Hidden History: Inside the Abandoned J.W. Cooper School in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania

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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.

J.W. Cooper School in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania
The exterior of J.W. Cooper School

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.

Photographing the J.W. Cooper School in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania
The old school’s auditorium.

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.

Stairwell inside J.W. Cooper School.
A stairwell inside Cooper.

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.

Auditorium at J.W. Cooper School in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania
Inside the auditorium at the J.W. Cooper School.

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.

Inside the auditorium at J.W. Cooper School.
The auditorium is the focal point of the school.

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.

Inside the J.W. Cooper School in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania
If these halls could talk…

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.

Bathrooms at J.W. Cooper School in Shenandoah, PA
The bathrooms are still there, but much of the plumbing is not.

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.

Classrooms at J.W. Cooper School
Parts of the school are in worse shape than others.

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.

Gymnasium at the J.W. Cooper School in Shenandoah, PA
Inside the gym at J.W. Cooper School.

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.

Inside the JW Cooper Community Center in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania
A basketball net still hangs in the gym at the J.W. Cooper School.

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).

Piano at J.W. Cooper School in Pennsylvania
The school’s original piano sits inside the auditorium.

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.

Auditorium at J.W. Cooper School in PA
Looking down on the school’s auditorium from the balcony.

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.

Theater at J.W. Cooper School.
This beautiful symbol is still located above the stage.

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.

Classrooms at J.W. Cooper School in Shenandoah, PA
Some of the classrooms still retain evidence of their days as a school.

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?

Pool at the J.W. Cooper School in Pennsylvania's Coal Country
The indoor pool inside the J.W. Cooper School.

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.

Photographing J.W. Cooper School in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania
Looking out from the stage in Cooper’s auditorium.

To donate towards the restoration of the J.W. Cooper School, visit the non-profit’s donation page. For more information on the site, visit their website.

Taking photos of J.W. Cooper School in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania
Antique chairs inside the old auditorium.

Discover more hidden history at Yellow Dog Village in Armstrong County, PA and the Cambria Iron Works in Johnstown.


More nearby places worth exploring

Find more things to do in the Susquehanna Region

18 thoughts on “Hidden History: Inside the Abandoned J.W. Cooper School in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania”

  1. Excellent article. I know for sure that grades 9 – 12 left the jw cooper to occupy the newly completed high school in the fall of 82.

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  2. Thank you for a great article. As a 1972 graduate of Shenandoah Valley High School, it was a delight to reminisce.

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  3. Thanks for sharing this wonderful information about the J.W.Cooper building. The best part is the beautiful auditorium, and the memories of performing on the stage at pep rally’s. I was a 1979 graduate, and I was a cheerleader. I attended this school from 1976 to 1979. I remember everything about the school, and I’m glad it’s being restored. It’s a shame that the stained glass skylight in the auditorium is gone,and the brass railings, and door knob’s. It will be wonderful to see it restored.

    Reply
  4. Hazleton High School (aka “The Castle”) has a swimming pool. I graduated there in 1986. Swimming was a required part of PE. I HATED that class. 🙂

    The school was empty for a while but is now being reused as an elementary school. You should go take a look. I’ve heard that they filled in or possibly covered up the pool though.

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  5. I love this article. The memories just keep flooding in as i look threw the photos. I was in kindergarten and first grade during its last years open. Then later when i was in high school we would sneek in to the cooper building and play the piano on Halloween till the police came. Summer break we would play hide and seek until chased out by authorities. I always dream of saving the building myself glad to hear its still alive. Currently i live in cali and make a living installing indoor gymnasium equipment. Basketball hoops,bleachers, wall pads,volleyball poles ect… All thanks to the ol cooper buildings inspiring design.

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  6. I went there from 1989 – June of 1994 the school was awesome our principals were Mr. Shaffer & Mr. Dando I went from kindergarten – 3rd grade my kindergarten teacher was Mrs. Shumpski & my 3rd grade teacher was Mrs. Flannary I loved that school I graduated kindergarten on that stage and did lots of school plays I remember the stain glass dome in the auditorium i remember the rotiron spiral stairs that went up to that went to the track that was in the gym the gym was also the cafeteria so many memories

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  7. I went there from 1969 to 1973 and it was the best time of my life and I know Kent because I was the Code Enforcement Officer of Shenandoah and I got to try and work with Kent and help him if it was legal and what made it fun was walking through the school and reminis about all the good times I had. I hope Kent keeps up with it and wish him luck , it was a great time in my life going here.

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  8. My Father George A. Griffiths loved his High School he called Shenandoah High. He was a 1933 graduate first generation of Griffiths to Graduate High School in America. He also was a member of their great football team. I still have some of his report cards. So happy to see this master piece of a building come back to life. Bravo to everyone involved . Wish my Dad could see this he would be so proud.

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  9. Hi Jim,
    My great grandmother was in an all-female band that played in both Shenandoah and Hazleton in 1926. Do you know if this great old dame would have been the venue?
    Thanks.

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  10. Thank you for these photos. My time in that building and the two that no longer exist, the library next door and the Wilson Building across the street, began in my 3rd grade during summer school. We took classes for fun: Swimming, Physical Ed,. Reading, Art. Six summers were spent there, then four years of High School from 1974-77 when I was a soloist with the Chorus. The auditorium was the most special place on earth for me. Rehearsals, private practice times, and the shows were what gave my life joy. I wish you all could have seen it in its glory.

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  11. What memories those photos bring. The room with the grass looked like Mr. Jellen’s classroom. I was in a study hall there when they announced that JFK was shot! In my freshman year the Seniors at that time had a strike over the firing of Bernie Gasan the football coach. Gazan was good guy but he ran a single wing offence which was at the end of it’s life cycle. When the bell rang to change classes, we were all directed by the Seniors to go to the Auditorum. They even had a coffin that they carried around to protest his firing. My Freshman home room was Mrs. Collins who also taught health. That class got me interested in anatomy with lead to a 25 year career as an Operating Room Nurse and the military. Someone mentioned the pep ralleys and I still remember the thrill walking in with the football team.

    Reply
  12. Loved the photos.

    While I did not go to school here, I went to Widener Memorial school in Phila Pa in the 1960’s and 70’s. They had a pool and I learned to swim there.

    Reply

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