Between Darkness & Light | Muskoka Regional Centre

Among explorers, there is always a favourite type of location to explore, photograph, and visit. Some love abandoned houses, others prefer industrial buildings, and then there is the institutional. Here in Ontario, we don’t have too many surviving institutions from the 19th and 20th Centuries; there are some, but most were all torn down or replaced with modern hospitals. So a chance to check out the Muskoka Regional Centre was one I was not going to miss when I met up with strangers from the Internet to drive nearly two hours north to Gravenhurst for a rather epic exploring adventure and eat at a questionable restaurant that resulted in some other folks getting food poisoning due to bad mushrooms.

Gage in Green
After only seeing the MRC in the winter, being able to go during the warmer months was a lovely treat.
Nikon D300 – AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm 1:2.8G

Tuberculosis, or the white plague, has been around since the days of the ancient Egyptian kings and has even been written about by the great historians of the Roman Empire. The earliest form of treatment of TB in the world was through isolation, usually in a place of high elevation and clean air. Known as Sanitariums, the first one in the world opened in Germany in 1854; it was also in Germany that the infectious bacteria was isolated in 1882. In Canada, the fight against TB became the personal mission of noted publishing giant William Gage. Gage, a key founder of the National Sanitarium Association, investigated a site in Canada to build a TB Sanitarium. While many were eyeing Toronto, the small northern Ontario town of Gravenhurst stepped up. The town offered up 10,000$, which was added to the 25,000$ offered up by Gage. The Muskoka Cottage Hospital opened in 1897; the high altitude distance from Toronto made it ideal for treating TB. These were the days before socialised medicine, and the new Cottage Hospital required those who sought treatment to pay for said treatment. In 1902, a smaller “Free Hospital” opened nearby that provided the same treatment for those unable to afford the fees of the Cottage Hospital. A fire in 1920 destroyed the cottage and the free hospitals, but they were quick to rebuild. The new modern facilities, the Gage Complex, opened in 1923. The complex had beds for 444 patients, surgical suites, laboratories, and support facilities. A second patient building, the Barbara Hayden, would be added in 1936

Dish Washing
The actual dishes were long gone, but the dishwashing trays were still present.
Nikon D300 – AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm 1:2.8G
Dining Area - Residents
What surprised me is how small the resident’s dining area is, but they probably ate in shifts.
Nikon D300 – AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm 1:2.8G
Clear Liquids
Over the course of exploring the MRC, I have seen this sign decay, and it became a ‘signature’ shot for me.
Nikon D300 – AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm 1:2.8G
If you like peeling paint, then the MRC had it in spades.
Nikon D300 – AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm 1:2.8G
Long Halls
You can clearly see the influence of Kubrick in my composition.
Nikon D300 – AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm 1:2.8G

The discovery of Streptomycin in 1944 allowed TB treatment in an urban environment without the need for isolation. The need for the Muskoka Sanitarium declined through the war and post-war period until it closed in 1960. The hospital reopened as the Muskoka Regional Centre, a satellite of the Orillia Regional Centre and focused on female patients. The place was a nightmare from the start; numbers were too much for the ageing buildings, and staff numbers were far too low. Muskoka houses anyone from those with serious mental illnesses to developmental conditions and disabilities. These resulted in a severe lack of care and abuse of the patients by those in authority. It became so bad that a 1985 report called for a zero-admission policy. The use of such places has declined since more as group home support was opened for many patients who would have gone to such hospitals. Muskoka Regional finally closed in 1994, although it would return to the spotlight in 2015. A lawsuit against the government of Ontario unearthed old wounds. It resulted in a multi-million dollar payout to the victims of abuse at Muskoka who were housed here from 1973 to 1993.

Natural Decay
The one downside to going in teh summer was the presence of all sorts of nasty smells and decay.
Nikon D300 – AF-S Nikkor 17-55mm 1:2.8G DX
Peeling 1
Green, Black, both ways, not good for the lungs.
Nikon D300 – AF-S Nikkor 17-55mm 1:2.8G DX
Peeling 2
When it doubt, just throw on another coat of paint.
Nikon D300 – AF-S Nikkor 17-55mm 1:2.8G DX
Peeling 3 (Caged)
Playing with depth of field.
Nikon D300 – AF-S Nikkor 17-55mm 1:2.8G DX
Peeling 5
Not sure what’s going on here, but I like it.
Nikon D300 – AF-S Nikkor 17-55mm 1:2.8G DX

Despite being a two-hour distance away, I was surprised at how often I got out to the MRC. There were a couple of reasons for this. I rather enjoyed the spot, and it was quiet and, despite being a high-value location, relatively easy to access. The first couple of times were group outings, mainly because we had some inside knowledge of when the safest times were to access the property. It was, at least initially, used by the OPP during the summer for training but was quiet in the winter and had no additional security on-site during the off-season. Parking could even be done on-site if the gate was open or openable. Off-site parking, while possible, did raise the possibility of neighbours calling on us, but that only happened sometimes. Once we were on site, we had almost free reign; the site had one main building (Gauge Building), a second one (Barbara Hayden), some smaller support buildings and a couple of houses. The Gauge Building offered the most to explorers, with long hallways, plenty of photographic opportunities, a beautiful view from the roof, and decay. During the times I spent on site, I often felt deeply sad; MRC is only one of a couple of sites where I felt the ‘spirit of place’. A lot of injury and harm was done here in the name of helping out. Historical context aside, it was done because it was the only way known to try and help those who, without these places, were abandoned and fell through the cracks. The first trip left me wanting more, so I joined several other trips through 2007 and 2008. However, during the 2008 trip, we encountered actual OPP dogs on site, which should not have happened. That spooked me enough to avoid the place until we learned that the OPP had left the property entirely. A random trip up north in 2010 with a failure at our first site left us with the choice to head back to the MRC. The space proved utterly different in the summer; that smell of abandoned buildings permeated the entire place as we wandered. This trip proved helpful because I could focus on my photography with a smaller group rather than worry about running into someone. The trip also saw me bring a square format camera, the Kiev 88CM. It was also fun 2011 running into a group of friends that had camped out on the property the night before and planned on spending the weekend on the property. My last trip in 2012 marked my return to visiting in the winter with a couple of out-of-country explorers. We took the risk, parked off-site, and hiked in, not realising the new owners were stationing on-site security. Our tell-tale footprints gave us away, and I got a text from another person in the group to leave as the Police were here; not hearing the alert was quickly discovered by an OPP constable who escorted me out. The security guard was irate because we got away scot-free with only one person being issued a ticket. We ended up paying him a part of said ticket. Throughout my trips to MRC, I spent most of the time in the Guage Building, sometimes got into one of the houses on the site and a bit in the support buildings. Sadly, I never got into the Barbara Hayden building. The one thing I will remember from my trips to the MRC was all the different explorers that I met on the various trips and many I still remain friends with today.

Paging Doctor Mercer
Another interesting part about the MRC, is that often the professional offices still had the name badges of the last occupants.
Rolleiflex 2.8F – Carl Zeiss Planar 80mm 1:2.8 – Kodak Verichrome Pan @ ASA-125 – Agfa Rodinal (1+100) 60:00 @ 20C (Stand Developed)
Door and Elevator
The elevator is laughably small, but with a rather cool indicator/call button.
Rolleiflex 2.8F – Carl Zeiss Planar 80mm 1:2.8 – Kodak Verichrome Pan @ ASA-125 – Agfa Rodinal (1+100) 60:00 @ 20C (Stand Developed)
By the end, the place was getting pretty nasty and unsound.
Rolleiflex 2.8F – Carl Zeiss Planar 80mm 1:2.8 – Kodak Verichrome Pan @ ASA-125 – Agfa Rodinal (1+100) 60:00 @ 20C (Stand Developed)
Ah yes, the lonely chair
Another explorer troupe, the lonely chair.
Rolleiflex 2.8F – Carl Zeiss Planar 80mm 1:2.8 – Kodak Verichrome Pan @ ASA-125 – Agfa Rodinal (1+100) 60:00 @ 20C (Stand Developed)
The Drain Shot (I always get it)
Another take on my usual drain shot.
Rolleiflex 2.8F – Carl Zeiss Planar 80mm 1:2.8 – Kodak Verichrome Pan @ ASA-125 – Agfa Rodinal (1+100) 60:00 @ 20C (Stand Developed)

Look through all my images from MRC. You can see an evident growth, and that’s because I have been able to use almost every single digital camera here, from my DiMAGE Z2 through to the D300. Yes, the a6000 is not present here, but I stopped going here when the camera entered rotation. I also shot a lot of films here, including a K1000 with XP2 Super, Kodak Verichrome Pan in the Rolleiflex (first time exploring with the Rollei), the Kyiv 88CM and even a Polaroid Auto Land Camera (the only time it went exploring). The one thing I see improving from the first to the last is my grasp of composition. My early works had severe problems with composition; lines were crooked, and the images were borning Thankfully, I did get better; by trip three, I had a proper SLR with both ultra-wide (Tamron 11-18) and macro-capable (Sigma 18-50) lenses, which certainly helped with executing my vision. I also had a better eye for composition and understanding of exposure, working more with manual and aperture priority to help get everything in or out of focus. It also got me thinking of the details, with all the delightful peeling paint. My attention to the details was helped along by the “clear liquids” Dynmo label in the one dining hall that always drew my attention. In fact, I got a shot of that each time I went. The MRC also helped me understand the use of the square format in composition, which is tricky, and some people are only fans of it sometimes. But limiting yourself to a ‘normal’ lens and square format can help with learning better composition and not always relying on an ultra-wide lens. My favourite images are from my final trip to the MRC; I didn’t end up with many shots from that trip in 2012, both in the raw photos and even the edited and posted set. Now, there are a couple of reasons for this. First, I was starting to get careful about when I pressed the shutter, but also because the trip was interrupted by the OPP. The images from my first trip were featured in a small gallery show in Milton back in 2008, and one of the people who came had been a nurse at the MRC and recognised several of the shots.

Clean and Decay
There had certainly been some attempt to clean up the hallways from the mush of the drop ceiling tiles.
Nikon D300 – AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm 1:2.8G
Lonely & Broken (II)
A section I did not explore much until the end, and a lovely wood and glass panel near the main entrance.
Nikon D300 – AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm 1:2.8G
A rather interesting piece I only came across at the end, an old fireplace that had been bricked up.
Nikon D300 – AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm 1:2.8G
Looking down a rather dark hall, new hording had gone up.
Nikon D300 – AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm 1:2.8G
This was the last photo I ever took at the MRC, shortly after I was escorted out by an OPP constable.
Nikon D300 – AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm 1:2.8G

Muskoka is one of two places where my time exploring it was cut short by the law, the other being Hearn. By the time I stopped, I had run through the place and had nothing else to see. I’m sure I would have risked one final trip if we had not been caught, and I found out that the Barbra Hayden building had opened up. I learned a lot about the history of mental health in Canada by exploring the MRC in person and through actual research. And I did seriously grow as a photographer through my various trips here. If you want to see all the images from my time exploring the MRC, including from the earliest trips to the last one over on Flickr.

1 Comment

  1. A delightful read and I can imagine the place is a smorgasbord of image opportunities. Thank you for sharing, Antonius

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