Abandoned Faith: The Aesthetics of Religious Ruins
Perhaps the most compelling abandonment art evokes emotional absence, the literal loss of people if not whole ways of life that once inhabited the buildings, communities, and discrete places in ruin art. Mental hospitals and schools, for instance, are routinely featured by photographers because they once housed emotionally intense experiences, be it the depths of mental illness and the despair of incarceration or the innocence of childhood and the hopefulness of education. Those powerful but ephemeral feelings are in some ways heightened in hindsight by the decay of the buildings themselves, whose decaying shells help us see change and imagine what has been lost. In many cases ruined spaces aesthetically evoke social “illnesses,” like the stigmatization of mental illness and the health care abuses implied in the shell of an asylum; the decline of industry underscored in an abandoned factory; or the changes in mass leisure and post-war suburbanization that led to the collapse of grand city theaters.
Few abandonment sites paint more compelling if idiosyncratic emotional absences than Holy Land USA, a Waterbury, Connecticut religious park that closed in 1984. Abandonment art routinely depicts amusement parks, whose ruins cast a captivating aesthetics of imaginative play and imply a certain innocence. Yet Holy Land USA breaks from the conventional amusement park in both its subject matter and the materiality of the decaying park. The park has been the focus of numerous abandonment artists and urban explorers drawn to the host of eroding Holy Land dioramas. Amusement parks often figure in abandonment art since its meanings are rooted in pleasure even as their ruins tragically underscore the advance of nature.
Holy Land USA is also a compelling symbol of faith, and perhaps even more so in decline than it may have had at its height as a tourist attraction in the 1960s and 1970s. Abandonment artists routinely examine churches, which symbolize something ostensibly timeless, capture the depth of hope invested in some spaces, and evoke both the consequence of faith and the decline of religion. Like amusement parks littered with aesthetically novel and fascinating things, churches provide exceptionally powerful aesthetic spaces, especially in decline: church spaces can be visually arresting, often-monumental shells through which light streams in captivating ways through now-absent congregations. Just as amusement parks often reveal the shifts in mass-consumed leisure in the 21st century, churches document the 20th-century city, forlorn in many neighborhoods depopulated by choice and circumstance alike. Abandonment art paints churches as symbols of the collapse of the urban core, and the ruin’s symbolism as a dead space shallowly intones the decline of religion itself.
Holy Land USA was the inspiration of Waterbury lawyer John B. Greco, a devout Catholic who began construction of the park in 1956 with the ambition to “bring people closer to God.” Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and various biblical stories were represented by unique, handmade figures and structures whose mixed scales, hand-crafted style, and decorative deities might be interpreted as both kitsch and craft. The park was roughly akin to the sacri monti (i.e., sacred mountains) that dotted Italy during the late 15th and early 18th centuries. Like Greco’s Holy Land, the sacri monti recreated the Holy Land for pilgrims unable to venture to the near East. Greco and a team of volunteers made the park’s dioramas representing Biblical moments including Bethlehem, Daniel in the Lions’ den, and the hilltop of the Crucifixion, crafting the exhibits from whatever they had on hand. In 2005 the Hartford Courant indicated that the distinctive Holy Land ruins “featured a non-working, doorless upright freezer housing a statue of Jesus with the Sacred Heart, and a Garden of Eden display consisting of naked mannequins — Adam and Eve — amid fake plants inside a mobile home.”
Greco had traveled in the Near East and visited some of the spaces represented in his park, but the park borrowed from popular cultural symbolism and pure imagination alike. The park’s hillside, for instance, was covered with an illuminated Holy Land USA sign like the Hollywood letters, and in 1997 a Boy Scout project restored the letters. Yet other displays like Herod’s Palace had no stylistic reference to any classical architectural form and instead looked like a modest shed laid out on a putt-putt course. After Greco’s death the park was inherited by a Catholic religious order, falling into disrepair even as its idiosyncratic style attracted photographers and repelled style arbiters. In 2002, for instance, the New York Times indicated that “the gray plaster Temple of Jerusalem, affectionately called `unhistorical and funky’ by one local religious scholar, now more closely resembles a prop from a Japanese monster movie.” The Times described the park as “Catholic-oriented religious kitsch — much of it miniaturized and built with scrap machine parts.” The Daily Show dispatched Stephen Colbert to the scene in 2002, examining the disagreements over the park’s preservation and the projection of kitsch onto faith.
Unlike kitsch, though, Holy Land USA certainly seems not to have been fabricated as intentionally garish excess; instead, it looms as heartfelt folk art whose symbolism seems melodramatic only because it was proselytizing, and appeals to the soul rarely are articulated with subtlety. Pictures of Greco’s park now expose its hand-crafted essence of chicken wire figures, recycled plywood, machine parts, and paper mache now eroding into the Connecticut hillside. In 2008 the eroding 56-foot cross planted on the hilltop was replaced by a 50-foot steel cross, but the remainder of the park appears to be in relatively rapid decline. The ruins of Holy Land USA depart from utterly commercial material shows of faith consumption (e.g., The Holy Land Experience), and in its decline Holy Land USA paints a compelling aesthetic of faith and folk art. Like the most compelling ruins, it provides a visually arresting evocation of absence, in this case evoking the proselytizers and pilgrims who once trooped through the park.
Holy Land USA References
Deserted Religious Theme Park Izismile
Help Save Holy Land USA facebook
Holy Land Shaun O’Boyle
Holy Land USA agilitynut
Holy Land USA Amy O’Neill
Holy Land USA bdodge
Holy Land USA Bill Franson Photography
Holy Land USA Center for Land Use Interpretation
Holy Land USA Deserted Places blog
Holy Land USA Huffington Post
Holy Land USA I Think that I Would Die
Holy Land USA Institutional Green
Holy Land USA New England Journal for Aesthetic Research
Holy Land USA Roadside America
Holy Land USA Roadside America flickr page
Holy Land USA This is Connecticut
Holy Land, USA: From place of pilgrimage to creepy destination Washington Times
Holy Land USA Then and Now jenniferrt66 flick’r page
The Catholic Transcript Online 2008 Cross May Spark Revival of Holy Land USA. The Catholic Transcript Online
Frances Chamberlain 2001 The View From/Waterbury; A Hilltop Landmark Undergoes a Revival. New York Times 4 November.
Martin Kearns 1986 Man Who Built Waterbury’s Holy Land USA Dies. The Hartford Courant 11 March:B1.
Ann Marie Somma 2005 At Holy Land USA, A Vision Crumbles: Waterbury’s Faded Monument Of Religious Kitsch Is Still Controversial. Hartford Courant 28 August.
Paul Zielbauer 2002 A Sight That Inspires Ambivalence; Ruins of a Religious Park Await Restorers or the Bulldozer. The New York Times 12 November.
Good Samaritan Inn image courtesy Cousin Dave