Lawrence Street (400 Block)
Date of construction
The 400 block of Lawrence Street is a remnant of working-class life in Camden as the city industrialized and its population grew rapidly. The surviving two-story rowhouses in this block date to the late 1840s and early 1850s, when Cooper family landholders began to divide their property north of Cooper Street into building lots. Because the lots extended from Cooper Street, a dominant thoroughfare, to narrow Lawrence Street, buyers had the opportunity to build houses facing both streets. This produced the dual character of the 400 block, with its substantial three-story homes facing Cooper Street as well as the smaller two-story rowhouses facing Lawrence Street. When the Cooper Street Historic Street was nominated for the National Register of Historic Places in 1989, the Lawrence Street buildings were included to provide “a comprehensive view of Cooper Street’s social history” and “a clear view of the economic and social dichotomy that has continued to typify Camden.” The first owners in this block lived in their Cooper Street-facing houses or leased them to prosperous tenants; the smaller Lawrence Street rowhouses, in contrast, became working-class rental properties.
The Lawrence Street houses developed in four segments. In 1845, one of the buyers of Cooper family land, Hannah Atwood, bought three adjoining lots and over time erected seven structures: three on Cooper Street (413, 415, and 417) and four on Lawrence Street (416, 418, 420, and 422). When rented to tenants, the houses provided a steady income while Hannah’s husband, Jesse Atwood, pursued a career as a traveling portrait artist. In 1846, a Camden County public official and ferry company officer, Isaac Porter, also purchased a parcel in the 400 block for his residence at 425 Cooper Street and added two adjoining smaller houses on Lawrence Street (432 and 434). The lots between the Atwood and Porter properties sold in 1847: A Philadelphia merchant, Joseph R. Paulson, put up two houses facing Cooper Street (419 and 421) and two on Lawrence Street with a small alley between them (424 and 426). Bank teller Jesse Townsend erected one house on Cooper Street (423) and two on Lawrence Street (428 and 430). These transactions and investments filled in much of Cooper and Lawrence Street between Fourth and Fifth Streets. Of the ten houses built on Lawrence Street, six survived into the twenty-first century. A wood-framed house at 416 Lawrence was demolished in the 1880s; three others (428, 430, and 434) were replaced or adapted as automobile garages in the twentieth century.
Tenants on Lawrence Street often changed from year to year, but their brief residence on this block made it a place of striving and struggle, births and deaths, and participation in the social and economic life of Camden. By 1854, the 400 block of Lawrence Street had at least six residents, who were documented in the Philadelphia city directory as living on “Lawrence below Fifth” in Camden. The early existence of Lawrence Street houses is also documented by an 1855 building contract that cited two of them (432 and 434) as models for a row to be built elsewhere in Camden. The earliest known residents of the block included a ferryman, a cordwainer (shoemaker), a blacksmith, and a carpenter—the types of skilled trades and occupations that typified tenants on Lawrence Street during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Skilled Trades, Large Families
Occupations on the block reflected nearby opportunities to earn a living. Men often worked in construction trades, which would have been in demand as North Camden filled with houses, or in jobs related to livery stables (drivers, blacksmiths, hostlers, and coachmen). Some worked on the waterfront on ferries that plied the river between Camden and Philadelphia or, later, in shipyards. Women worked in needle trades (dress making, tailoring, lace making), took in laundry, or tended to boarders in addition to housekeeping for family members. As Camden industrialized, residents of Lawrence Street also went to work in factories, including the Esterbrook Steel Pen Company and Victor Talking Machine Company on Cooper Street.
Lawrence Street filled with families. The U.S. Census in 1860 recorded large families that would have strained the capacity of the houses, which typically consisted of four or five rooms. For example, Christian Bott, a sawyer, and his wife, Christiana, both German immigrants, headed a family with six children under the age of 10. Their neighbors included Nicholas Snider (or Snyder), a watchman who was born in France, and his wife, Margaret (who was born in New Jersey), who had seven children ranging in age from 5 to 19. Such large families remained common, although not universal, among Lawrence Street’s tenants throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. With so many people in such close quarters, the street and backyards would have been active with children’s voices and energy.
Women and Children
Lawrence Street’s tenants included households headed by women. They were widowed, divorced, or otherwise separated from husbands, and often they were supporting young children. At least two women on Lawrence Street tended young families while their husbands served in the Civil War (one of the children in this circumstance, Lettie Ward of 432 Lawrence Street, grew up to become Camden’s second female physician). Other women struggled to keep families together. For example, Mary Benbow, a widow who rented 418 Lawrence Street beginning in 1878, for a time surrendered three of her five children to the Camden Home for Friendless Children. On Lawrence Street, Benbow took in washing to earn a living; two of her sons returned from the children’s home when they were old enough to work and contribute to the family economy. Other struggles of child-rearing surfaced periodically in Camden and Philadelphia newspapers in the form of advertisements, for example an 1859 notice in the Philadelphia Public Ledger that sought an adoptive parent for “a healthy male Child nine months old” and directed inquiries to “Lawrence Street, first house above Fourth, between Cooper and Penn, Camden.” In 1916, an ad placed in the Camden Morning Post read: “Home wanted for 6-year-old boy; lady works all the time; will pay small board. Call evenings. 418 Lawrence Street.”
The Diversity of Camden
In contrast to the mostly white, native-born homeowners on Cooper Street, Lawrence Street’s population represented many of the waves of migration and immigration that created the city’s diverse population. In addition to residents born in New Jersey or Pennsylvania, immigrants or second-generation Americans who rented in this block had ancestries rooted predominantly in western European countries (Germany, England, Ireland, or France). At various times the street also had at least one Japanese-American resident and several Scandinavians and Canadians. Lawrence Street’s population also reflected the migration of African Americans from southern states to northern cities. During the late 1890s and the first years of the twentieth century, Black tenants lived in three of the Lawrence Street houses (422, 428, and 430). They worked primarily in food service occupations. (One of the Black children who lived on Lawrence Street in 1902, Edward A. Reid, in later life became the first Black judge to be appointed in Camden County.) During the second half of the twentieth century, Lawrence Street also reflected the increasing presence of Puerto Rican-born migrants to Camden.
From Countryside to City
While urban in character, the houses on Lawrence Street originally looked out on a mostly rural landscape extending three-quarters of a mile northward to the bend in the Delaware River. The view changed dramatically from the 1860s through the 1880s as the Cooper family heirs sold more of their property to builders, who filled in the blocks of North Camden with houses built two or three at a time or in continuous rows. Nevertheless, the Lawrence Street houses had a bit of a buffer from dense development because they faced the site of a mansion built by a member of the Cooper family at 406 Penn Street, the next street north, around 1869. (The structure survives as the Admissions Office for Rutgers-Camden.) Most Lawrence Street residents lost their direct view of the mansion’s expansive lawn and adjoining undeveloped lots by the 1880s, after a large stable serving the mansion was added to the north side of Lawrence Street. This addition meant that more than half the Lawrence Street houses had the sights, smells, and traffic of the stable twenty feet from their front doors.
By the 1920s and 1930s, Lawrence Street tended to house fewer people, with tenants consisting primarily of married couples or families with two or three children. More of the residents worked in factories, and fewer in trades. The advent of automobiles also changed this block as some property owners opted to build garages in place of their rental properties. The long-vacant site of 416 Lawrence Street, where a wood-framed house had been demolished in the 1880s, gained an automobile garage. Another garage replaced two of the Lawrence Street houses (428-430) to serve the needs of the funeral home then operating at 423 Cooper Street. Finally, in the 1940s, 434 Lawrence Street was adapted into a garage as part of a renovation of the adjoining larger house facing Fifth Street (211 N. Fifth Street), which left its twin at 432 Lawrence Street standing alone between two garages. The longstanding stable on the north side of the street also became an automobile garage.
Six houses remained on a block that had acquired the character of a service alley between Cooper and Penn Streets. They were included in the “hazardous” (or red-lined) zone designated in 1937 by the federal Home Owners’ Loan Corporation. Applying a broad brush, the HOLC deemed all of North Camden north of Cooper Street and west of Tenth Street—deteriorating and stable blocks alike—as high-risk investments because of aging structures and residents perceived as “undesirable” on the basis of income, race, or ethnicity.
Survivors of Urban Renewal
Red-lining set the stage for later urban renewal, which also impacted the surviving houses on Lawrence Street. During the 1940s, residents on Lawrence Street gained a new neighbor when the College of South Jersey and South Jersey School of Law—the predecessor institutions of Rutgers-Camden—purchased the mansion at 406 Penn Street. While that house became an administration and classroom building, at the back of the property (across from the Lawrence Street houses) the college converted former stables and garages for classrooms and added a building for the law school in 1949. After the college affiliated with Rutgers University in 1950, the growing institution turned to urban renewal strategies to demolish six mostly-residential blocks and create an expanded campus—yet the Lawrence Street houses survived. They stood just outside the south boundary of the urban renewal zone, spared because they occupied the same block as Cooper Street-facing houses perceived as having commercial value. They remained standing as the Rutgers-Camden campus took shape, including a new law school building (constructed beginning in 1969) that backed onto Lawrence Street with a tall brick exterior wall that loomed over the houses on the opposite side.
During the second half of the twentieth century, some of the Lawrence Street houses remained investment properties but others were owner-occupied. Recognizing the block as an increasingly rare survivor from Camden’s history, some individuals invested in preservation as well as property. Edward Teitelman, a psychiatrist whose preservation interests in Camden included the Henry Genet Taylor house (305 Cooper Street), purchased 424 and 426 Lawrence Street in 1969 and held them through the 1980s. The City of Camden also recognized the historic value of the block when drawing boundaries for the Cooper Street Historic District, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989. At the time, the Lawrence Street houses were thought to have been back-of-property dwellings for servants working on Cooper Street. Although recent research has disproved this theory, the history of the street nevertheless supports the significance stated in the National Register nomination: that Lawrence Street together with Cooper Street represents “a comprehensive view of Cooper Street’s social history.”
Rutgers University acquired the surviving Lawrence Street houses between 2005 and 2007 as it envisioned future expansion of the Camden campus. Most of the houses stood vacant by the early 2020s, awaiting future uses, but one served as the Rutgers Cooperative Extension Food Bank.
Camden and Philadelphia City Directories.
Camden and Philadelphia Newspapers.
Camden County Deeds.
Cooper Street Historic District, National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, 1989.
Mapping Inequality: Redlining in New Deal America (Camden, New Jersey).
Sanborn Insurance Maps, 1885-1950.
U.S. and New Jersey Census, 1870-1950.
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