Willson Middle School – Cleveland, OH

A once beautiful middle school now put to ruin.

This 3 story, yellow-bricked, colossal school building; once a neighborhood site where children would have carried books, papers, back packs and fresh pencils through its halls is now a monumental tribute to decay.

We wander these classrooms, where students would have joined for lectures and schoolwork to strengthen their minds, as well as the gym, where they would have practiced and disciplined themselves through sports. In the early 90’s, school sports teams, cheerleaders and families would fill the auditorium and gym for functions. A school where students once would sharpen not just the fresh pencils, which remain, left behind in debris, but also their minds. Now a crumbling, yet beautiful mess of decay, destruction, and street art through its walls from the main auditorium, through every locker remaining within the bays, to the very depths of its boiler room.

The structure was built in 1903 by architect Frank S. Barnum and was named for the street it faced, at the time being Willson. Later on in 1905 the city adapted to a numbered-street system as was used through NYC and Chicago. This idea was proposed by Eliot Ness who after hunting Al Capone, became Safety Director for the city of Cleveland. The system was proved to work helping safety forces navigate their way around the city in both NYC and Chicago, and was soon after approved in Cleveland.

The windows at the base are now boarded, while all above are open and void of glass, leaving the interior a victim to changing weather, which includes the rain and snow Cleveland has to offer.

Our first exploration took place the day after Cleveland got its worst of hurricane Sandy and a lot of the building was drenched throughout classrooms from rain bombarding the city.

I sat, scrunched up in the mouth of a tall, skinny window where its glass panes had been broken away, my back and feet against each side of its frame. My feet kicked away bits of cracking paint from its edges as I sat with a vast world of silence on either side of me, each one its own world of decay. The streets outside are littered with fluttering trash, gapped roads, and cracked sidewalks lined with forgotten, vacated structures. Clouded air filled the stale, damp area beside where I sat while dust collected on the tops of desks scattered with math books and past homework papers.

From deep within the structure; up and down through stairwells, in and out of classrooms, down cluttered hallways, past lockers and classrooms, you could hear a faint pitter-patter of dripping, the crumbling surroundings dropping to the floors where children once ran to catch the bell, the fluttering of children’s old school papers, and the constant slamming of classroom doors being swept wide open and pushed shut, violently by the wind. It was almost as if you could feel the life continuing to live on through the halls of Willson Middle School.

I reclined in a desk, relaxed and lit my final cigarette. Chilled, peaceful, and alone I sat but I could not shake the feeling of being surrounded by the children’s presence which once roamed these halls almost a century ago. The crackling of a cigarette, and a tail of smoke swiveling from the glowing red ember was all that filled the air while I sat grasping that moment in time. The dampness bound to the air as it covered the room, and the life of Wilson Elementary lived on through vividly painted scenes of imagination, which raced through my mind as I sat quiet at the desk. It brought a sense of warmth, clarity, and calmness to my day.

I suddenly began to feel chilled and timid. Shaky from my wrists to my fingertips, I decided to stand up and walk through the hallway outside the classroom door. I strolled to the auditorium and gazed over a vast, empty room; curtains remained hanging tattered, debris strewn across the stage, and an Adamesque sculpted edge bordering the entire show. This view was that of pure beauty within the eyes of an explorer.

Where one may see just an empty and decaying auditorium, an explorer will see a canvas full of color, beauty, history, and inspiration. Everything can be beautiful, and everything can become art; some just hides behind the eyes of closed-mindedness. Are you holding onto an empty canvas and a full pallet of un-used colors? If so, chances are you’re not doing very well at applying your imagination to the canvas right in front of you.



One thought on “Willson Middle School – Cleveland, OH

  1. I’ve always wanted to explore the school and take pictures, but i was never sure how safe it was to go down or how to get in it! advice? thanks!


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