process the millions of dollars' worth of donations Roberts received from his tent meetings, radio and television programs. Since so many of these donations were in cash, the Abundant Life Building was constructed like a fortress to ensure security.
After Roberts opened his university in the mid-1960s, he centralized his ministry, school and other business at the school's location on S. Lewis Avenue.
Currently, Freese Architecture is renovating Abundant Life, now called the Diamond Building, from a six-story windowless building into a 12-story mixed-use facility with condominiums, ground-floor retail and office space, according to the firm's website.
Hissom Memorial Center in Sand Springs has been a popular spot for urban explorers and paranormal investigators alike. The institution for people with mental disabilities opened in 1964.
Twenty-four buildings house the remains of what were once populated dorms, a morgue, administration offices and medical facilities. Dixon, who's explored the buildings four times, said abandoned playground equipment bothered him the most.
He was pretty sure the merry-go-round started spinning though there was no wind one day when he was out for an adventure. Instead, he got creeped out.
Dixon said he found coloring books, crayons and little personal children's items in some of the dorm rooms.
The center closed in 1994, and since then, vandals have trashed the buildings. "Ceiling tiles are all over the ground, and keyboards [and the like] have been thrown through windows and walls," Dixon said.
The center rests on 170 acres of property co-owned by Oklahoma State University and the State of Oklahoma. Last year, city leaders discussed rezoning the area for industrial use.
Dixon hooked up with the guys who founded Abandoned Oklahoma, the popular website compendium of some of the most intriguing rundown properties in the state (abandonedok.com).
The two founders of Abandoned Oklahoma are Justin Tyler Moore and Cody Cooper.
Dixon noticed he'd explored seven locations that hadn't been added to the site, yet, he said, so they combined their resources to enhance the site.
Dixon fell in love with urban exploring as a teenager. "It was just me being curious," he said. One night he went out with some friends to an old milk factory. "There was still old ice cream and expense reports...That's where it comes in for me, to see what's left."
"It's crazy what people leave behind," he said. For instance, in an old abandoned school he found, "It looked like they were just going to come back and go to school the next day. There was food still in the cafeteria and things in the teacher's lounge.
Urban exploring, for Dixon, is about "documenting the past. Someday, [old buildings] will be demolished," he said. "It appeals to the nosy historian in me."
The young history-hacker said he wants to become an architect. "I want to do preservation work, and renew old buildings. That's my ideal job," Dixon said.
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