Cooper Mansion (121 Cooper Street)

Building-The_Morning_Post_Sat__Nov_27__1897_.jpg

Title

Cooper Mansion (121 Cooper Street)

Description

Demolished home to two generations of the Cooper family, later a public library.

Illustrations

Camden Post, November 27, 1897.

Significance

Built during the 1820s and home to two generations of the Cooper family, the mansion at 121 Cooper Street later served as a public library and an important site of activism for woman suffrage and other civic projects led by Camden women.

Architectural style

Federal, adapted to Second Empire by addition of Mansard roof.

Date of construction

ca. 1825

History

A large brick house, home to descendants of Camden’s founding Cooper family for two generations, stood on Cooper Street between Front and Second Streets for nearly a century, from the 1820s until 1919. The land, later designated as Johnson Park, had been acquired by members of the Cooper family from another English Quaker landholder in 1689. Richard Matlack Cooper, who inherited the property from his grandfather, chose it as the location for a residence that reflected his prominence, wealth, and need to accommodate a large family: his wife, Mary Cooper, eight of their children, periodically other relatives, and the domestic servants whose labor sustained the household. Built by 1825 (possibly earlier), the symmetrical red-brick structure was five bays wide and at least that deep. A brick wall surrounded the residence, a brick stable stood in the rear, and fruit trees shaded the grounds.

The home’s first head of household, Richard M. Cooper, played a significant role in the economic vitality of Camden through his roles with the State Bank of Camden, initially as its first cashier (1812-14) and then as its president (1814-42). The bank, one of the institutions that propelled Camden’s growth as a city less dependent on Philadelphia, stood just a block away from the Cooper Mansion (as it came to be known). Cooper also held positions in government, including judge and justice of the Gloucester County courts and state assemblyman. In 1829, he was elected to the first of two terms in the U.S. Congress on an anti-Jacksonian ticket headed by John Quincy Adams for president. His politics aligned with his banking interests as he opposed President Andrew Jackson’s dismantling of the centralized Second Bank of the United States, headquartered in Philadelphia. Cooper’s votes on military matters were consistent with his faith heritage as a Quaker as well as anti-Jacksonian politics. During his first term, he voted against the Indian Removal Act, which nevertheless passed and forced Native Americans to relocate to territory west of the Mississippi River. During the nullification crisis of 1832-33, when South Carolina attempted to declare a federally enacted tariff null and voice within the state, Cooper voted against giving Jackson the power to use military authority to enforce collecting duties on imports.

When Richard M. Cooper died in 1843 at age 76, the mansion on Cooper Street and the rest of his property passed in equal parts to his children, with the provision that half of the income from his holdings be reserved for his wife, Mary (who outlived him by more than two decades). She continued to inhabit the mansion, together with her adult unmarried children and domestic servants. Prominent among the siblings were the youngest, who were twins: Dr. Richard M. Cooper and lawyer William D. Cooper, who were around 30 years of age at the time of their father’s death. Dr. Cooper played a leading role in public health in Camden, including co-founding a dispensary to provide medical services to indigent patients. The twins’ older sisters Elizabeth, Mary, and Sarah became known for their support of charitable causes. By 1860, the household of siblings and Irish domestic servants also included a 13-year-old niece, Helen Cooper, whose mother had died. (In later years, Helen married another prominent resident of Cooper Street, Dr. Henry Genet Taylor.)

The younger generation of Coopers waited until after their mother’s death in 1869 to renovate the mansion to reflect contemporary architectural tastes. The formerly two-story house became three stories with the additional of a Mansard roof, a European design element that had become popular in France and the United States. Similar renovations were taking place at other older homes around Camden. The West Jersey Press took note of the widespread improvements during these years following the Civil War, observing, “They evince the highest taste in many cases, and some of the buildings metamorphosed possess considerable architectural beauty. The Mansard roof is a great addition, and has been generally adopted, where changes have been made.”

The twins Richard and William Cooper nurtured an idea for another Camden improvement, in the form of a hospital. Although both of them died in the mid-1870s before the project could be carried out, their sisters Elizabeth and Sarah and another brother, Alexander, stepped forward to contribute and raise the necessary funds. The Camden Hospital–soon named Cooper Hospital–opened in 1887. A building for the hospital stood ready by 1877, but it took another ten years to fund an endowment to support its operations.

Uncertain Future

By 1880, the household at the Cooper Mansion had diminished to only the sisters Elizabeth, age 74, and Sarah, age 76, with four or five servants (most of them Irish immigrants). The sisters’ deaths in the 1880s closed a chapter for the mansion as a family home and opened uncertainty about the future for the property. At the time of the mansion’s construction, Camden was only beginning to emerge as a city and the Cooper family held most of the land north of Cooper Street as undeveloped property. But the terms of Richard M. Cooper’s will in 1843 had released his heirs to develop the land as they saw fit. At that fortuitous time, when Camden gained in status as the seat of newly formed Camden County, building lots sold at a fast clip.  The square where the mansion stood, between the industrialized Delaware River waterfront to the west and recently built residential blocks to the east, consequently became a rare open space in the fast-growing, densely developing city. Only two other houses stood in the block, both facing Front Street.

During the 1890s, the future of the Cooper Mansion touched off a debate in Camden. The local Women’s Parks Association, formed in 1893, succeeded in persuading the Camden City Council to purchase the mansion and its square from the Cooper Estate for $75,000 (financed by a bond issue) in 1895. The resulting Cooper Park, with its new landscape of curving walks, benches, and streetlamps, raised a question of whether the old mansion should be retained within the more picturesque setting. The Parks Association, which had responsibility for maintaining the square, divided over the issue; for a time, a committee of City Council supported demolition. A flurry of public debate in the fall of 1897 centered primarily on whether the outmoded aesthetics of the building marred an otherwise improved public space. Opponents of demolition argued for giving the mansion a new purpose as a manual training high school or a library. In a victory for a project long favored by the Camden Woman’s Club (whose membership overlapped with the Parks Association) and other influential citizens, the proponents of the library prevailed.

Library

The mansion, reduced in size by demolition of a  rear extension, opened as the Cooper Library in 1898 with a collection of 2,000 books amassed through public donations. The building remained a residence as well, but only for park caretakers and a librarian. The caretaker from at least 1900 through 1909, Thomas Jones, nurtured the plants and trees of the park and kept it spotless. Known affectionately to parkgoers as “Pop,” Jones shared quarters in the mansion with his wife and teenage son. Jones had immigrated from Ireland as a child; his wife Ellen’s parents also were Irish. Also resident in the mansion-turned-library was the librarian, Marietta Kay Champion. A descendant of the prominent Kay family of Haddonfield, Champion was a longtime Camden resident whose father had been one of the founders of St. Paul’s Church on Market Street. Champion’s formal schooling had ended in the eighth grade, but she pursued further education through the Camden University Extension, which offered college-level lectures for adults (in that program, she earned honorable mention for a paper on “The Story of Faust” in 1891). Champion also had a keen interest in history. On the basis of documenting her genealogy, she became a member of the Colonial Dames Society; later in life, she served as secretary of the Camden County Historical Society (which met for a time in the library).

The Cooper Library soon became designated as a branch within a small system of libraries in Camden. In 1903, Camden accepted a gift of $100,000 from Pennsylvania steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, who financed library buildings around the country in keeping with his “Gospel of Wealth” philosophy. The new Carnegie-funded building, which opened in 1905 on Broadway at Line Street, became the central Camden Free Library; in addition to the Cooper Branch Library in the former mansion, another branch opened in East Camden.

Women's Activism

Just as women had played a pivotal role in establishing Cooper Park and saving the mansion, they increasingly used the Cooper Branch Library as a place for gathering and activism. These activities escalated after 1907, when a renovation installed an auditorium on the building’s second floor. The Camden Woman’s Club, a mainstay of civic and social activity for middle- and upper-class women since 1894, moved its headquarters to the library after the renovation. By 1912, the library began hosting speakers who promoted woman suffrage, and it hosted meetings of the Camden Equal Suffragist League beginning with the organization’s founding in 1913. Local  Daughters of the American Revolution met at the library and established a Visiting Nurses Society, which also met there. At the Cooper Branch Library in 1916, with the Great War underway in Europe, local women organized a chapter of the New Jersey Women’s Division for National Preparedness. During the war, the library became headquarters for the Red Cross. Other groups that united women and men for civic betterment—the Civic Club and the Playgrounds Commission, for example—gathered in the library as well. Collectively, these activities made the Cooper Branch Library a center for Progressive Era causes for more than a decade and defined it as predominantly a place for women’s activism.

An act of philanthropy in 1915 signaled an approaching end to the mansion’s service as a library and community center. Eldridge R. Johnson, the founder and president of the Victor Talking Machine Company, announced his intention to donate $130,000 for construction of a new, modern library in Cooper Park to replace the older building. Johnson’s factories and offices, the product of rapid expansion since the company’s founding in 1901, stood adjacent to the park. He intended the gift to provide a library more in keeping with the scale and impressive, neoclassical architecture of cultural institutions in major American cities. Although not stated as such in the public record, such a library would compare favorably or potentially outshine to the central Camden Free Library that had been funded by Andrew Carnegie. The new Cooper Branch Library, constructed behind the old Cooper Mansion, opened in 1919. Then, with only a ripple of public opposition, contractors demolished the mansion. Johnson donated additional funds to renovate and beautify the square, which the city renamed Johnson Park in his honor in 1920.

Associated Individuals

For a list of all known occupants of 121 Cooper Street, visit the Cooper Street Residents Database and scroll down to 121.

Sources

Camden City Directories (Camden County Historical Society and Ancestry.com).
Camden County Property Records.
New Jersey State Census, 1885-1915, and U.S. Census, 1850-1910 (Ancestry.com).
Camden, New Jersey, Newspapers.
Prowell, George R. The History of Camden County, New Jersey. Philadelphia: L.J. Richards & Co., 1886.
"Twenty-First Congress" and "Twenty-Second Congress" (Proquest).

Research by

Charlene Mires and Lucy Davis

Posted by

Charlene Mires

Collection

Citation

“Cooper Mansion (121 Cooper Street),” Learning From Cooper Street, accessed April 22, 2024, https://omeka.camden.rutgers.edu/items/show/103.

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