ABOUT J.W. Cooper Community Centy
Even with its broken windows and signs of neglect, the former J.W. Cooper High School building is still an impressive landmark in Shenandoah.
If plans come together, the building will be revitalized as a multi-use center for shopping, dining and culture, as well as a community center and a bed-and-breakfast and/or apartments.
The final payment on the property was made Wednesday morning, and Kent Steinmetz, president of Steinmetz Jewelers, Hamburg, now will begin moving forward with his plans, with the arts-and-culture component developed through a partnership with Downtown Shenandoah Inc. (DSI).
A Schuylkill Haven area resident, Steinmetz has been coming to Shenandoah on Saturdays as part of his jewelry business, working out of Caledonia Antiques, which is owned and operated by Valerie Macdonald, who is the DSI board president.
"We just loved Shenandoah so much that we thought a permanent location up here would be an ideal place to expand our business," said Steinmetz. "It's been almost a year since we've been looking around at various properties. We had an interest in a couple buildings, but for a variety of reasons it just didn't work out."
Steinmetz said Macdonald spoke about the possibilities of the Cooper building.
"Her ideas and my ideas were the same. Obviously, that building is too big for a jewelry store, but it would be an ideal location for a jewelry store and, then in addition to that, an arts and cultural center that would benefit the community, with those areas overseen by DSI," said Steinmetz. "So, it's kind of a partnership."
He said a variety of things drew his interest to the building at White and Lloyd streets, which was dedicated in 1919 and served as the borough high school for most of its years as an education facility. After the current Shenandoah Valley High School was constructed, the building served as the district's elementary school until the current elementary school was built.
"I was attracted by the history of the building and the architecture. The structural integrity was also important with it being stone over steel. It's incredible," said Steinmetz. "So much happened there, as I was told by Valerie and learned through my own research, the more I fell in love with it before I made my final decision."
One of the first issues that had to be addressed was a large hole in the roof, which developed over time in an area where a roof drain existed."
Next week, he said, steel will be delivered to fix the largest hole . The repairs will be completed the following weekend.
Once the roof is repaired, windows on the third and fourth floors will be covered with canvas in time for the winter, firewalls will close off the back of the building and PPL Electric Utilities will begin providing power to heat and light the front of the building, Steinmetz said.
Part of the building has been cleared of debris, and volunteers from around the area, many of them students from as far as away as Pine Grove, have been scraping paint, a job that will take about a year, according to Steinmetz.
"We're going to try to keep the building as original as possible," he explained. "Rather than try to replace the window frames, we're going to keep them and just replace the panes. We've had 25 glass panes cut. We'll need about 400 panes for the entire building. We'll have to replace all plumbing and electricity 'cause the building was stripped."
Plans have been drawn for the four floors, with the third floor being set aside for small businesses.
"We have letters of interest from at least six companies that would like to move into there," Steinmetz said. "There's an ice cream shop, a bakery, a flower shop, our jewelry store, and a restaurant. It's a catering company that loves the layout of the gymnasium and the jogging track. They would like to put in a ballroom and use the original floor of the gym, but make the pillars more upscale. Let's just say someone wants to get married. We could have actually have the ceremony in the auditorium/theater, and eat in the gymnasium."
The fourth floor would become a living area, with upscale apartments and potentially a bed-and-breakfast. An elevator will be installed for access to all floors.
"We're thinking about designing the rooms around themes about Shenandoah," said Steinmetz.
"Like Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey," said Main Street Manager Mary Luscavage.
The third floor will have enough room for about eight businesses, including the jewelry store. The idea is to use the space as a business incubator, where a new business can get started before moving into its own storefront.
The second floor, which includes the auditorium, would become an arts and cultural center.
"The wife of our chief financial officer of Steinmetz Jewelers has a bachelor of science degree in arts education, and she'd like to be the director. So local people who are artistic, or even some outside companies that would like to move in, they'll be able to show and sell their artwork," said Steinmetz.
The building also has a swimming pool.
"My idea was to make it an area with fountains and decorated as an arboretum," said Steinmetz. "That way local people can come in and relax. We want to make this place attractive to everyone in town. There's a lot of potential."
As the debris is being cleared, it is also being checked for possible uses. "We're not throwing anything away that's usable. That's why the junk in the gymnasium is still there. I'm sure under all that stuff there's something of value," said Steinmetz.
Macdonald said the auditorium, when completed, will be available to community groups for fundraisers and events.
Steinmetz said it seats 800, and also could be leased for corporate meetings.
While it may take several years to get the entire plan completed, people will not have to wait long for the building front to be refurbished and at least one business ready to open.
"We're hoping to have our (jewelry) store open by Nov. 27," said Steinmetz. "That will be our grand opening. We may be the only store open, though there may be one studio open as well. Then throughout the winter and next spring, we'll be working our way around."
Funding for the work will be a challenge, though Steinmetz is optimistic. As for the estimated cost, that hasn't quite been narrowed down yet.
"The estimates are all over the place. Our worst-case scenario would be $9.7 million. I'm sure we can do it for half that," said Steinmetz.
One possible way of funding the renovations and upgrades could be through memorial donations, with an individual, family, organization or company providing funds for a room and having it dedicated to a loved one or other intention.
"Once the businesses start opening up and generating funds, I think we'll be OK," he said. Macdonald said that tax-deductible donations for the restoration can be made through DSI.
She said Preservation Pennsylvania has come to Shenandoah to look at the building. The statewide nonprofit organization is dedicated to the protection of historically and architecturally significant properties.
"I've talked to them and filled out the form and hopefully it's going to be registered as an historical building to the National Trust of Historic Preservation," said Macdonald.
"The building is not coming down. That's for sure," he said.
Macdonald is thrilled about what may happen to the old school.
"I've been working in the background for 10 years trying to get something going on the building," she said. "We've had several possibilities over the years, but they fell through. I was about to give up. I thought we were done.
Shenandoah Main Street Manager Mary Luscavage, from left, Downtown Shenandoah Inc. President Valerie Macdonald, and Kent Steinmetz, new owner of the former J.W. Cooper High School, walk along White Street in front of the Cooper building on Wednesday.
Same side - 2 years later.
500+ new window panes, transom frames and doors.
JW Cooper School, Shenandoah, PA
Quoted from Preservation PA’s 2001 newsletter: “Originally scheduled to open in 1918, the 3-story stone school building located at the intersection of North White and East Lloyd Streets in the center of the Borough of Shenandoah, was commandeered and used as a temporary hospital and morgue during the flu epidemic of 1918, when the local hospital was unable to accommodate the large number of victims. In May 1919 the building was dedicated as the “new Shenandoah High School”. It was later renamed the J.W. Cooper High School in memory of the school’s first principal. The school remained in use until 1986 when it was replaced with a new facility.”
“Shenandoah was a coal mining community, which during the 1920s and 1930s has a population of 30,000 residents within its one square mile boundary, giving the borough the highest population per square mile of any municipality in the U.S. at that time. Tens of thousands of Shenandoans were educated within the walls of the Cooper High School and the school holds a significant place in the history and culture of the community.”
Abandoned for years, the demolition of the J.W. Cooper Center seemed all but certain. Surprisingly, it has been purchased by a dedicated individual who has a vision of turning the building into a community center. Though the costs in restoring the building are high, owner Kent Steinmetz has made significant progress in restoring the front sections of the building through hard work and enlisting the aid of the surrounding community. The success of the project would mean not only a significant victory in revitalizing downtown Shenandoah, but also would serve as an example that there is no excuse not to restore historic properties and that given the opportunity, citizens will rally to support efforts to save sites that are a part of their heritage. The fight is far from over, and donations of time and labor are very much appreciated and necessary if the vision of the community center is to be realized. Photographers are welcome to tour/photograph the building for a donation of time/labor. If you are interested please contact Kent at