407 Cooper Street

407 Cooper St-50pct.jpg

Title

407 Cooper Street

Description

Contributing structure, Cooper Street Historic District.

Illustrations

Photograph by Jacob Lechner

Significance

407 Cooper Street is a contributing structure of the Cooper Street Historic District, listed on the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places, and notable as the home of a nineteenth-century descendant of the Cooper family. The district's nomination for the National Register identifies significance in part for the presence of Camden’s “most intact examples of nineteenth-century houses” and their embodiment of “the street’s change from residential and professional to commercial.” The house at 407 Cooper Street embodies this change through its history as a single-family home that transitioned to medical offices and apartments during the 1920s as affluent families moved to suburban towns during the construction period for the Delaware River Bridge (later renamed the Benjamin Franklin Bridge). In 2000, Rutgers University acquired the building, which became home to the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminal Justice.

Architectural style

Greek Revival

Date of construction

1871

History

Among the many building lots that heirs of the Cooper family sold on the north side of Cooper Street during the 1840s and 1850s, they retained one: the lot at 407, which remained undeveloped until construction of a three-story brick rowhouse in 1871. By that date, the lot had continued to pass through the family to William B. Cooper, who leased the house to another tenant for several years before retiring from farming in Stockton Township and moving into Camden in 1876 when he was 62 years old.

The Cooper Family and Legacies of Slavery

Descended from the first European landholders of the area that became Camden, William B. Cooper was born in 1814 in a house built by his grandparents in Delaware Township (later known as Stockton and still later developed into the Cramer Hill section of Camden). In the tradition of his Quaker family, he attended the Newton Friends School and later the Westtown Boarding School in Chester County, Pennsylvania. He returned to New Jersey and joined his father and brother Benjamin in farming the Cooper land.

According to an 1886 history of Camden County, the two brothers and their father were “in the days of slavery … devoted friend[s] of the refugee slaves, and would do anything to comfort and protect them.” Research by the Camden County Historical Society has identified the Camden area as “Station A” on the Underground Railroad in New Jersey, and the Coopers’ Stockton Township property afforded an especially conducive location on the Delaware River opposite Petty Island. In earlier years, however, the extended Cooper family had benefitted from enslaved labor and the slave trade. The Historical Society’s research documented sales of enslaved people at Camden ferry landings, including the Cooper Point ferry that William B. Cooper’s father leased to a Philadelphia operator. Two such transactions took place while the lease was in effect (1762-64) and one after it ended. During the late eighteenth century, another member of the family, Marmaduke Cooper, is known to have held fourteen slaves on another plantation (where his home, Pomona Hall, became a museum).

Those Cooper connections with slavery took place before William B. Cooper was born, but his life nevertheless entwined with the hierarchies of race that prevailed in the nineteenth century. In Stockton Township and at 407 Cooper Street, his household had both white and Black residents. At the head of the household were William and his wife, Phoebe, a descendant of another Quaker settler family, the Emlens; living with them was William’s older sister, Elizabeth. For the work of the household, they employed Black domestic servants, most consistently a woman in her 50s, Mary Ann Christmas, who moved with them from the farm to the city.

Apart from the Coopers, Christmas headed her own household in Stockton Township, documented in the 1880 Census as including four children, among them a 9-year-old daughter already in domestic service with the Cooper family and a 12-year-old son working as a waiter in a hotel. An 11-year-old son was attending school; an 8-year-old daughter was not. The household also included a nephew, Joseph Dean, who at 23 years old could not read or write; he worked as a coachman for the Coopers and joined his aunt at the new house at 407 Cooper Street. Although separated from her own household, while in the Coopers’ employ Christmas amassed wages enough to purchase property in 1883. The lot and single-story frame house, in the vicinity of Twenty-Ninth Street and Mitchell Streets in Cramer Hill, remained the family home for at least two decades.

In their elder years in Camden, the three Coopers of 407 Cooper Street became known for their support of charitable causes. All three played roles in managing and supporting the West Jersey Orphanage for Colored Children, which had been founded in 1874. Although an altruistic endeavor, the institution existed within its benefactors’ beliefs about the welfare and potential of Black children. The orphanage provided education and health care, but it also sought to “bind out” children over the age of 12 to enable them to learn trades or other employment.

The Cooper household diminished in the 1880s with the deaths of Elizabeth in 1883, Phoebe in 1887, and finally William in 1888 at the age of 75. His bequests reflected the range of and character of his civic interests: Cooper Hospital received the largest bequest, $50,000, followed by $15,000 given to the Friends’ Asylum for the Relief of Persons Deprived of the Use of Their Reason, located in the Frankford section of Philadelphia. The West Jersey Orphanage received $2,000, as did the City Dispensary and the Home for Friendless Children. To the servants of his household, he left $6,000.

Fruit Merchant

The next occupants of 407 Cooper Street, from 1888 until 1897, linked the home with merchant activity in Philadelphia and the pursuit of exotic fruits for the growing cities on both sides of the Delaware River. Eugene B. Redfield, who was in the produce business with his father at the Dock Street Market in Philadelphia, was about 30 years old when he purchased 407 Cooper Street as a home for himself and his wife, Lydia. They employed Black servants, including Martha Woolford and Thomas Jefferson.

Redfield & Son brought fruit and vegetables into Philadelphia from warmer climates in the South and West, then repacked and sold them to the nearby region. The founder of the firm, Eugene’s father Bradley, had started life in Connecticut but took up farming in Delaware in the late 1860s and then launched his produce business in Philadelphia in 1871. Like many of Dock Street’s commission merchants, he commuted to work from a home in Camden.

Eugene Redfield, the oldest of five siblings, moved to 407 Cooper Street around the time that he embarked on a new extension of the family business: Florida oranges. During the 1890s, the commercial orange industry was in its infancy, and Redfield found opportunity in Polk County near Tampa. He invested in land and developed a grove that over twenty years’ time developed to more than 2,000 trees, primarily oranges but also grapefruit, lemons, limes, and other novelties for northern tastes. Together with Lydia, he established a winter home in a colonial-style mansion and returned to Camden only during the summers.

The Redfields sold 407 Cooper Street and left Camden by the end of the nineteenth century. While continuing to winter in Florida, Eugene and Lydia divided their summer months between Atlantic City and a residence in West Philadelphia. In 1911, when Eugene Redfield died at his Polk County estate, Lydia took over the citrus grove and made Florida her permanent home.

Boarding House, Club House

After the Redfields departed, 407 Cooper Street changed hands several times in the first years of the twentieth century. As a rental property, from 1899 to 1902 it was a boarding house whose occupants included Samuel Hufty, the city comptroller of Camden and a veteran of the Civil War, and a physician, Paul Mecray, who soon married and moved into the house next door (405 Cooper Street). For a brief few months in 1903, the building became the club house for a fledging Union League organized by former Mayor Cooper B. Hatch. Conceived as a rival to the Camden Republican Club across the street at 312 Cooper Street, the Union League launched with fanfare in July 1903 with a lawn party for four hundred people and music by Josephus Jennings’ Third Regiment Band. The enthusiasm was not matched with sufficient funds to support the club, however, and it folded by November.

Bridges to Bridgeton

The next long-term owners of 407 Cooper Street owned the home from 1905 into the 1940s, through Cooper Street’s transition to a primarily commercial thoroughfare. The Ewell family, with deep roots in Cumberland County, located in Camden for the benefit of the medical career of Dr. Alfred Elwell, who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania medical school in 1899. The doctor’s father, Jacob, bought the home in 1905 and immediately signed the deed over to his son.

With the purchase of the home, Jacob Elwell, began to divide his time between Camden and Bridgeton, the commercial center of rural Cumberland County, about 40 miles south of Camden. He was 62 years old and a Civil War veteran whose unit fought at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. His trade was harness-making, which he had learned as a teenage apprentice and built into a prominent harness, leather, and saddle store in Bridgeton. When automobiles began to supplant horses early in the twentieth century, he saw the future and in 1911 added an auto garage to his store.

The Elwell household on Cooper Street at first consisted of two generations, Jacob Elwell and his wife Harriet, together with their doctor son and their adult daughter, Alice. In 1910 they employed a Black married couple, William and Cora Wright, as domestic servants. The Wrights, who had been married three years, had both migrated north from Virginia. They were, thus, harbingers of the larger wave of Black migration that came to northern industrial cities during the First World War.

The Elwell family experienced generational transitions while living at 407 Cooper Street. Jacob and Harriet celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary with a party back in Bridgeton in 1914. The next year, Dr. Alfred Elwell married a woman from Bridgeton, Helen Whitaker, and by 1920 their family on Cooper Street expanded to include two children. Alice Elwell also married and left the home in 1916. That year, the death of Harriet Elwell led her husband, Jacob, to move back to Bridgeton to live with another of their sons. He also died there, in 1922.

By the 1920s, Cooper Street was undergoing its own transitions related to the construction of the Delaware River Bridge (later named the Benjamin Franklin Bridge), which opened in 1926. Expecting a commercial boom for Camden, real estate interests promoted conversions of Cooper Street properties from family homes into office buildings and apartments. The Elwells were a bit ahead of the trend, as they started advertising an apartment for rent in 1918. In 1922 they joined other prominent neighbors in relocating to Merchantville, although they retained ownership of 407 Cooper Street and Alfred Elwell maintained his practice there. They rented offices to other physicians and apartments to long-term tenants such as Helen and Martha Lummis, sisters and school teachers. The Elwells themselves returned to live in one of their apartments from 1935 through 1941, when the doctor died from a heart attack that he experienced while driving in Ocean City. By that time his son, Alfred Jr., had completed medical school and was starting an internship at Cooper Hospital.

Offices and Apartments

The house at 407 Cooper Street remained a place of medical offices, dental offices, and apartments from the 1940s through the 1970s, owned for much of that time by Helen Elwell’s second husband, dentist John S. Owens. For a time during the early 1960s, it served as the Camden Free Dental Clinic. In its physical appearance and occupancy, the building continued to reflect the changing nature of Cooper Street. By 1980, its first floor had a front façade of polished stone that spanned the original house and an addition on the east side that housed an additional doctor’s office. “A rather ugly modernized first floor does little to enhance this structure,” noted historic structure surveyors from the Camden Division of Planning. Apartment tenants by the 1980s included individuals with Spanish surnames, likely a reflection of the increasing Puerto Rican population of North Camden.

Because of their perceived value as business locations, houses on Cooper Street were spared from the 1962-64 urban renewal project that created a campus for Rutgers University in the blocks between Cooper Street and the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. Rutgers, which had acquired the house next door at 405 Cooper Street by the 1970s, also purchased 407 Cooper Street in 2000. A renovation project in 2004 united the two buildings into one facility with office spaces, seminar rooms, and a student computer lab. The combined properties, turning their backs to Cooper Street by providing access through a shared back porch, became home to the Rutgers-Camden Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminal Justice.

Associated Individuals

For a list of known occupants of 407 Cooper Street, visit the Cooper Street Residents Database and scroll down to 407.

Associated architects/builders

Joseph B. Cooper, builder (also the builder of nearby 406 Penn Street, which survives on the Rutgers-Camden campus).

Sources

Newspapers of Camden, Bridgeton, Philadelphia, and Tampa, Florida (Newspapers.com and Genealogy Bank).
Camden City Directories (Camden County Historical Society and Ancestry.com).
Camden County Property Records.
New Jersey State Census, 1885-1915, U.S. Census, 1850-1950 (Ancestry.com).
Heatherington, M.F. History of Polk County, Florida. St. Augustine, Fla.: The Record Company, 1928.
Historical Data Systems, comp. U.S., American Civil War Regiments, 1861-1866 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 1999.
Prowell, George R. The History of Camden County, New Jersey. Philadelphia: L.J. Richards & Co., 1886.

Research by

Charlene Mires

Posted by

Charlene Mires
Send corrections to cmires@camden.rutgers.edu

Collection

Citation

“407 Cooper Street,” Learning From Cooper Street, accessed August 10, 2022, https://omeka.camden.rutgers.edu/items/show/77.

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