Overbrook
The Essex County Mental Hospital in Cedar Grove is a complex system of structures and tunnels. Built in 1896, it housed thousands of patients through the 1950s. The hospital closed in 2007 with very few patients seeking its care. COURTESY WHEELER ANTABANEZ

Words of Overbrook

Reading and signing by author Wheeler Antabanez
Sunday, Oct. 21, 2 p.m.

West Caldwell Public Library, 30 Clinton Road, West Caldwell

Free, but reservations required by calling Ethan Galvin, 973-226-5441, or emailing ethan.galvin@westcaldwell.bccls.org

By MARK S. PORTER
For Montclair Local

Wheeler Antabanez of Montclair has spent much of his 41 years exploring the facilities of the Essex County Mental Hospital in Cedar Grove and the complex of tunnels connecting the asylum’s many structures.

Growing up in West Caldwell, Antabanez would careen his moped over the rutted, abandoned Erie Railroad offshoot that extended from Jersey City to the asylum, located on Fairview Avenue near Route 23.

Antabanez will read from his book of free-verse, “Words of Overbrook,” at the West Caldwell Public Library on Sunday, Oct. 21.

Once inside, usually attained through entering a tunnel or a large conduit located along the property’s perimeter, the youth would peruse the asylum’s activities and operations. Built in 1898, it housed thousands of patients through the 1950s. The hospital, complex covering 300 acres, closed in 2007, with very few patients seeking its care.

Overbrook operated a farm for its thousands of patients, along with a mammoth power plant. Many patients wandered through the property. Beyond the imposing brick and masonry multi-story structures stood a gazebo where musicians often performed for the patients and staff gathered on the lawn.

It’s a fascination for Antabanez that verges on fixation. In recent years, after the hospital was shut, Antabanez documented the abandoned structures inside and out with images and videos.

He’s taken pictures of Overbrook artifacts, remnants and rubble as the wrecking cranes demolished the hospital complex, gazebo included. The buildings were demolished in July.

Some of the property is now part of two parks — County Hilltop Reservation and Cedar Grove Park. The rest is being redeveloped into townhouses.

“It’s gone. Overbrook Asylum, rest in peace,” said Antabanez last Thursday evening as he stood outside the fence surrounding the facility. In the darkness loomed enormous piles of

overbrook
WHEELER ANTABANEZ

bricks, wood and other debris.

Antabanez has penned a scream-of-consciousness book focused on the facility’s demise. He is wrathful about its razing, perceiving that at least some of the historic structures should have been preserved.

“All this fine detail in the old structures. It’s all gone. This thing stood for a hundred years. It could have stood another hundred years with proper maintenance. It was built incredibly sound,” Antabanez maintained. “What happened to our aesthetics? We used to build things with pride. Now, we just build them.”

“Words of Overbrook” is Antabanez’s free-verse diatribe about the years-long demolition of the huge asylum. Owned by Essex County, some of the hospital’s property has been converted into a park, but much of its acreage has been sold to a developer on the verge of constructing hundreds of townhouses.

His “words” include predictions of spirits rising from the asylum’s tract and infesting the homes slated to be built there. “There’s a lot of death and pain up here,” said Antabanez as he stood outside the property’s gate. “All the bricks that held them here have been knocked apart. The ghosts will re-acclimate themselves in the townhouses. Stuff will start happening in your cabinets.”

“Words of Overbrook,” which will be released on Oct. 1,  is based on Antabanez’s spoken-word recording that has the same title. His nine free-verse presentations meld with images of the facility when it was operating, and then in its abandonment. He credits his wife, Sara Kent, with the acumen to augment words with images, some of them creatively Photoshopped. Antabanez hand-wrote his words atop or alongside the images.

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And there are pictures of Antabanez when he was growing up in West Caldwell and bore the name of Matthew David Kent.

A nightmare impelled his name change: “It was from a dream of a bird pecking a hole in my forehead into my skull. It screamed the name ‘Wheeler Antabanez!’ into my head.”

Bird images are in “Words of Overbrook.” Leading off each chapter is an image of vultures perched or flying within the asylum property.

One of the chapters, or poems, “Turning Point,” deals with his teenage years attending a weekly Narcotics Anonymous gathering held in Overbrook’s MICA Ward, the acronym standing for “mentally ill, chemically addicted.” Nineteen years old, Kent, aka Antabanez, was fascinated with the NA meetings being held late at night in the asylum. NA members would light scores of candles to augment the eerie ambiance. When the session concluded, he recalled, attendees would ride to the Pilgrim Diner in Cedar Grove or the Nevada Diner in Bloomfield and guzzle coffee for hours.

As an “urban explorer” walking through Overbrook’s buildings, Antabanez said he only experienced one really spooky incident. About 12 years old, he and a friend were on an upper floor of an abandoned asylum structure when they spotted a male figure ducking around the corner at the end of a long unlit corridor. They ran after the figure. Turning the corner, the only door there was for a restroom. When they entered it, there was nobody inside. Where did the figure go? “I don’t even believe in ghosts,” said Antabanez, leaving the listener to add the word “…but…”

Along with writing articles in “Weird N.J.” magazine, the author has previously published “The Old Asylum and Other Stories,” a gathering of Overbrook-centered short fiction, emphasis on the macabre. In Montclair and beyond, Antabanez has delivered multimedia presentations on the asylum.

Some audience members bring first-hand knowledge of the hospital. “Here’s such a full-circle story,” Antabanez related. “A woman grew up next to the asylum. She became a nurse, and worked at Overbrook. She helped administer the insulin-shock and electro-shock treatments. She said, ‘Living next door, I used to hear them scream. Then I made them scream.’”