Atlas Obscura visiting the Times Square New Year's Eve Ball in 2013 (photograph by Allison Meier)
As we reach the end of 2014, we are celebrating an incredible year of the Obscura Society. Over the past 12 months, the events branch of Atlas Obscura has hosted a cocktail party in a crypt, falcon flying in the desert, a rogue taxidermy fair, and a stargazing evening at an observatory. While our events this year were mostly based in New York City and Los Angeles, we're thrilled to be launching an Illinois Obscura Society focused on Chicago and beyond in 2015, as well as extensive events in Washington, DC, and Philadelphia.
Below are some of our favorite events of the year. Thanks so much to each and every adventurous soul who joined us on these gatherings and made them such an extraordinary success! We are so inspired for the year ahead. And we are always thrilled to have new people at the Obscura Society. Join our mailing lists for New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago to find out first about our next gatherings, and keep an eye on the events listings as we go behind-the-scenes at museums, step into abandoned spaces, learn about curious history, and get hands-on with the world's hidden wonders.
Eastern State Penitentiary (photograph by Michelle Enemark)
[January 11] Obscura Society NYC hit the road, heading to Philadelphia to view the medical oddities of the Mütter Museum, the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site, and take a tour off-limits at the dilapidated Eastern State Penitentiary. (Event produced by Megan Roberts, Head of Obscura Society NYC)
Allis Markham's taxidermy studio (photograph by Erin Johnson)
[March 22] Obscura Society LA visited Allis Markham at her new taxidermy studio in downtown Los Angeles. Markham performed a skinning demonstration on an arctic fox pup and shared behind-the-scenes stories about death at the zoo, flesh eating beetles, and a secret diorama hall at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. (Event produced by Erin Johnson, Head of the Obscura Society LA)
Lock Picking Party (photograph by Steven Acres)
[March 28] Obscura Society NYC invited master lock pick Schuyler Towne to the John M. Mossman Lock Collection of the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen. 300 guests received a crash course in picking locks and their very own kit of tools. In between sipping cocktails and dancing to Jason Prover and the Sneak Thievery Orchestra, attendees spent the evening practicing their new skill set amidst the grandeur of the two-tiered reading room and the world's largest collection of vintage bank vault locks. (Event produced by Megan Roberts, Head of Obscura Society NYC)Read More
photograph by Alessio Mesiano/Flickr
Barely a month after opening, Milan's Bosco Verticale has won the 2014 International Highrise Award, a biannual prize given by the City of Frankfurt and Deutsches Architekturmuseum. The jury called the towers "a striking example of a symbiosis of architecture and nature,” and jury president Christoph Ingenhoven added that the project is “an expression of the human need for contact with nature."
The towers were originally proposed in 2011 by architect Stefano Boeri as part of his BioMilano: six ideas for a bio-diverse metropolis. Bosco Verticale, which means "vertical forest," comprises two 27-story luxury high-rise residential towers teeming with cantilevered balconies and planted with almost 900 trees and more than 2,000 shrubs and bushes. His firm describes the towers as "a model for a sustainable residential building, a project for metropolitan reforestation that contributes to the regeneration of the environment and urban biodiversity."Read More
ROC Wide Angle Camera mosaic of the lunar South Pole region (photograph by NASA/Wikimedia)
The UK scientists and engineers behind Lunar Mission One successfully completed a £670,000 (nearly $1 million) Kickstarter campaign this week. As reported in Popular Science, the funds will support the start of a decade-long project to send an unmanned landing module to the Moon's less-explored south pole, where it will drill deep into the surface to access 4.5-billion-year-old rock. The module will also leave something behind: a 21st-century time capsule containing a thorough record of life on Earth as well as millions of personal "digital memory boxes."
The goal of the project is to "discover the geological composition of the Moon, the ancient relationship it shares with our planet, and the effects of asteroid bombardment," in order to increase our understanding of how the Moon and the Earth were formed, as well as their relationship to one another and to our solar system. The Lunar Mission team will also be investigating the possibility of building a permanently manned base on the Moon, and the project will strive to engage more young people in space exploration and the STEM fields.Read More
A centuries-old stone wall, stretching for miles; enormous pictures scratched into the ground of a desert; rocks arranged in a circle. You know what these landmarks are, right?
Guess again. Instead of the Great Wall of China or Stonehenge, these are all ancient American ruins and landmarks. The United States is a relative newcomer to the world stage, but there have been people long living on this continent, and they've left traces of their presence just as mysterious as those found in other countries.
MYSTERY HILL (aka "AMERICA'S STONEHENGE")
Salem, New Hampshire
Mystery Hill, New Hampshire (photograph by Rwike77/Flickr)
Although locals sometimes call this "America’s Stonehenge," Mystery Hill bears little resemblance to the English megalith. Instead, it's a complex of stone structures and artificial caves, most likely only as old as the 17th century. However, exact dating may never be possible, as the ruins suffered from tampering at the hands of a 1930s landowner who was convinced the structures were the remains of a 7th-century Irish monastic colony. So convinced, in fact, that if parts of the site didn't match his theory, he'd "fix" them.
The site's "mysterious" reputation has made it a popular tourist attraction for decades, and it's even earned some pop culture fame — H.P. Lovecraft reportedly visited the site for inspiration, and The X-Files set one episode nearby.
CASA GRANDE RUINS
Casa Grande, Arizona (photograph by midiman/Flickr)
Archaeologists understand some things about Casa Grande in Arizona. They know that it was probably constructed in the early 13th century, that the builders used adobe, and that the full complex included several other adobe structures and a ball court, and was once surrounded by a wall.
What they don’t know is what the four-story central building was for: a guard tower, a grain silo, a house of worship, or something else. The site was abandoned nearly half a century before Columbus's voyage to the Americas, long after the nearby Hopi had moved away, and was too ruined for early Spanish explorers to do their own investigating into what it was.
Today the main building is under a protective roof built by Civil Conservation Corps workers in the 1930s, and the full ruins are a federally-protected national park — the first such park in the United States.Read More
The Ramsgate Tunnels (all photographs by the author)
The Ramsgate Tunnels in England were reopened this May after 75 years of lying dormant. Originally known as the "Tunnel Railway," a narrow gauge track that connected neighboring Broadstairs to Ramsgate, it went through a variety of guises over the years, from WWII facility to tourist attraction.
In 1939, after much campaigning and persuasion, the tunnels were expanded as an air raid shelter, a system that extended beyond the initial narrow gauge tunnel and into a whole series of offshoots. The entrances were spread across the town enabling anyone, at any place in the town, to enter the shelter in under five minutes should the alarm sound. They were also cleverly concealed in order to not stand out in the event of a blackout and could accommodate up 60,000 people — Ramsgate’s population was only approximately half that. Though they were built as a preemptive measure, and were thought by some to be an unnecessary luxury and an indulgence by the “Mad Mayor” Aldemore, the Ramsgate tunnels proved invaluable during the war.
Being a costal and port town, facing France, Ramsagate was a clear target for aerial attacks in WWII. On one particularly memorable air raid, 500 bombs were dropped in under ten minutes causing devastation to the town, but incurring a fatality count as low as 11 because of the sheer expanse of the network. The vast majority of the townspeople were so far underground they could not even hear the bombs going off overhead.
Some markings left by old and new visitors
The tunnels were initially intended to provide a place to hide safely and sleep overnight in one of the pre-bookable bunks; it became more of permanent settlement than many intended. When you go and visit the tunnels today, you can see some reconstruction settlements at various stages. As you approach the mouth of the tunnel you are met with a WWII era café — “The Ratz” — playing 1940s music and offering hot drinks and tea cakes, necessary if you have braved the walk along the beach on a winter’s day.Read More