The Ghosts of London’s Abandoned Public Toilets

The modern public bathroom was born in London. In the mid-19th century, Victorian London began to install public water closets for the comfort of men (and, eventually, women) about town. For the price of a penny, the public could descend into underground lavatories to do their business. Most of these conveniences closed sometime in the years after World War II, but the facilities still stand.

Photographer Agnese Sanvito examines the quiet beauty of these once-vital, now abandoned Victorian bathrooms in her latest series. The project doesn’t have an official name yet, but Sanvito is partial to the title the blog Spitalfields Life bestowed on it, “Toilets at Dawn.” She captures the above-ground portions of the antique restrooms, where anyone could once pee for just a penny, in the golden hours of the early morning when they're at their most picturesque.

“In 2010 I started noticing the elegant structures of Victorian public toilets across London,” she said in a statement emailed to mental_floss. “These once proud and eccentric symbols of English civilization have since fallen into closure and blended into the background fabric of the city.”

When she first began photographing, the toilets were practically urban ruins. “Often they were full of rubbish or had trees and weeds growing out of them,” she said. “The decorative and elegant designs of the ironwork left forgotten within the grunginess and decay took on a new beauty, which first inspired me to start photographing them.”

While you can’t just stop in for a quick pee anymore, some of the former public potties are still up and running, just in different forms. The one below has been redeveloped into a bar, and is selling for more than $1.4 million (the listing call it “quirky and full of character,” surely a euphemism for antique poop if we’ve ever heard one).

At dawn, the city's quiet, deserted streets add to the slightly eerie, lonely feeling evoked by the vintage toilet cellars. 

This one is now a cafe. The original urinals are still there, but they’ve become seating.

Though London’s once-elegant Victorian toilets have been shuttered, the city's “spend a penny” culture lives on. There are quite a few modern pay toilets elsewhere around town—the train station pay toilets make bank. A free pee, though, can be harder to find.

[h/t Neatorama]

All images by Agnese Sanvito

7 of the World’s Most Fascinating and Beautiful Catacombs

A cross stands in the Roman catacombs
A cross stands in the Roman catacombs
Franco Origlia/Getty Images

Jerusalem is a coveted burial spot, but the ancient city is running out of space to bury the dead. In 2015, the Jerusalem Jewish Community Burial Society teamed up with a construction group to bore beneath a mountain in the city’s largest cemetery, Har Hamenuchot, and create a massive underground necropolis that will house 22,000 crypts. The plan is to create burial spaces arranged floor-to-ceiling in a network of intersecting tunnels—a little like the ones that first graced the Middle East thousands of years ago. The first section of the modernized catacombs is set to open in October 2019.

Here are seven of the most beautiful and historically fascinating catacombs from elsewhere in the world.

1. Rome Catacombs

Catacombs originated in the Middle East about 6000 years ago and spread to Rome with Jewish migration. Early Christians modeled their burial practices on Jewish customs, although they were forced by Roman rules to bury outside the city limits. Since land was expensive, they went underground, digging an estimated 375 miles of tunnels through Rome's soft volcanic tuff, and building networks of rooms lined with rectangular niches called loculi. Later, more complex tombs included cubical (small rooms that served as a family tomb) and arcosolia (large niches with an arch over the opening, also used for families). Both were often decorated with religious frescos, gold medallions, statues, and other art. The beauty wasn’t just for the dead but for the living, who congregated there to share funeral meals and mark death anniversaries. (The idea that persecuted Christians secretly worshipped there, however, is a Romantic-era legend.)

By the early 5th century, barbarians had invaded Rome and began ransacking the tombs, so the remains of interred saints and martyrs were moved to more secure locations in churches around the city. The catacombs were forgotten for centuries, until miners accidentally rediscovered one under the Via Salaria in 1578. That set off a rush for relics (often of dubious provenance). Today, Rome’s 40-odd catacombs have been stripped of bodies, but the ancient frescoes and winding passageways make them well worth a visit.

2. Paris Catacombs

Inside the Paris catacombs
Inside the Paris catacombs
Michelle Reynolds/iStock via Getty Images

They weren't the first, but the Paris catacombs might be the most famous in the world, and little can compete with them for sheer macabre glamor. Created by the Romans as limestone quarries to build the city above, their current use dates from the late 18th century, when overcrowded cemeteries around the city sparked public health concerns. (One of the worst offenders was Saints-Innocents, in use for almost a millennium and overflowing with corpses, which wasn’t so great considering its proximity to the popular Les Halles market). Starting in the late 18th century, officials took charge of the situation by relocating the bones—from an estimated six to seven million people—to the former quarries, which were specially blessed and consecrated for that purpose.

The catacombs were opened as a public curiosity in the 19th century, and today visitors can see the bones piled into artful arrangements. (One design is shaped like a keg, another like a heart.) Other attractions include an underground spring, a sepulchral lamp, sculptures created by a quarryman, and special exhibits. Only part of the roughly 200 feet of tunnels is open to the public, although that hasn't stopped intrepid urban explorers, artists, and thieves from journeying to the off-limits sections. In 2004, Parisian police discovered a secret cinema set up inside one area, complete with a bar.

3. Catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa

A series of tombs tunneled into the bedrock beneath Alexandria starting in the second century, the catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa ("Mound of Shards") were forgotten until 1900, when a donkey fell into an access shaft. Today the three levels of catacombs are open for visits, and include several giant stone coffins as well as carvings, statues, and other archeological details melding Roman, Greek, and Egyptian styles. On the second level is the Hall of Caracalla, said to contain the remains of young Christian men (and at least one horse) massacred by Caracalla in AD 215.

4. Palermo Capuchin Catacombs

Mummies in the Catacombs of the Capuchins in Palermo
Mummies in the Catacombs of the Capuchins in Palermo
n e o g e j o, Flickr (1) and (2) // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In the 16th century, the Capuchin church in Palermo, Sicily, began outgrowing its cemetery and the monks got the idea of embalming their dead brethren and putting them on show in the catacombs instead. At first only friars got this special treatment, but the practice caught on and local notables began asking for the honor in their wills. Roughly 12,000 people have since been embalmed and arranged for display according to demographic—the categories include Men, Women, Virgins, Children, Priests, Monks, and Professionals. Burials didn't stop until the 1920s, and one of the most famous inhabitants is also among the last—the beautiful Rosalie Lombardo.

5. Rabat Catacombs, Malta

The St. Paul's catacombs in Malta
The St. Paul's catacombs in Malta

Beneath the modern city of Rabat, Malta (once the ancient Roman town of Melite) lies an extensive system of rock-hewn underground tombs dating from the fourth to the ninth century AD. Unlike most other catacombs throughout the Mediterranean—and indeed the world—the tunnels were used to bury Jews, Christians, and pagans, without noticeable divisions among the groups.

Features include large tables used for ceremonial meals commemorating the dead and canopied burial chambers, some of which have been inscribed with illustrations and messages (archeologists are still working to interpret the site). Major catacomb complexes in Rabat include those of St. Paul, St. Agatha and Tad-Dejr.

6. St. Stephen's Cathedral, Vienna

A winged skull at the entrance to the St. Stephen’s Cathedral crypt
A winged skull at the entrance to the St. Stephen’s Cathedral crypt
Douglas Sprott, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The mother church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vienna, St. Stephen's Cathedral is one of the most important buildings in the city, known for its gorgeous multi-colored tile roof (and for being the site of Vivaldi's funeral). But fewer tourists visit the crypt, where the remains of more than 11,000 people lie.

Although most of the current cathedral dates to the 14th century, the crypt originated after an outbreak of the bubonic plague in the 1730s, when cemeteries around Vienna were emptied in an effort to stem the tide of the disease. Many of the skeletons were piled into neat rows, skulls on top, although visitors to some areas will also see disorganized piles of bones. In one section, the ducal crypt, the organs of princes, queens, and emperors are stored—including Hapsburg Queen Maria Teresa's stomach.

7. Brno Ossuary

A routine archeological dig as part of a construction project in 2001 led to an unexpected discovery in Brno, the Czech Republic—a long-forgotten underground charnel house crammed with skeletons. An estimated 50,000 sets of remains had been stuffed beneath St. Jacob's Square during the 17th and 18th centuries, originally stacked in neat rows but later jumbled by water and mud. The site opened for public viewing in June 2012, and today it’s the second-largest (known) ossuary in Europe, after the Paris catacombs.

This list first ran in 2015 and was republished in 2019.

The Stories Behind 11 Iconic Skyscrapers

iStock
iStock

You may have snaked through a long line of fellow tourists to trek to the observation deck for a breathtaking view from the top of the city, but do you know the stories behind many of the world's most iconic skyscrapers? In honor of Skyscraper Day, we've stacked up some of the details.

1. Willis Tower // Chicago

A picture the Willis Tower in Chicago from the view of a local neighborhood.
ParlierPhotography/iStock via Getty Images

In 1969 the world’s largest retailer, Sears Roebuck and Company, decided they needed an office space for their roughly 350,000 employees. Four years, 2000 workers, and enough concrete to build an eight-lane, five-mile highway later, the 110-story Sears Tower was complete. (In 1988, Sears moved out of the building; 21 years later it was renamed the Willis Tower after global insurance broker Willis Group Holdings.) As a memorable finishing touch, 12,000 construction workers, Chicagoans, and Sears employees signed the building’s final beam.

2. Bank of China Tower // Hong Kong

Low-angle view of Bank of China Tower
shansekala/iStock via Getty Images

When famed Chinese architect I.M. Pei was tasked with designing this 70-story structure, he was dealt a number of challenges. He needed to craft a tall building (it stands at 1209 feet) in a typhoon zone and create a design that was pleasing to local residents. His masterpiece—opened in 1990 after a five-year construction—is supported by five steel columns meant to resist high-velocity winds, and is inspired by bamboo shoots, which symbolize strength and prosperity.

3. Chrysler Building // New York City

New York City's Chrysler Building
iStock

A mere 11 months after it gained the title of tallest building in the world in 1930—thanks to the last minute addition of a 186-foot spire—this art deco wonder surrendered its title to the Empire State Building. But it has long been known as one of the world’s prettiest structures. When automobile tycoon Walter P. Chrysler took over financing, he strove to add glamour to New York’s East Side. The design already featured a multi-story section of glass corners and a stainless steel crown, but he requested the addition of eagle-esque gargoyles designed like the hood ornaments on his cars.

4. The Gherkin // London

London's The Gherkin, 30 St. Mary Axe
YolaW/iStock via Getty Images

Known informally as "The Gherkin" for its pickle-esque shape, 30 St. Mary Axe was dreamed up after a 1992 explosion in London’s financial district destroyed the Baltic Exchange building. Plans for the original design—the much taller Millennium Tower—were scrapped for fear it could affect air traffic into the Heathrow Airport and the sightlines of St. Paul’s Dome. It turns out that the pickled inspiration was a winner; when the cylindrical building opened in 2004, it gained quick notoriety, and was soon used as a symbol for London on bid posters for the 2012 Olympic Games.

5. Petronas Twin Towers // Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Petronas Twin Towers the famous landmark of Malaysia
ojogabonitoo/iStock via Getty Images

The world’s tallest twin towers (88 floors each) were completed in 1996 after a three-year build. The steel-and-glass façade was created to reflect elements found in Islamic art, while the sky bridge—between the towers’ 41st and 42nd floors—was crafted with safety in mind. It’s not bolted to the main structure, but rather designed to be able to slide in and out of the buildings to keep it from snapping during high winds.

6. Hotel & Casino Grand Lisboa // Macau, China

Night Macao Skyline, including Casinos such as, The Grand Lisboa and Wynn
fazon1/iStock via Getty Images

When crafting this 58-floor hotel and casino, the Hong Kong architects didn’t take any chances. The $385 million structure, which opened in 2008, was built to resemble a bottleneck—the idea being that it would keep any cash from leaking out, according to feng shui. The outlandish exterior, meanwhile, was intended to look like a combination of crystals, fireworks and the plumes of a Brazilian headdress—all thought to symbolize prosperity.

7. Empire State Building // New York City

Skyline of New York with the Empire State Building
johnkellerman/iStock via Getty Images

For four decades, the famed Manhattan skyscraper held tight to the distinction of being the world’s tallest. (It was eclipsed by the World Trade Center towers in 1972.) But the $41 million structure—featured in movies such as King Kong (1933) and Sleepless in Seattle (1993)—also scored another record: It was built in just one year and 45 days, the quickest for a building of its size. Each week, 3000 workers erected four-and-a-half new floors.

8. Shanghai World Finance Center // Pudong, Shanghai

Jin Mao, Shanghai Tower and Shanghai World Financial Center at Lujiazui
LynnSheng/iStock via Getty Images

This 101-floor behemoth was built to withstand destruction. There are fireproof floors, wind dampeners, and a glass skin to protect against lightning. (It can reportedly survive a magnitude 8 earthquake.) The building has also weathered adversity. Slated for construction in 1997, progress was delayed due to the Asian financial crisis before it was finally completed in 2008. And the initial design, which featured a circular opening at the top rather than the now rectangular one, had to be reconfigured when critics complained it too closely resembled the rising sun on the Japanese flag.

9. Tapei 101 // Tapei, Taiwan

Taipei, Taiwan downtown skyline at the Xinyi Financial District
SeanPavonePhoto/iStock via Getty Images

Fashioned to resemble a growing bamboo stalk—a Chinese sign of everlasting strength—this $1.8 billion building boasts two records. When it was opened in 2004 (construction took five years), it was the first skyscraper to surpass the half-kilometer mark. It also claims the title of fastest passenger elevator. After boarding on the fifth floor, riders reach the 89th floor observation deck in a speedy 37 seconds.

10. CN Tower // Toronto, Canada

Toronto Skyline with the CN Tower apex at sunset
Redfox_Ca/iStock via Getty Images

In a bid to demonstrate the strength of Canadian industry, railway company Canadian National set out to build the tallest tower in the world. For 40 months, 1537 workers toiled 24 hours a day, five days week, reaching completion in April 1975. (A 10-ton helicopter dubbed "Olga" was commissioned to bolt the 44 pieces of the antenna in place.) In 1995, the American Society of Civil Engineers deemed it one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, but 15 years later, its height was surpassed by China’s Canton Tower.

11. Burj Khalifa // Dubai, United Arab Emirates

An aerial view of Dubai's Burj Khalifa
dblight/iStock via Getty Images

At 2716 feet (more than twice the height of the Empire State Building!) and half a million tons, the gleaming desert structure holds a number of records. Among them: tallest building in the world and the tallest freestanding structure. The $1.5 billion, state-of-the-art mega skyscraper was designed by the same firm that dreamt up the Willis Tower and New York’s One World Trade Center, and it opened in 2010 after six years of work. The opening ceremony featured a light and water effects show and some 10,000 fireworks!

This article has been updated for 2019.

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