Vacant New Jersey

West Philadelphia High School

Status: Region: Type: Gallery:
Restored Pennsylvania School 38 Photos

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A covertly placed motion sensor dangles from a pair of black and red colored insulated electrical wires, swaying ever so slightly within the drafty hallway lined with open windows. The tinted white plastic box housing the delicate internal motion movement detector remains shattered, smashed open by what appears to be a forceful hit from a baseball bat or some other similar blunt object. Encompassing me, the distinct hum of electricity can clearly be heard, like an annoying mosquito buzzing right next to my ear canal. The incessant sound fills the vacant hallways and empty classrooms with a static white noise which my senses quickly become deaf too. Hallways lined with hundreds of blue lockers stretch endlessly long forming a vanishing point within the mind's eye as florescent tube lights, dying a slow flickering death illuminate darkened corridors with random jolts of artificial white light, as if a distant electrical storm is brewing just outside.

Many of the classrooms were still full with discarded stacks of textbooks, miscellaneous school supplies, and even lecture notes hand written with chalk across the blackboards, assigning homework from page 65 of the physical science book. Some of the lecture rooms were complete with antiquated televisions of decades past, mounted on large metal brackets within the front corner of the classroom. Out of curiosity I decided to try my luck with powering a television on. With the press of the large physical power button which recessed a solid inch into the receiver unit, the screen flashed to life, perpetually displaying a channel of silent static, glimmering to life behind the thick glass cathode ray tubes.

The sparkling black and white static folly drew me in like an insect to a flickering candle. Mesmerized by the nonsensical flashing horizontal repeating lines I sensed myself become nearly hypnotized by the TV's lure, half expecting a hidden message to appear or at least the opening scene to The Twilight Zone to play before my eyes. A tap on my shoulder broke me free from my fantastical daze. "What are you looking at?" my friend Shadowbat asked. "Oh shit" I exclaimed with a startled tone, "I just wanted to see if the televisions still worked", I replied. "Haha, alright man, well they certainly still do, the entire building still has electricity and I think that may have just screwed us," Shadowbat nervously informed me. "Listen, I think we have a bit off a problem now, come with me and look out the window, let me know what you think, maybe it's just coincidence?" Shadowbat firmly asked of me.

The original West Philadelphia High School building, as the institution had become titled, dates back to 1912, at which time it was of common practice within United States public school system to follow same-sex segregated education based upon an idea of single-sex education. As a result, West Philly High was originally constructed as essentially two high schools within one massive building. The school was designed with separate male and female student wings, each with their own redundant amenities such as two lavish auditoriums, gymnasiums, separate classrooms, hallways, and of course lavatories as-well.

However beginning in the 1970's single-sex education began to be phased out nation wide, as a result West Philly High found itself with an overabundance of unused space and much of the building was vacated in favor of integrating same sex education, thus not needing two separate wings. This integration of a once sexually segregated school curriculum created a unique exploring experience for many of the duplicate spaces were shuttered long before the school closed for good in 2011 and moved into a much smaller, manageable, and modern building a few blocks away.

A basement door ajar, warped open by two severely corroded hinges provided easy access into the high school and much like school children ourselves, we entered into the forlorn building single file, with our exploring packs hanging across our backs and for lunch, WaWa hoagies wrapped snug within their wax paper sleeping bags. "Don't worry about the motion sensors" Shadowbat explained, "they've been flashing and beeping for weeks now but I've been all through this school for hours at a time and no one has ever shown up yet." This was certainly a welcoming statement as I watched the sensors mimic our movement with corresponding flashes of blinking red lights as we all proceeded further down the darkened hallway, our footprints echoing and reverberating off the sterile tile walls as if we were within a natural cave. Walking up the first stairwell we found I noticed an alarm panel was blinking red as-well, the small LED indicator light illuminating the text "TROUBLE." "Heh, what a joke," I thought to myself.

The internal stairwell illumined only by the ghostly faint yellow glow of an incandescent bulb lead up to the main lobby of the school which was lavishly adorned with marble insert walls and complete with a small chandelier aligned centrally above the main stairwell which split off into two symmetrical branches. The entire space was backlit by three large stained glass windows engraved with various scholarly insignias. In excited unison we all head off to photograph the two magnificent auditoriums which was our main priority, splitting up the group as to not crowd either of the theaters, which were both essentially just a mirror image of one another.

After some goofing around in the theater encompassing playing with the massive asbestos stage curtain and the various backstage levers and pulleys, we all head down together toward the basement to check out the gymnasium. At a much more recent point in the school's history, a modern gymnasium wing had been added on to the building, designed to replaced the original 1912 gym, which Shadowbat informed us was complete with a vintage floating track, which had been essentially left to rot in the basement of the school ever since the new wing was constructed. Finding the gymnasium was rather tricky, however we just followed our noses toward the ever increasing scent of mold and mildew which permeated about the darkened basement hallways stretching out like confusing catacombs, occasionally illuminated by the flash of a pulsating fluorescent light. Some hallways lead to dead ends or nondescript janitorial spaces, but after a few minutes of searching we found the wing leading to the original gym.

The space was quite dark sans a small amount of natural light shining in through a series of caged windows along the ground level which was at least 20 feet above us. I initially began photographing the gym utilizing long exposures and light painting to illuminate the space. However, after a bit of nosing around, a circuit breaker was discovered hidden behind a panel disguised as a padded mat. After a bit of random flip switching the ancient vapor lights dangling from the crumbling gym ceiling slowly energized up, the massive glass lightbulbs gradually turning bright orange, filling the space with an artificial sunrise like warmth. Quickly we grabbed our shots and marveled at the elevated running track above, which is certainly a rare sight. With another flip of the breakers, the lights slowly faded to darkness, the internal filaments glowing red a bit longer before finally sputtering out like a dying ember before fading into perpetual darkness. Pushing open an otherwise closed door which lead out of the gym and into a main hallway, I noticed another motion sensor above blink red as I walked beneath the door frame, again thinking nothing of its potential warning.

Our last area of interest for the afternoon was the top floor of the school which had been vacant many years prior to the official closing of the institution. Taking the first basement stairwell up we could find, we ascended a seemingly endless amount of flights for a high school, minutes later finally reaching the top landing. With the forceful push of a heavily weighted fire door, its hinges squeaking in agony for having been stuck closed for so many years, we entered into a long vacant wing of the high school which looked to have been last used perhaps as far back as the 1970's. Much of the drop ceiling had fallen to the ground due to water damage and while it revealed the details of the ornate ceiling above the water soaked ceiling tiles created a swampy mess across the floor. The stagnant water caused extensive damage the original 1912 hardwood flooring for the warped boards buckled and curled, forming ripples of wooden planks.

Many of the classrooms had last been used as storage, housing an abundance of antiquated textbooks, 70's era school furniture, and hundreds of metal desks. Some of the rooms were piled so high with appliances that the rooms could not be entered without contorting oneself through a haphazard maze of chair arms and desk legs. I found it quite interesting that even the chalkboards still had their last lessons written across them from decades ago. Having never been altered, the otherwise temporary chalk marks had essentially formed a permanent agenda across the black slate. Teacher's names along with the subject and the homework assignments all remained as they had last been hand written, decades ago.

Further exploring the time capsule of a the top floor we soon came across the old science laboratories, compete with heavy slate topped tables and accompanying Bunsen burners protruding from circle orifices cut out from within the center of the tables. The sight of all the outdated, dusty, lab equipment appeared to me more reminiscent of a scene from an abandoned insane asylum than any city high school. Old wooden cupboards were full with glassware ranging from little petri dishes all the way up to gigantic Erlenmeyer flasks, their flat bottoms stained with questionable residue, almost looking like dry blood. Each lab also had an old CRT television bolted in the corner, the thick plastic enclosure and now faded, smoker's yellow plastic casing, a clear indicator of its age. My curiosity got the best of me and with the click of the power button the TV screen surprisingly jolted to life with a flash of light. I gazed into the static time warp playing behind the thick glass and thought for sure I saw the word "Run" flash right before my very weary eyes. "Hey! Come with me!", Shadowbat sternly bellowed" breaking my temporary television induced trance.

Swiftly I followed Shadowbat to a large window overlooking the front of the school. Shadowbat told me to kneel down low and slowly peer out over the window's ledge as to avoid my movement drawing any unwarranted attention from outside eyes. "Is the cop still parked out front?" Shadowbat asked me. "Uhh, there are two cops cars parked out front" I responded. "TWO, oh fuck, there was definitely only one a few minutes ago" Shadowbat uttered back. "All right well maybe they're just parked there out of coincidence" I murmured trying to keep optimistic as no sooner did a third police vehicle pull up, this time an SUV clearly marked "School Police".

"Quick, go grab your two friends and meet me right back here" Shadowbat instructed. I returned to the window just moments later with both of my buddies. "We're screwed, we gotta hide they're coming in!" Shadowbat yelled. "What?" I shockingly responded, "Yea they just unlocked the front door and rolled in four deep, plus a K9, just get to the fucking attic, we're gonna have to wait them out, it's our best bet." Shadowbat said in a panic. Being on the top floor already we had the advantage of just having to make it up one flight to the attic and in record time we did. Once in the attic we were swallowed by darkness and a chill filled the air. We had no vantage to look out from, only our senses to guide us to safety. A single circular window located at the very crest of the roof line allowed just a glimmer of light to trickle in, barely illuminating the crooked boards and cob web infested rafters as all four of us nervously crawled across a series of shanty wooden planks caked with a hundred years of pigeon shit, slowly scooting ourselves toward the darkest and furthest recesses we could find.

Our clamoring disturbed a flock of roosting pigeons, their plumage falling like snow across our faces as the birds frantically flew about in a wild craze before settling down within the darkness, out of sight. Together all four of us very uncomfortably kneeled along a series of wooden maintenance access boards. I could hear the boards crack as I knelt down to a squatting position, but I convinced myself to quell the fear that it was just the sound of my knees popping. Fortunately our obviously human silhouettes were conveniently obscured behind a pile of fluffy insulation. I pointed out in a whisper that the "floor" below us was merely just plaster so we had to be sure to stay deathly still while balancing upon the narrow wooden attic planks. If we lost balance we'd surely fall straight through to the floor below and into the arms of a hero in blue.

And so we sat. Dead. Still. Twenty minutes of silence, muscle clenching, stomach turning, nerve wracking, time warping silence, so calm that we thought perhaps, just maybe, we were in the clear. But all such positive aspirations were immediately shattered by the faint crackle of a police radio emanating from no more than a floor or two below. "All clear in the basement, I think maybe an animal tripped the motion alarm, I'll reset the gym sector. Send two officers up to the top floor for a final scan", a stern male voice boomed over the airwaves. Moments later we heard the familiar but now haunting sound of the ancient fire door squeak open, followed by heavy boots slowly slumping across the uneven warped wooden floor just below us. The police radio cackled in and out with codes we did not quite understand, for our stomaches were where our brains used to be, no room for logical thought, just pure panic fueled adrenaline. The urge to flee bolted through my legs, I struggled to ignore my primitive flight response, clenching my muscles to keep me put.

Together the four of us remained still like forgotten statues. We felt like helpless mice in a corner being hunted to death by a gnarly ally-cat. Our pupils dilated and our breathing slowed, but our hearts pounded in unison, so loud I feared our assailants would hear. We could clearly hear the officers walking the floor directly beneath us, slamming doors and opening cabinets, remarking curiously just as we had at all the stuff left behind. The officers must have been using their flashlights as occasional beams cut through cracks in the plaster ceiling just below our plank perch, slicing the darkness of the attic with horrifying Maglite rays of authority.

Soon the foot steps grew closer and more forceful, we could literally feel the weight of each stride causing the attic to creak and shift, as the duo of officers ascended the final stairwell into the attic. In that final moment, I held my breath and bit down on my tongue and amongst our pounding hearts I could barely discern each paint chip crunch beneath the officer's boot soles, as our souls in turn prayed for a miracle. In a flash of final terror, the creaky attic door burst open, the natural light from behind flooded into the darkened attic like a massive spotlight aimed directly at our fearfully frozen faces. The silhouette of the officer in front was cast within a gleaming ball of magnificent light, illuminated from the brightness behind, it seemingly appeared as if Jesus Christ Himself had arrived at the very ledge of the attic. I watched in horror between the cracks of my fingers as the officer's flashlight beams swept through the darkness of the attic like a futuristic sword of light which was immediately followed by an obnoxious slew of curses. "Ahh Shit, what the fuck, shit, FUCK!" And with that last expletive, the door slammed closed just as fast as it had opened and we were again swallowed by the comfort of darkness. "Nothing but god damn flying rats up there" we heard the officer utter to his partner, before the radio crackled on again. "All clear on the top floor, nothing but a bunch of fucking pigeons up there, it's too dangerous to send the dog up here anyway". "Roger that," a voice responded back over the radio waves, followed by the sound of footsteps distancing themselves down the stairwell from which they arrived.

We must have all sat crouched in that attic for another god damn three hours before any of us had the nerve to even so much as blink. But beat feat we eventually did, down the stairs, skipping two, three, four steps at a time all the way down toward the basement where we reached that familiar door from which we had entered hours earlier, silhouetted by a border of white light seeping in from the outside. Like a gaze of curious raccoons we nudged the door open just a hair, each peaking out with our beady eyes checking to see if the coast was clear before piling out like a circus van of dunces and clowns, hobbling back to the safety of the sidewalk. The gritty city cement swollen with cracks and caked with the beautiful sight of chewing gum blotches, empty booze bottles, and discarded Black & Mild wrappers; all existing to us within that moment as pure paradise, freedom at its best.