I drummed my fingers against the steering wheel, sure that we were close. After several more wrong turns through the housing development, I spotted an elegant white building rising above the uninspiring McMansions.
I’d heard of Selma back in 2013 when a Tumblr-famous photographer caused quite a stir with his gorgeous shots of slim girls reclining among the house’s epic decay. Although he refused to disclose the location (a typical practice to avoid too much damage to an abandoned property), it was easy enough to pinpoint the location.
Now, back in America, I was ready to see the place for myself.
Even in one of the country’s wealthiest counties, historical beauties like Selma Manor continue to fall deeper and deeper into disrepair. Lack of funds, proper authority, and simple interest all ensure that a gorgeous, 113-year-old home will sooner face a collapsed wall than a much-needed restoration process. Worst of all, almost no one knows what’s happening.
And that’s why it’s so important to continue urban exploring. Brush off your fear of snakes wriggling through the tall grass, get used to cruising little-used back roads for a peek of slow decay, and bring attention to the institutions lost to the ravages of time. Otherwise, nature might just swallow up the stunning architecture and thrilling tales of our collective past.
All of this comes down to the simple fact that, for the most part, urban explorers are not scheming wrong-doers. We are not vandals. We’re more interested in uncovering history and taking a few photos than breaking glass or hosting late night parties. Urban explorers – young people with a little recklessness in their soul – are exactly what our collective, forgotten history needs.
The inevitable march of progress – whether good or bad – constantly threatens to eradicate history. Any attention brought back to history’s slow decay is culturally important.
So let’s explore.
Selma Estate was once a massive 10,000 acre property overlooking the virgin land around the Catoctin Mountain. Owned by Armistead Thomson Mason (a prolific dueler and incidentally the youngest person to ever serve in the senate a good two years before the legal age), the current Selma house is actually a second home on the property built in 1902 after the early 19th-century original burned down in a fire.
After Mason died at the hands of his cousin in a politically-motivated duel, the house and lands were passed down to Mason’s only son. The harebrained son quickly frittered his fortune away and was forced to sell Selma near the end of the 1800s. The estate was passed through many hands until developers got their hands on it in 1989. The house was never lived in again although it was used as a wedding venue until about 2002.
We did not venture inside, nor should you. Attempts have been made to firmly board up the house; although there are some obvious points of entry, respect the wishes of those attempting to preserve the house. To see the gorgeous interior of the home, check out this wedding shoot or this cool photoset.
With the former owner of Selma (as I understand, the same company that built up the housing development around the estate) bankrupt as of 2009, Selma has been put on the Virginia Endangered Site List and runs the continued risk of going nowhere but down. I think it’s so important to bring attention (and hopefully money!) to places like Selma. Here’s how you can do it respectfully:
Contact local preservation societies
To not only enter historical places respectfully (and legally) but to get the richest experience possible, it’s always worth reaching out to the organizations associated with the property. Many old buildings of historic note have the backing of preservation societies or maybe even local government.
Getting in touch with people to secure legal entry isn’t always possible, but many time it’s easier than you might think. I’ve tried reaching out to the preservation organization dealing with Selma for ages but have never heard anything so I decided to venture out on my own. For houses, looking up local tax records to find the owners is a breeze – and you’d be surprised how many people are amenable to the idea.
Be aware you may be doing something wrong
Some buildings of true historical value are actually still open to the public, despite their obvious decline. Many are not. Aside from the obvious physical dangers of venturing into an unmaintained building, there is also a large risk of falling onto the wrong side of the law.
Before attempting any exploration, do your research beforehand and remember: seeing those ‘No Trespassing’ signs means that whatever you’re doing – no matter how respectfully – is not legal.
Look – but don’t touch
The simple rule of thumb is this: leave everything exactly as you’ve found it. There’s nothing more disappointing than finding a stately old abandoned building to check out that’s been ruined by graffiti and trash everywhere. Don’t take items out of the buildings and don’t leave anything extra – particularly when there are obvious attempts to save a location from further decline. The shattered windows at Selma were a real disappointment.
Check out this practical urban exploring guide from the master of photographing beautiful abandoned pieces of history, Nate from Yomadic.
Have you ever come across a piece of history on the decline? Is anything done to save pieces of history where you’re from?