421 Cooper Street
2. 421 Cooper Street, indicated by arrow, early twentieth century prior to 1913. (Camden County Historical Society)
3. 421 Cooper Street, circled, c. 1926, showing renovation. (Photograph detail, Library Company of Philadelphia)
4. Advertisement, Camden Courier-Post, September 20, 1947.
Date of construction
The adjoining rowhouses at 421 and 419 Cooper Street were among the first to be built on the north side of Cooper Street as Cooper family descendants began to divide and sell their inherited property during the 1840s and 1850s. A broker and volunteer firefighter living in Philadelphia, Joseph R. Paulson, and his wife Mildred K. Paulson bought these lots in 1847. At least one house existed on the property by the end of 1848, when Joseph Paulson, at the age of 36, drew up an agreement that revealed expectations of an early death: he placed the properties in trust with his mother-in-law, Hester Keen, with instructions that she collect rents to support his wife and children, a son also named Joseph (then 13 years old) and daughter Emily (then age 5).
A death notice for Joseph R. Paulson appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on November 29, 1849. The family invited relatives, friends, and members of the Humane Engine Company in Philadelphia to his funeral “from his late residence, Cooper Street, near Fifth, Camden, N.J.” They proceeded from there back to Philadelphia on the Arch Street ferry for his burial at Monument Cemetery. His cause of death was not made public. The property on Cooper Street, as he intended, remained a source of rental income and periodically a home for his descendants for the next 75 years.
A Soldier's Family during the Civil War
From 1863 (perhaps earlier) until at least 1869, 421 Cooper Street was the rented home of the Harbert family: Samuel C. Harbert, a dealer in agricultural implements in Philadelphia; his wife, Georgianna; and daughters Mary Virginia and Ella. During the first two years of the Civil War, Harbert served as regimental quartermaster in the New Jersey Fourth Infantry Regiment. The New Jersey Fourth participated in the defense of Washington until March 1862 and then advanced into Virginia and saw action in battles that included Yorktown, Bull Run, and Fredericksburg. Another Camden soldier, 17-year-old Thomas James Howell, demonstrated affection for Harbert's daughter Mary in letters he wrote home before being killed at the Battle of Gaines Mill on June 27, 1862.
Harbert mustered out of the New Jersey Fourth in January 1863 and thereafter served as an officer in the U.S. Volunteers Paymaster's Department Infantry Regiment until November 1865, reaching the rank of major. He also served on the Camden City Council from 1869 to 1871, when the family relocated to Philadelphia, his place of business. Samuel (1818-1888), Georgianna (1821-92), and the daughters are buried in Woodlands Cemetery in Philadelphia.
As the original owner, Joseph Paulson, intended, the Cooper Street property supported his wife during her lifetime and upon her death conveyed to their two children. The siblings, adults by the time of their mother’s death in 1875, then divided ownership of the houses on their inherited land. Joseph Paulson, bearing the same name as his father, became the owner of 421 Cooper Street and a smaller house at the back of the property facing Lawrence Street. The homes continued to be rented to tenants.
Hazards of Youth in the 1880s
From around 1883 until 1892, the home at 421 Cooper Street was rented by the Kean family (sometimes spelled Keen, but apparently not related to the property owners). William C. Kean, a clerk for the Pennsylvania Railroad, and his wife Sarah, headed a family with two daughters and five sons living at home during this period. Sarah Kean's brother, Robert W. Downing, served as Comptroller for the Pennsylvania Railroad, which by 1888 also employed one of the Kean sons, then 17-year-old Charles A., as a clerk.
Camden newspapers recorded some of the experiences of the Kean sons, illustrating some of the hazards of youth the late nineteenth century. In 1884, 18-year-old Edmund suffered a severe contusion of his foot during a rough ride on a ferry boat in fog. In 1885, he made the news again for impertinence to the pastor of Trinity Baptist Church, which expelled him. In 1888, 15-year-old Harry and 13-year-old Joseph (known as Josie) were involved in a tree-cutting accident at their grandparents' farm near Woodbury, with Josie suffering axe cuts to his ankle. ("The shoe saved the foot from being entirely cut off, " the Camden Morning Post reported.) One of the boys, Robert (known as Bertie) did not live to adulthood. He died in the 421 Cooper Street home in July 1890 at the age of 13 from causes not publicly reported. The Camden Morning Post described him as "a bright and promising lad and his affection nature made him a favorite with his companions." As customary, his funeral service also took place at home.
In 1893, the Camden city directory announced the Kean sons as "removed to Philadelphia," and their parents were also across the river by the time of the 1900 Census (at 527 Broad Street, an area favored by transportation magnates). One of the Kean sons, William Jr., became a real estate developer of homes in the Germantown section of Northwest Philadelphia.
Security for a Widow
The Paulson family returned to 421 Cooper Street by 1897, opening a new period when the house again served as a source of income for a widow with young children. Mary A. Maxwell was 27 years old when she married a widower 30 years her senior, Joseph R. Paulson—the son of first owner of 421 Cooper Street. Joseph lived in Philadelphia, listed in public records variously as an optician, cutlery maker, and jewelry merchant.
With Joseph, Mary had two children and together they moved back to Camden and the 421 Cooper Street home. By the 1900 Census, the household consisted of Joseph, age 64; Mary, age 34; their sons Joseph Jr., age 6, and Charles, age 5, and a housekeeper, 55-year-old Clara Brewer. By 1905, Brewer's place had been taken by 21-year-old Rachel Ball, an African American who like many others in the early twentieth century had migrated north from Virginia. The family also added a daughter, Ruth, born 1902. The Paulsons lived at 421 Cooper Street for at least a decade and then, by 1910, made another move to the more fashionable suburb of Haddonfield. Still, they retained ownership of 421 Cooper Street.
In 1911, when Joseph died, the family's former home became a source of financial security for Mary and her children. Mary rented out 421 Cooper Street to other families while living next door at 419 Cooper Street, the other half of the Paulson family property that had passed to Joseph’s sister, Emily. The house at 421 for almost a decade became the rented home for another extended family headed by a widow, Clara Starn, until that family moved in 1920 to Merchantville. It remained a source of income for Mary Paulson and her family until 1925; its change of ownership that year warranted a story in the Camden Courier-Post to note that the property had been in the hands of only two families--the Paulsons and the Coopers--since Camden's earliest history.
1920s Disruption, Opportunity, and Renovation
During the 1920s, a series of disruptions and transitions led Camden boosters to view Cooper Street as a potential business corridor. Construction of the Delaware River Bridge (later renamed the Benjamin Franklin Bridge), completed in 1926, caused demolition of nineteenth-century homes in nearby blocks. Near the Delaware waterfront, the Victor Talking Machine Company demolished a block of Cooper Street homes to expand its factories. Commercial-scale buildings such as the Wilson Building, Camden's first skyscraper (620 Cooper, completed 1925), and the Plaza Hotel (500 Cooper, completed 1927), began to appear. Controversially for longtime residents, Cooper Street was widened in anticipation of increasing automobile traffic.
In the midst of these transitions, 421 Cooper Street changed from a family home to an office building. It was one of a series of renovation projects managed by Julia M. Carey, a 26-year-old daughter of Irish immigrants who had worked as a stenographer and notary before finding new opportunity in real estate sales during the 1920s. On behalf of the Bell-Oliver Corporation, she sold three Cooper Street houses--321, 421, and 521--to investors and stayed on to manage and remodel them. The renovations by the "energetic realty lady" were reported in the Camden Courier-Post of September 11, 1926: at 421 Cooper Street, Carey turned the home into an office building, and leased an office there for herself. (Meanwhile, she turned 321 Cooper Street into an eight-unit apartment house and 521 into offices for lawyers.)
It appears likely that Carey was responsible for the Mission Revival-style ornament that obscured the original facade of 421 Cooper Street. This Spanish-influenced style, which originated on the West Coast, had been rare in Camden but made two other appearances on Cooper Street during the 1920s: in a new commercial building at 525 Cooper and in the Chalcar Apartments building in the 200 block. The renovation of 421 Cooper Street, with enlarged windows and structural changes necessary to install the new Mission Revival ornament, is visible in an aerial photograph of the vicinity of the Delaware River Bridge approach taken c. 1926. The completed renovation can also be seen in the 1947 advertisement published at the top of this page.
Julia M. Carey lived at least briefly, c. 1929-1931, in one of the apartments she created at 321 Cooper Street. She remained involved with the neighborhood until at least 1940, when the Camden city directory listed her as having a real estate office at 521 Cooper.
Helen's Beauty Shop
After the renovation of 421 Cooper, the building had a variety of office tenants, including an insurance agency and promoters of the new Arlington Mausoleum in Pennsauken. But the business tenant who became most well-known to Camden during the 1930s and 1940s arrived in 1933, when Helen Waters opened a beauty shop on the second floor. She vigorously promoted her business with display advertising and flattering promotional articles in the Camden newspapers, encouraging the women of Camden to come to her for the latest in hairstyling and cosmetics.
By the time Helen opened her shop at 421 Cooper, she had been widowed and her work as a beautician supported two daughters. The 1930 Census found her at age 30 living at the Harding Villa Apartments on Federal Street while her daughters Patricia and Dorothy, then aged 9 and 10, lived with her parents Daniel and Lida Chester elsewhere in Camden. Helen, who had an eighth-grade education, worked as a beautician for Binder's Beauty Shop in Philadelphia before opening her own establishment at 421 Cooper Street, where she and her daughters also came to live. In 1938, Waters added cosmetics and facials to her business. Her daughters both graduated from high school, including at least one year at Mount St. Mary's Academy run by the Sisters of Mercy in Plainfield, New Jersey. In 1940, living with their mother at 421 Cooper, Dorothy worked as a typist and Patricia as a telephone operator. Patricia actively promoted a women's basketball league in Camden for former high school players.
Other businesses and organizations, including the Camden County Real Estate Board and the Camden County Democratic Party, had offices in 421 Cooper while Helen operated the shop and lived upstairs. In 1945, after both of her daughters had married, Helen bought the building but retained ownership only until 1947. When she put 421 Cooper Street up for sale, it offered an office suite on the first floor, additional office space on the second floor, "plus three nicely planned apartments with modern tile baths." Helen continued to operate her beauty salon in the building until at least 1950, but after its sale she moved behind it to 426 Lawrence Street.
Residential, Professional, Commercial
During the second half of the twentieth century, 421 Cooper Street served all elements of the transitions noted in the justification for naming Cooper Street a historic district on the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places in 1989. Its next owner, Ernest F. Birbeck, was an optician who moved his practice from the Plaza Hotel, then nearby at Fifth and Cooper Street, into 421 Cooper in 1950. He commuted from Pennsauken until he retired in 1967. His business tenants included a hearing aid center and a eyewear shop whose co-owner, B. Morozin, became the next owner of 421 Cooper. Under Morozin's ownership in the early 1970s, Rutgers-Camden students lived upstairs in space advertised as "dorm style" with a kitchen, dining room and air conditioning, for up to 10 people.
The Rutgers connection to 421 Cooper Street continued when another office tenant, lawyer Joseph Liebman, purchased the building in 1977. Liebman, a graduate of Rutgers Law School in Camden, lived in Philadelphia but according to information published in the Courier-Post had an office in 421 Cooper Street for fifty-five years. After one more change of ownership to another Philadelphia attorney/investor, Raymond Quaglia, Rutgers acquired the building in 1999.
On February 27, 2020, the Camden Historic Preservation Commission voted unanimously to dismiss with prejudice an application by Rutgers to demolish 421 Cooper Street. It further recommended reconstruction of the building, including restoring the facade.
On March 6, 2020, a request from Rutgers for emergency demolition of 421 Cooper Street was declined by the Historic Preservation Office of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection on the basis that the building's condition resulted from long-term deterioration.
On June 11, 2020, the Camden City Planning Board voted unanimously to deny Rutgers' request to demolish 421 Cooper Street.
Camden and Philadelphia Newspapers (Newspapers.com).
Camden City Directories (Camden County Historical Society and Ancestry.com).
Camden County Property Records.
Cooper Street Historic District, National Register Nomination, U.S. Department of Interior.
Digital Photographs Collection, Library Company of Philadelphia.
New Jersey State Census, 1885, 1895, 1915, and U.S. Census, 1870-1950 (Ancestry.com).
Property Report, 421 Cooper Street, New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.
Structures Survey, 421 Cooper Street, New Jersey Office of Cultural and Environmental Services.
Note on sources: The historic structure report for this property dates it as “before 1885.” This research updates and corrects the record.
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