An unsettling atmosphere permeates throughout the abandoned William Penn High School. Photo courtesy of Madelyn Smith/Snapper
Morgan Huber and Olivia Heilemann
Central Pennsylvania is well known for its rich history, exemplified by our landmarks and structures that have been preserved through time, like Valley Forge, Eastern State Penitentiary, and other beautiful nods to our past . As one walks past the former banks, schools, and parks in the towns and cities we know and love, it may be easy to forget how much has truly happened there. When these buildings are left empty, they are often forgotten by the always rushing eyes of humans, breaking down and welcoming nature into their walls until the Earth finally reclaims them. One such structure is William Penn High School, an educational facility dating back nearly a century. Nestled in the suburbs of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s state capital and a bustling metropolis located an hour north of Millersville, this once modern and popular school is now on the verge of collapse. An eerie sight in a quaint neighborhood, the former campus sparks the curiosity of locals and tourists alike.
William Penn High School (WPHS), alongside its sister school John Harris High, were constructed in 1926 to relieve overcrowding in the rapidly growing city of Harrisburg. A neoclassical masterpiece designed by architect Charles Howard Lloyd, this facility is situated on the former site of Hoffman’s Woods, a popular recreational spot during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Overlooking the Italian Lake and Susquehanna River, students, staff, and passerby were privileged with beautiful views of the city as they walked or drove by the school. Although a predominately white school for most of its operation, WPHS later became exponentially diverse by the 1950s and 60s, and especially by the end of its run as a comprehensive public high school. WPHS had, for most of its active history, been known as an exceptional institution, both in regards to academics, and later its diversity.
By the end of the 1960s, however, enrollment in the school district had steadily declined, as did resources and student achievement, justifying the need to consolidate the schools open at the time. The Harrisburg-Steelton-Highspire Vo-Tech (later renamed Harrisburg Career & Technology Academy (CTA)), a part time collaborative effort between William Penn and another school district, began in 1967, and took possession of the former “Bill Penn” building after it closed following the 1970-71 academic year. Many academic classrooms were modeled into laboratories and shops, allowing for students to be educated in a variety of trade-oriented disciplines. These included carpentry, cosmetology, graphic design, costume design, culinary arts, and medical assistance.
By the 21st century, this school had steadily declined in quality. With only 300 to 400 students enrolled, the Vo-Tech lacked both resources and motivation to accommodate the needs of staff and students. In 2006, it was ranked the second-lowest achieving school in the state in reading and math proficiency. While the state average was 75%, CTA’s students’ reading and math proficiency consistently remained at 15 to 20% in the last decade or so of its operation.
The Harrisburg Career & Technology Academy closed after the 2010-11 academic year, due to declining enrollment and student achievement, with most remaining students either returning to Harrisburg High or transferring to Dauphin County Technical School. The building formerly known as William Penn High School has remained abandoned ever since.
The building, although still owned by Harrisburg School District, is no longer actively maintained or in use. Since its closure, WPHS has been repeatedly damaged, vandalized, and consumed by trespassers and the nature that surrounds it. Despite its demise, it remains as a magnificent yet obscure sight within the city.
Our reporters were permitted to get an exclusive look within the school’s walls, hoping to capture the campus in its current state. While many of the classrooms and hallways have been filled with debris and violated with profane images and slurs graffitied on the walls, they remain reminiscent of Bill Penn’s former glory days.
Thousands of young men and women from all walks of life built their futures there, learning the skills they needed and making memories that would be cherished for a lifetime. Budding educators established their careers within the walls of the campus, fostering the futures of generations of children. Desks and chairs still sit, collecting dust where teenagers once took notes for their English lessons. Now, their books lay closed on each desk, waiting to be cracked open again. In the now arson-damaged labs, students once learned there how to create substances in chemistry, while feeling chemistry developing between them and their future husband, wife, or best friend.
As we walked through the once lively halls, we even came across several reports of students who had earned bad grades in the early 2000’s and some were even related to juvenile detention. Planners, report cards, and timesheets clutter the once clean floors of the school, now crawling with collapsed insulation and spilled paint. In the dark corner of an office, across from the cafeteria, mailboxes with letters still inside remain in cubbyholes, each marked with a label of a teacher’s name. An empty fireplace sits idle beyond the mailboxes. Once providing warmth to staff and visitors, it now lies in wait, frigid in darkness, hoping to one day be lit once more.
The school had several charming additions that caught the eyes of many, like a crystal ball hanging over one of the cafeterias where school dances were held, and even waterfalls on each floor that sat in front of beautiful handmade mosaics. Murals created by students depict the talents and ambitions of the young minds that once inhabited these classrooms. Equipment and decor left behind remind visitors of the decades of history fostered there, ranging from mid-century desks and gurneys to nineties-style colorful triangle designs on the cafeteria walls. Dimly lit, rotting corridors, as well as cryptic messages left behind by vandals, complete a haunting aura to the century-old labyrinth.
One of the most heart-wrenching and awesome sights of all was the auditorium. Once gloriously lit against red velvet seats and a gleaming black stage, William Penn’s performing arts center faintly remains as a ghost, quiet and eerie. The voices of young men and women once echoed within these walls, now vacant and decaying. For many alumni, the auditorium was the centerpiece of their academic careers, allowing them to perform on stage and freely express themselves for the first time.
“Over the stage in the auditorium were engraved the words ‘So teach is to number our days that we may apply our hearts until wisdom.’ Psalm 90:12. We read them every time we were in that space, and I think they had deep meaning to all serious students,” recalled John Robinson, a member of the class of 1964 at William Penn High School. An active member of the school’s choir and theatre programs during his time at the school, Robinson reminisced his days as a bright, young soul, eager to find something bigger than himself on the stage and in the classroom. Others like him anticipate an opportunity for the campus to be restored, in the hopes that it can continue to serve the community.
“This is/was a beautiful building,” stated June Collins (formerly June Lind), a member of the 1962 class at William Penn High School, “It should be in use today as an adult evening school, for artists or even a community playhouse. The auditorium is huge, and equipped with sound and lighting equipment, albeit old. The city could make use of it for local government offices. No doubt the building would require air and heating updating and cosmetic and structural improvements, but it’s a crime to allow it to deteriorate the way it has. The classrooms are large enough for small businesses or fitness classes like yoga or Zumba. And just a few feet away is Italian Lake, a beautiful garden and pond. Imagine this building as an art museum like the one in Philadelphia. The city itself has been deteriorating, and it’s time to return it to it’s previous glory. I was proud to call Harrisburg home, so many things about it to love.”
Despite being abandoned on-and-off for close to half a century, the campus of William Penn High School remains salvageable. The primary issues in the current structure lie within the heavy graffiti in the past years, as well as damage to glass, especially to the doors and windows, and new insulation and plumbing may also have to be installed. Regardless of the damage already done, the historical and cultural significance of the building alone justify an investment in William Penn’s restoration.
While suggestions for WPHS’ future use, such as those by Collins, can certainly be helpful, they only remain a dream unless people act upon them. Awareness, as one may know, can only go so far. Petitioning to the school district and local government can make a great start, as well as addressing these issues at town halls and related historical and restorative organizations.
Urban explorers should also choose to be more cautious when investigating abandoned buildings such as this one, and should refrain from inflicting harm, like breaking through windows or spray painting graffiti for example. Damage like this will only make it harder for this aging relic to be given new life.
Since the school closed for good in 2011, Harrisburg School District has made multiple attempts to sell the building, but to no avail. In the last year, they were approached in the hopes of establishing a senior living community there, only for the plan to fall through in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Representatives of the Harrisburg School District, who still own the property, declined to comment, beyond stating “there are currently no active plans for the property.”
This does not mean that a brighter future for William Penn High School is out of reach. With contributions from members of the community, this building has the potential to become a lively and pivotal landmark – but only with the efforts and mindfulness of the community itself. By working to preserve central Pennsylvania’s historic buildings, we will not only secure our past, but also pave the way for our future.
This is the first in a series of articles featuring the abandoned buildings and sites of central Pennsylvania. To learn more, check out the Snapper website or keep an eye out for future “History Rotting Away” articles in our Feature section in our print editions.