Pennsylvania’s coal country features some of the state’s most beautiful architecture and some amazingly intriguing downtowns. Unfortunately, with the decline of the coal industry, much of the region is in a state of decay. While buildings are being lost every year, there is an effort underway to save some of the most important buildings in the region. The J.W. Cooper School in Shenandoah is one of these buildings.
Shenandoah was a typical anthracite coal town in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. Increased immigration to the region, especially from Lithuania, and the opening of new coal mines, worked together to drive up the population of the area. In fact, in the 1920s and 1930s, Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, was the most densely populated place in the United States, with 30,000 people living within its one-square-mile borders.
This growing population created a greater demand for school buildings. The new Shenandoah High School was built in the center of town and was slated to open in 1918. However, at that time the Spanish Flu raging and the local hospital was overwhelmed. Because of this, the new school was commandeered as a temporary hospital and morgue for the community.
Finally, a year later, in May 1919, the school was dedicated as the new high school. While it was dubbed Shenandoah High School when it opened, the name would later be changed to the J.W. Cooper School to honor the community’s long-term school supervisor.
Somewhat surprisingly, it’s a bit of a challenge to find much information online about the school’s history and those that attended the school. However, Jerry Wolman, who was at onetime a part-owner of the Philadelphia Eagles and the Philadelphia Flyers, went to school here.
The J.W. Cooper School closed as a high school in the spring of 1981 and opened as an elementary school. It remained an elementary school until it was closed for good in 1994.
From the 1990s until 2009, the school was owned by a series of owners, many of whom did little to nothing to preserve the building. In fact, one previous owner removed much of the school’s plumbing, stained glass, and brass railings from the building.
The borough of Shenandoah was faced with a dilemma in the late 2000s. They owned the building after the previous owner didn’t pay his taxes, but they lacked the money to repair or even tear down the quickly deteriorating building.
Local jewelry store owner Kent Steinmetz, stepped in and was given the J.W. Cooper School on the condition that he would work to restore it.
Steinmetz quickly got to work, replacing the roof and broken glass, fixing the electricity and plumbing so that the building was somewhat habitable, and cleaning up the trash. This last task was no easy matter, as many of the rooms were covered in trash. In fact, the gymnasium was filled with trash up to the running track, a total of eight tons of garbage was removed from the gym alone.
In many ways, rehabilitating the Cooper School is a labor of love for Steinmetz. He set up a non-profit organization, the J.W. Cooper Community Center, which shows his commitment to turning the building from a blight on the community into a valued focal point.
The ultimate goal is to create a mixed use building that features a community gymnasium, storefronts and office space for emerging, local businesses, and a theater. However, while some of these plans were actually achieved several years ago, the building is currently closed to the public due to access issues for those with disabilities. (This is a good time to mention that there is a page on their website for tax-deductible giving. The most pressing need, in addition to maintenance, is an elevator).
However, even with the setback of having to close the building, there is still great optimism that this beautiful building will be preserved.
If it is, the main feature will be the 800-seat theater in the school’s old auditorium. The theater’s large stage is fronted by two levels of seating. In front of the stage sits the school’s original piano. If everything goes according to plan, this stage will once again see live performances, weddings, and other local events.
Sadly, much of the ornate decorations were removed and sold for scrap by the previous owner. However, even without the brass railings or stained glass windows, there is still a lot to appreciate here.
For example, the lights hanging from the ceiling are still the milk glass and add a touch of elegance to the theater. Above the stage, old curtains still hang, with a scripted “S” still located just above. Many of the chairs are also still in place, which gives plenty of places to sit when the theater reopens.
Surrounding the outside of the theater are classrooms. Some of these are in very rough shape, while others seem well maintained and feature remnants of their classroom days. It’s fascinating to explore these rooms and imagine the people who went to school in these rooms over the school’s 60+ year history.
One of the neatest features of the J.W. Cooper School is its swimming pool. The second oldest pool in Pennsylvania, and the oldest in a school, it is small by today’s standards. However, how many schools have even a small indoor pool in their basements?
Today, the pool is partially filled with dirt, which is much better than being filled with trash as it was when Steinmetz took over ownership.
Walking through the hall and classrooms of the J.W. Cooper School, it’s impossible to not imagine what the building could be and how much something like this would mean to the community of Shenandoah and all of Schuylkill County. While there is much work ahead to complete the work and preserve this building, I have no doubt the Steinmetz has the passion to see it done.