By Steve Sears
There is something unique about a ruin for a photographer. In fact, sometimes decaying structures, especially those that have a significant history and are encountered at a moment’s notice, may be more breathtaking than the beauty of nature.
Kevin Kowalick, New Jersey based photographer and co-owner with Kathryn Cataldo of K and K NJ Photo (www.kandknjphoto.com), has lived that experience. Both, in addition to their love of picture taking, are historical buffs, and Kowalick happened upon a gem during an Essex County drive.
“I was like, ‘Wow! What is that?’ says Kowalick, describing his feelings when first seeing the abandoned Essex County Overbrook Hospital in Cedar Grove. “It was sitting in what I would typically refer to as suburbia, beautifully manicured lawns and houses, and then all of the sudden here’s this massive facility with broken windows, boards on the doors, vines growing all over it. I pulled over and said, ‘Whoa – what is it?’”
It was a warm summer night at sunset, the sky a nice mix of colors. Kowalick had his setting, so he pulled over, and took out his camera. “I started taking pictures right away. Ever since then I’ve been fascinated with researching it. Then, finding out such a place had such a huge history, and contributed to not only the history of Essex County but also the history of New Jersey as a whole, and mental healthcare in the United States.”
“Now it’s actually completely demolished at this point,” says Kowalick. “But it was abandoned for many years.”
Overbrook Hospital, per Kowalick, was very large, larger than a lot of state hospitals, and was the largest county hospital in the state. “At one point in time, each county had a facility for mental health care.” A new Essex County Hospital Center now stands at Grove Avenue, behind the original spot of Overbrook Hospital.
Essex County Overbrook Hospital offers a historical outline of the facility, and in the last chapter focuses on the facility’s abandonment. Kowalick an wrote all the captions to the photos, researched all the history. “The biggest part of the book,” says Kowalick, “was compiling historical photos to show the hospital’s inception which was in 1896 to its demolition. So, she (Cataldo) really helped me by going to the Essex County Library in Newark and we had to scan in their images. She was mostly in charge of the images while I was mostly in charge of researching the history and basically compiling that into captions.” While the legwork was significant, the duo met many county officials and historians that offered much information on the hospital center and had valuable personal connections as well.
Kowalick, who often does presentations about the facility and the book, and on March 27 visited the Cedar Grove Historical Society and presented a program, “Overbrook – Inception to Today”, first wrote a proposal to Arcadia Publishing, the same folks who publish a series of books about cities, towns, and histories in New Jersey. His job was to prove to them why the facility was historic and why he should write a book about it. They immediately responded with interest, and Kowalick then developed an outline of chapters. He was then given a contract, and that was the point the hunt for photos began. The publisher required many of them. “Those are kind of hard to come by,” he says. So began the treks to the Essex County Library, local historians, and the new Essex County Hospital Center, where and Kowalick and Cataldo found most of their photos. The photos were scanned in and formatted, and then Kowalick started to visit libraries, sitting for hours researching the history. “The library in Newark had a collection of their annual report on Overbrook, which is basically everything from finances to deaths to the amount of lobotomies they did per year. That was the most welcome information on the history of the facility.” Kowalick then supplied captions to the photos, and the project was sent to press.
The most difficult part of the process? Dating everything. “There were certain aspects that were really hard to find history of, whether it was a certain date that was construed within different pieces of work, and that was kind of frustrating, because history that dates back that far, is up to interpretation to an extent,” Kowalick says. “No one living right now can prove it and say, ‘Yes, I remember that.’ You’re looking at 1896, when it was built.”
“I wanted to put out the best work possible. I want to make sure this is accurate as possible, that it’s the best resource people can grab. That weight is on my shoulders since I want to put out a quality historical interpretation, so that was the toughest part. Certain reports said one thing, certain books said one thing, and they were not the same thing.”
Kowalick is a freelance photographer, and much of the work he and Cataldo do include weddings, animals and pets, natural settings, and facilities such as public buildings, the latter purchased by many towns. Kowalick, who has a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from DeSales University, also is into marketing and promotions, which he immensely enjoys. “That worked with the book very well. I’m very active in trying to schedule events where I go and talk about history and facts. There are a lot of people interested, and I just engage with the community. I’ve been fascinated that there are so many people engaged and interested in the particular topic of the institution.”
His interest in photography is the expression of creativity in what he captures in a photo. “Anyone can look out their window, but if you get a couple of photographers, each may get a different shot and say to another, ‘I didn’t look at it from that perspective.’ It’s an interpretation of creativity and, for as long as I can remember, I’ve been interested in photography. I remember early on buying film at the grocery store and then taking it to get the film developed. It was nothing like what you have now. But then it just progressed.” He then recalls his first spotting of Overbrook. “That first time, many years ago – and it was probably 8 or 9 years ago that I drove past Overbrook – that’s what really inspired me, when I saw that, to get the next top of the line camera. I said, ‘I gotta capture this.’ To that point I had never seen anything like that.”
“It’s all about being able to capture something and being able to express it the way you saw it.”
Kowalick, 26, and Cataldo, 27, are now considering doing a book about facilities throughout the entire state instead of just one institution, but Kowalick values the project the he and she worked hard on, and the memory of the hospital itself. “Overbrook,” he says, “is long gone. That’s why I thought the book was so important, because I wanted to make sure its history was preserved in some way. Every trace of it is gone. If you drive past it, the spot on Fairview Avenue, you’ll have no idea it was ever there.”