- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 14, 2009

BALTIMORE (AP) | Dusty, moth-chewed cashmere sport coats and nearly rotten expensive men’s suits hang from racks and line the floors of the abandoned Lebow Brothers factory as rotary-dial phones sit silently beside payroll records locked up 20 years ago.

That’s what Chris Folsom and fellow urban explorer Chris Piergalline see as they creep through the abandoned suit factory on Oliver Street near Green Mount Cemetery in East Baltimore. But the two men sneaked past padlocks installed during a closure two decades ago for adventure, photographs and a sense of history.

“The Lebow factory is one of the scariest places,” said Mr. Piergalline, 29. “You have no idea who’s taking up residence in it. The rain has poured in and the solid wood floor looks like waves of the ocean. You do get a bit of a rush from it - a random sense of excitement. It’s the darkness, the strange noises.”

Mr. Folsom, 31, who lives in Catonsville, said some of his photos have drawn as much as 100,000 views of images he’s taken while traipsing - and trespassing, according to police - in abandoned urban buildings. He said the unique architecture of the city’s industrial history is crumbling into oblivion as progress develops neighborhoods and demolishes older structures.

He knows “there is an invasive quality to what we do,” but he said they “never get a negative reaction to it.” One reason might be the respect they have for the vacant structures.

“We leave the place the way we found it,” said Mr. Folsom. “I feel there is a need to document these buildings just as they were left and before they are renovated or torn down. They are a piece of the city’s history.”

Mr. Folsom is not against progress or improvement. “I just like to see the original character left … I don’t want Baltimore to have a cookie-cutter look on every block,” he said.

He doesn’t have to worry about that at the gritty Lebow site with windows boarded up on the dilapidated building with weedy trees taking root near the 100-year-old factory’s roof.

Harry Lebow, grandson of the clothing firm’s founder, said it’s a shame that suits once sold at Saks and Neiman Marcus rot away near stilled sewing machines, presses and yellowing calendars that reflect days that don’t matter. Sunlight comes in through broken windows, some of them covered with colorful film that creates occasionally vibrant colors in the dank, dusty factory.

Seeing what hasn’t been seen in years or decades has also led Mr. Folsom and Mr. Piergalline to get inside the old Henryton state hospital campus, St. Mary’s College in Ilchester, a former Roman Catholic seminary once run by the Redemptorist fathers and the old Hebrew Orphan Asylum in the Calverton section of West Baltimore.

“It’s a very real city. Everything is intermingled. The good and the bad are within a block of one another,” Mr. Folsom said.

A recent trip to Highlandtown’s National Beer campus to climb in a building there showed how quickly neighborhoods can change or combine. From the building, they saw a Panera Bread nearby, a sign of how quickly the neighborhood was leaving behind its industrial past for a less unique, maybe even blandly familiar, future.

“It’s like we were too late,” Mr. Folsom said.

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