An image of Woodmen Circle in better years.EXPAND
An image of Woodmen Circle in better years.

A Hauntingly Beautiful Abandoned Orphanage Becomes the Set of a Music Video

There’s a red-brick mansion sitting on a grassy hill on 15 acres in Sherman, Texas, 65 miles north of Dallas. At the top of a tall staircase is a striking, colonnaded front porch, and rows of symmetrically placed windows flank the front entry on either side.

It’s simultaneously beautiful and ruined, which attracted musician-producer Justin Gabrielli. He recently shot a music video inside the property for his single “Past Lives,” supporting the release of his first EP, called Mirrors, under his new moniker Night Rides.

“I wanted to pick a place with an eerie history that was kind of destroyed. We went to several places and they didn’t feel cool, and then you go to this place, and it’s fucking crazy,” Gabrielli says. “I’m standing in this hallway and thinking of all these kids and how weird this would have been to be a part of that back in the day.”

Woodmen Circle Home was created in the 1920s as an orphanage and a dormitory for widowed women. The fraternal organization that ran it was the first of its kind to offer life insurance to women. Part of the deal was that if a woman who held a policy passed away, her family members would get a payout. If her husband had also died, her children would live and be taken care of at Woodmen’s Circle until they graduated high school. A woman who was widowed or retired, who didn’t need to be taken care of financially, could live there as well.

In the more than 40 years that it operated, it was home to 100 children and 165 women. The organization abandoned the compound in the 1970s, and it changed hands a number of times after.

Now the grandeur of the Georgian-style architecture has given way to decay. Walls and ceilings have collapsed into the decrepit space; window glass has been smashed out of its panes; and graffiti crawls along walls and floors, while “No Trespassing” signs promise hefty fines. Yet that doesn’t deter some would-be adventurers.

After the women and children’s home shut down, Ariel Ben Sherman, the spiritual leader of a suspected cult group, used the building as a commune. He was charged with child abuse and neglect after a 15-year-old girl in his congregation died from cancer. Sherman and the girl’s mother, who was also charged, refused medical help for a basketball-sized tumor on the girl’s shoulder.

The legend is that her ghost still haunts the property. Paired with the notion of time’s cyclical quality —evidenced by nature reclaiming the man-made structure — the allegory in “Past Lives” fit the setting. The song is all about memories that transcend space and time.

Gabrielli says the rumors that the property is haunted were also part of the allure. In the video, a woman in a flowing white dress ethereally stalks Gabrielli around the space, embracing him from behind and pulling him back into her world.

The song describes the “feelings of love when you are truly in love. You meet someone who you click with on a level unlike anything. … Has this happened before in another time and place? It’s such a deep feeling that it’s kind of unworldly,” Gabrielli says. “[It’s] as if you have always been in love, maybe in a past life.”

He says the location was also a perfect fit because the home was founded on love, as he found while watching YouTube interviews with people who grew up there. “To me it was like a family — a real family,” Jim Vester says, who moved into the home as a 12-year-old. “I never referred to [the founders] as Mom or Dad but I felt like they were.”

Jane Todd Hogue moved in at the age of 3 after her mother, who had also grown up there, contracted polio. “I was always happy here. ... Since I was the youngest, Missy [the founder] would let me sleep with her and she would let me wear her slips, which were absolutely beautiful. She just loved us,” Hogue says. “She would take the time out to brush your hair out and roll it, just treat you special. … I was just a small part of her life, there were over 100 of us, but every one of us counted.”

Despite some of the creepier accounts on the internet of ghost sightings, Gabrielli felt good energy in the space, making multiple clandestine trips to the property to shoot the video and spending hours there each time. “It’s like when you meet a superstar person, you can’t take it all in at once,” he says. “That place is literally a work of art. It tells its own story.”

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