Abandoned Pennsylvania: The J.W. Cooper School
Roughly located between New York and Philadelphia is Shenandoah, a small town in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. Known as a mining town, this area saw booming growth during the Civil War years created by several anthracite coal mines (including the famous St. Nick’s Coal Breaker) that opened in the area. The coal found in this region was of the rare “anthracite” variety, which was prized for its purity, burning longer than other types. The area was incorporated as a borough in 1866.
With the rise and fall of the coal industry, the boom eventually also fell. That meant economic hardships for towns and boroughs such as Shenandoah. For many of these small towns that relied on the coal industry, once the demand was gone, they dried up and settled into almost ghost town status.
Today, Main Street isn’t what it once used to be, but the J.W. Cooper School is an attraction for visitors to this town, especially photographers. The school was originally built in 1917, and set to open the following year. The building was eventually used as a temporary hospital and morgue in 1918 during the flu epidemic. Finally, in May of 1919 the building was opened for use as the “new” Shenandoah High School. Later it would be renamed J.W. Cooper High School, after the long time school supervisor. The school would remain open and in use as a high school until the early 1980’s. After that it reopened as an elementary school, until its final closure in 1994.
Since it’s closing in the 90s, the building went through several different owners who did nothing to preserve or take care of the building, and had no plans for its use (one owner even stripped the building of plumbing brass, stained glass, etc). The building fell into a further state of decay and disrepair, and faced certain demolition. Luckily a local jewelry store owner stepped in to save the historic school building, and create something beneficial for the town.
Kent Steinmetz bought the J.W. Cooper School with the goal of turning it into a community center, and revitalizing part of the downtown area. He has put numerous hours of hard work and money out of his own pocket into restoring the building to it’s original state The process has had it’s hurdles, but he’s continually tried to help his community by offering free Wi-Fi to the local neighbors, offering businesses use of the building for a store front, and even operating a food bank from the old school.
Doing some initial research into the school is how I found and met Kent. I visited this school several times over the years, and honestly wouldn’t mind seeing it again. My first trip, I was given exclusive access inside of J.W. Cooper High School. I made the 3.5 hour drive up to Shenandoah, and Kent took time out of his weekend to open the school for me, give me a tour, and tell me the history of the town, and of the school. He then left me to roam the hallways, ready to answer any questions I may have. It was a great experience to learn so much about the area and the school, and replay that history as I photographed the historical building.
J.W. Cooper School Today
If it weren’t for the efforts of Kent saving the building, it would have been torn down years ago.
Today, it’s still in the process of being converted to a 26 suite community center with theater, atrium and ballroom. Additional information and donations an be found at jwcoopercenter.org.
JW Cooper School has also become a very popular site for photographers of all genres. Photography tours of the school are available, and one of the main fundraising efforts helping in restoration of the school.
To keep up with the progress at JW Cooper, you can like their Facebook page.