Shortly after the Elizabeth V. Edwards School closed in 2004, strange things began happening: ghost sightings, creaking sounds echoing in the halls of the empty building, music playing, and telephone ringings.
Some locals believe the two-story school on North Main Street in Barnegat, Ocean County, is haunted by its namesake and other friendly ghosts. The supernatural encounters drew the attention several years ago of the Syfy network’s Ghost Hunters, a reality show that follows paranormal investigators.
“It’s not haunted in a bad way. They’re good ghosts,” said Art Walshe, 53, a maintenance worker who was in the school alone in 2006 around the time the sightings began.
Walshe and others believe the friendly spirits of Edwards and some of her former colleagues roam the building. Born in 1874, Edwards began teaching in 1903 in the Barnegat Public School, a one-room schoolhouse. She eventually became principal.
Edwards never worked in the school that is named after her but was well-known. She died in 1965 at age 90. Ten years later, Barnegat High School was renamed the Elizabeth V. Edwards School.
Today, the abandoned 91-year-old building has real-life earthly problems. Neglect has taken a toll and it has fallen into disrepair. Unless the school district can find an investor to make $21 million in electrical, plumbing, and mechanical repairs, officials say, the legendary school could be demolished.
“From the front of the building, it looks great,” said school board president Sean O’Brien. “But once you get inside it’s a complete mess.”
Inside the boarded-up school, chipped paint is peeling from the walls. A roof leak caused extensive damage and the basement is flooded with about a foot of water. A pungent, musty smell permeates the stuffy air. There is no electricity, so officials use flashlights to navigate the dark corridors.
There are a few signs that generations of students once attended the school. A classroom is lined with wooden chairs. A book left in a science lab is opened to a page on New Jersey history. A cryptic chalk message on a blackboard reads, “Leave while you still can.”
It is unknown why Edwards would frequent the school in the afterlife. She had a reputation as a passionate educator and disciplinarian. Edwards never married and knew everyone.
Walshe said he welcomed the schoolmarm’s presence — after he got accustomed to unexplained occurrences. Like the time an unplugged rotary telephone sitting on the floor in the principal’s office began ringing. He believes the apparition he saw regularly was Edwards, occasionally flanked by a man in khaki pants, possibly another school employee named George.
“I believe it because I saw it,” said Walshe.
Others reported hearing items toppling over, lockers slamming, flickering lights, and ‘40s music playing. There were also scents of cigarette smoke and chocolate.
Eventually, Walshe became so comfortable with the spirits that he fondly welcomed them when he arrived at work daily:
“Good morning, Miss Edwards. Good morning, George.”
Located on a busy roadway in a quaint downtown, the school was an architectural marvel when it was built in 1930 and served as Barnegat High School until 1957. It was then used as an elementary school until operations ceased in 2004 with just a few administrative offices maintained in the building.
An ornately designed auditorium remains surprisingly intact with carved chairs, massive chandeliers, and an upright piano. Planks in a wooden stage have been uprooted by the humidity. A clock on the wall stopped at 2:35 p.m. The auditorium could seat several hundred and was used for theater and sporting events.
“It would be nice to see it when it was freshly done,” said Ben Fazio, the district’s facilities director.
O’Brien said the school board recently formed a committee to find a way to repurpose the school to try to save the building, possibly as a community center. Other suggestions include converting it into atechnology or vocational center.
Resident Claudia Ernest said she wasn’t bothered by the ghost sightings and hopes the building is saved. She believes her 150-year-old house a few doors away in the same block is haunted.
“Do I really care? They aren’t bothering me,” said Ernest as she pushed her grandchildren by in a stroller.
The district, which enrolls about 3,600 students in six schools, doesn’t currently need additional classrooms, said Superintendent Brian Latwis. It would cost about $25 million to build a new school.
“It’s a beautiful building. We would love to do something with it,” he said.
Several prospective buyers have expressed interest in the building, but officials worry they may be discouraged by the hefty price tag for repairs.
O’Brien said the district hopes to make a decision about what to do with the building in about a year. The last resort is demolition, which would cost about $780,000, he said.
“It’s a classic school,” O’Brien said. “This building has character.”