By Jill Draper
Urban explorer Regina Daniel wonders what happened that caused a private school in south Kansas City to close so abruptly that an entire library of books remains. Also left behind are classroom chairs, a carousel slide projector and cafeteria dishes. Posted diagrams show the human skeletal system and how to find the area of a rectangle, while hallway signs exclaim “Welcome back!” and “Leave your shoes neatly by the wall,” with a follow-up quip in parentheses, “Don’t take better ones on your way out.”
At one time the preK-12 Universal Academy Islamic School at 10515 Grandview Road enrolled 113 boys and girls. It was established in 1989, but Daniel isn’t sure why it closed in 2015, admitting, “There are times when I’m looking for information and I hit a wall.”
Urban explorers or urbexers are usually young, white men who visit abandoned or hidden structures as a pastime. Some enter buildings just to tear them up. “But there are a lot of good ones out there, too, and quite a few of them are women,” Daniel says. “I like the stories these places tell about what they used to be.”
Like many urbexers, Daniel photographs the sites she visits. She has published two books in her “Abandoned Kansas City” series and a third volume is underway. On Wednesday, Jan. 20, she’ll present a livestream Facebook talk through the Mid-Continent Public Library in partnership with the University of Missouri Extension Community Arts Program. The talk begins at 6:30 p.m.
Her photos of abandoned sites are tributes to their storied past, she says. And more often than she likes, the tributes serve a dual purpose as obituaries. Her books contain many snapshots of structures—schools, houses, churches, warehouses— that no longer exist.
“There’s no money behind restorations for most places,” says the suburban mother of two who lives in Liberty. “Nine times out of ten it’s just cheaper to tear it down, which is a damn shame.”
Sometimes Daniel gets permission to enter buildings and sometimes she finds an unlocked door. Once she attended an auction to view an old mansion near Ward Parkway, hanging back from the crowd to photograph the empty rooms. “I don’t break in, but I bend the rules a little,” she says. “I have a flashlight, but no tools.”
Abandoned buildings are not always empty. Daniel is often shocked at the wasted resources that remain—pallets of shrink-wrapped computers, vending machines, furniture, toys and forklifts. One of her stranger discoveries was a group of medical mannequin butts at a former Midtown hotel that later housed a hospital and proctology practice.
“I’m a really big recycler. I understand everything can’t be saved, but there should be more accountability,” she says. “Any part that can be utilized should be utilized.” She cites the demolition of the Knickerbocker Apartments in the Valentine neighborhood as exemplary, noting that even bricks were stacked and set aside for reuse.
Items left behind can be troubling for other reasons. In 2018 Daniel alerted Fox 4 News after discovering hundreds of personal documents containing social security numbers, birth certificates and medical records scattered on floors and filed in cabinets at the Islamic school. “I was very upset. That was just an open invitation for the wrong person,” she says. The documents were later removed by authorities. Graffiti is ubiquitous where she explores, and so are the homeless, who usually find a way in. Daniel avoids intruding into their living quarters, and often brings bags filled with snacks, cans of soup and toilet paper as a good will gesture.
“I’ve been in some of the roughest neighborhoods without any problems. I’ve had a gun pulled on me once—at an old mansion near Longview Lake in Lee’s Summit,” she says. She left immediately.
Daniel first became interested in urban exploring after watching a TV reality series, “Forgotten Planet: Abandoned America.” The premier episode focused on two cities abandoned due to industrial disasters—Pripyat, Ukraine, near the Chernobyl nuclear plant and Picher, Oklahoma, a former center for lead and zinc mining. Picher has been called the most toxic town in America, and is the subject of her second photo book.
Most urbex communities are secretive about the locations they explore. Daniel has connections to the local network, but also researches public records, libraries, historical societies and GPS satellite images. She enjoys meeting people who have firsthand experiences with the places in her books. One that touched her own life was the Ramada Inn on Universal Avenue. She attended horror movie conventions there, began friendships in the hallways and later stood on the stage to get married. The owner abandoned the hotel and left the country in 2016. Daniel photographed the property’s rapid decline when vandals stripped everything of value and made a rubble of ceilings and floors. After two fires and the discovery of two dead bodies, it was finally demolished. Other buildings and structures have luckier fates and are restored for a new function. There are plans to turn the vacant Marlborough Elementary School into apartments, for example, and she’s hopeful that will happen.
“Each location was once full of life,” she writes. “Now all those places sit empty with the wind whistling through broken windows, waiting for their next chance to serve a purpose, or else face the chopping block.” Whatever the outcome, she considers her work “a testament to beautiful decay.”