I thought Tobin’s First Prize Center would be our white whale.
While this meatpacking plant has been abandoned since it closed in 1981, not all of the 32 acres it rests on are. Several businesses operate out of part of the structure, and there’s a construction crew working almost around the clock. As the rumor went, you shouldn’t try to get in because one, anyone legitimately on the property will call the police and two, you can only access a small part of the original plant anyway.
We could still do a quick scouting mission, right? Right.
This mission, leading directly through the construction site, turned up a wide open basement door and was scouting no more. We skirted a fence and scurried down into what looked like some kind of pump room, full of pipes, valves, gauges, and catwalks — some good level design for a first person shooter, actually. This is the bread and butter of urbex photography; plenty of peeling paint, rust, shelving covered in forgotten ephemera, gutted lockers, even an old fridge.
This was a fairly small space. After a half hour we had our fill, and started looking for access deeper into the facility. Unfortunately, the only door we could find was sealed, and we figured this was it, the rumors were true, no easy way to get into the First Prize Center proper. Then, a couple of flights up, way in the corner past a tangle of pipes, I thought I saw another exit at the end of a catwalk. The first set of stairs was easy, until the catwalk’s grating disappeared and we were left with a choice: walk along thin metal framing in an abandoned meatpacking plant, twenty feet above a floor littered with debris, or go home.
Well, obviously, we climbed on.
A little gymnastics led to the top of the pump room and some good luck. An open door led to an open hall and a very familiar factory floorplan. This is where the second most interesting room was, a gigantic area filled with storage tanks, which I was sadly not able to photograph because it was in absolute darkness. Flashlights gave us an idea of what was there, but not enough confidence to explore it further or enough light for photos. A flash unit might be a good idea in the future.
After this, the place was honestly mostly boring. It’s pretty clean, as far as abandoned meatpacking plants go, so we went from one large, columned room with not much in it to another. There was the occasional totally out of place toy, like a plush duck or a tricycle, the ever-present leftover office furniture, and of course graffiti. What we didn’t expect was the first most interesting room in the place.
That is a room full of toys. Piles, and piles, of mostly old toys — from the mid-’80s, at least. I don’t know why they were there, probably some kind of Toys for Tots storage (which we have run into before), and someone had obviously had some fun leaving a few of them around the place… just for us? Nah, that would be the paranoia talking.
It took a couple hours to tour the expansive, but mostly cleaned out, place, and after all the struggle to get in we walked down some stairs and found… a door, a few feet from where we parked, completely unlocked. Another lesson learned: when scouting, scout better.
There’s not a lot of good information out there about the First Prize Center that isn’t anecdotal. Long before I-90 cut through and plonked Exit 5 in view of the massive First Prize sign on the roof, West Albany thrived due to the railroad and slaughterhouse industries. This page gives as good a background as any:
In 2009, the property was on the market for 5 million dollars and several attempts have been made to bring a big-box store or other large commercial retail space in. Like most similar projects in the area, this has stalled, and the building sits to further decay. I mentioned anecdotal information; it’s actually the most interesting, and a May 2009 post on All Over Albany has several great comments, check it out.
Technical detail; skip this paragraph if you don’t care about photography geekery. Most of these photos are taken using a tripod and cable shutter release, allowing for long exposures of several seconds or more. I’ve been forced into shooting these low-light interiors this way because the Canon 300D I’ve been using, ancient by electronic technology standards at almost a decade old, doesn’t handle the high-ISO shooting necessary to get fast shutter speeds for handholding. This is probably the last site I’ll shoot with that little trooper now that I have a shiny, full frame 5D, though I’ll probably still bring the tripod. While I could now grab some of the excellent f/2.8L Canon zoom lenses and not need extra legs to steady the camera, I like the bit of extra work that goes into setting up each shot, and I appreciate the ability to choose a narrower aperture if I want for a wider depth of field. Also, a folded tripod is pretty stout, just in case.