New Life Comes to Old John Kerr

Old John Kerr SchoolAs we saw last week, the future of the Old John Kerr School remained in limbo after bids from PHW and Melco were rejected by the City Council. The disposition of the Old John Kerr building became perhaps the most troubling stumbling block to the preservation of the building. Everyone seemed to agree that the building should be saved, was of vital importance to our history, and the best use of the site was not as a parking lot. The only way to enact the preservation was for the building to be sold, and yet bids or plans after six years had swayed the City to part with the building. PHW continued to champion for Old John Kerr, hoping to find another outside entity that could purchase and rehabilitate the old school.

In 1981, a Boston developer was given the green light to redevelop the school into apartments, but again, the deal fell through when federal assistance did not materialize.(1) (2) It was not until 1982 that Shenandoah University (then Shenandoah College and Conservatory of Music) proposed to use the building for nursing and music branch, as well as a community arts center. Despite all the previous setbacks with the various offers on the building, optimism about this deal was high. SU President Jim Davis had done his homework, approached the right people well in advance, and made this offer as painless – and as tempting – to the City as possible.(3) (4)

Like the Conrad House, the affection held for this building brought forth an outpouring of support from the community – this time financial in nature. PHW was thrilled by the prospect of the college tackling the renovation and donated $10,000 to the project in 1982.(5) (6) (7) To help meet the pledge amount, PHW produced “Save John Kerr – It’s Elementary” bumper stickers for every $10 donation. Many other entities also contributed to the project, ensuring the Old John Kerr would not run out of resources before the building could be polished and furnished. In conjunction with the financial support, Winchester Star editorials and retrospectives of the school kept the issue in the limelight as the building approached its centennial year in 1983, reopening at last as another educational center for the community.

Although prospects for the school had looked bleak through much of the 1970s and early 1980s, the persistence and commitment of Winchester’s citizens to retaining their beloved school paid off. Shenandoah University continues to operate the building as the Shenandoah Conservatory Arts Academy, offering children instruction in dance, music, theater, art, and fitness, continuing the legacy of the philanthropist John Kerr and his vision for education the children of Winchester.