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Abandoned buildings get starring role in social media

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Imagine trying to sell a big historic building. A lot of times, properties like this — everything from old factories to hotels — sit vacant, sometimes for decades. But people in search of adventure are getting in to these buildings and posting photos and video of their exploits on social media sites like Instagram and Flickr.

Sometimes, it works to a property’s advantage. Take the Thomas Jefferson Hotel in downtown Birmingham. It’s been on the market for 15 years. In the lobby, there’s broken glass and trash on the floor. But it’s still kind of beautiful inside.

Chip Watts is president of Watts Realty, the company selling the building.

“You’ll see the gingerbread markings across the top, it’s very intricate design work around the ceiling here in the lobby area. And these were made by German plasterers who came in and did this by hand,” Watts says.

The hotel is listed at $1.5 million. To restore it, add at least $20 million.

“It’s been difficult to sell simply because of its size. It’s over 158,000 square feet, 20 stories tall with a basement,” Watts says.

But Watts started noticing more people drawn to the building on social media sites.

“To one point during the summer we were getting anywhere from five to 10 requests a week for people to gain access,” he says.

Watts thought, “Hey, this could help.” So his company started checking out the keys. People would go in, take pictures, and  post them online.

And just like that, instant buzz.

“We’ve had interest from all types of groups. We’ve had interest from paranormal groups, we’ve had interest from social media groups that are interested in coming in and taking photos of the property, amateur photographers, professional photographers,” Watts says. “Everybody wants to get inside.”

Watts’ company even used some of the photos in ads for the building. In other parts of the country, scores of people are trying to get a peek inside historic and abandoned buildings. They post photos on sites like Instagram and tag them with hashtags like urbex for urban exploration. And for some Instagram users, the more dilapidated the building, the better.

“Some people call that ruin porn,” says Lee Tusman, creative director of Hidden City Philadelphia, an online news outlet that focuses on vacant and historic spots around the city, “which is the fact that photos of broken down, abandoned or bombed out looking spaces are very attractive.”

And then there’s that whole forbidden fruit thing. Tusman’s group partners with property owners to give what they call managed access. The idea is essentially, “Hey, you don’t need to trespass. We’ll let you in.”  As an added draw, Hidden City puts art installations inside some of these vacant buildings. The hope is it’ll open some doors.

“People might find a new use for a space that way, someone that might want to rent it, a developer that is interested in having some partnership in the area,” says Tusman.

Then there are people like Matthew Christopher, who started Abandoned America, a website featuring photos of abandoned sites across the country. Lately he’s been hosting photography workshops inside old factories and retired cruise ships. “I think if people have legitimate means to go in and experience a place, nine out of 10 people are going to want to do it that way,” Christopher says.

But realtor Chip Watts gave people access to the Thomas Jefferson Hotel for three years, and things still went horribly wrong. People broke in to the place dozens of times, stealing stuff and vandalizing the hotel.

“We even had people that got into the property at night and shot off fireworks off the roof, and we even had a base jumper that jumped off the tower,” Watts says.

So he cut off access, put up boards and fences, and got bigger locks. 

But in the end, things seem to have worked out. The Thomas Jefferson Hotel is now under contract.

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