329 Cooper Street

327-329 Cooper st-reduced.jpg

Title

329 Cooper Street

Subject

Description

Contributing structure, Cooper Street Historic District.

Illustrations

Photograph by Jacob Lechner

Significance

329 Cooper Street is a contributing structure of the Cooper Street Historic District, which is listed on the New Jersey and National Register of Historic Places. The anchor of a row of three houses built in the early 1850s, it supports the district’s significance as a collection of residences representing the nineteenth-century history of Camden. It further demonstrates the district’s stated significance as an illustration of transitions from residential and professional to commercial use. Its early history as a home to large families offers a resonant connection with its later purpose as the location of the Rutgers-Camden Department of Childhood Studies.

Architectural style

Greek Revival, obscured by later renovations.

Date of construction

c. 1851

History

When George Bockius, a leather tanner from Philadelphia, bought land at the northwest corner of Fourth and Cooper Streets in 1851, his property was in the rapidly developing fringe between settled Camden and farmland to the north that had been owned by the Cooper family since the late seventeenth century. By the time Bockius and his family moved to 329 Cooper Street, in 1853, the Philadelphia Public Ledger was taking note of the “many beautiful and elegant improvements made on and about Cooper Street.” The newspaper observed, “There are now in process of construction on it some fifteen commodious dwelling houses, and every lot on it, from the river to Sixth street, has been sold to persons who will immediately improve them.”

Bockius bought enough frontage on Cooper Street – forty feet – to build two rowhouses but erected just one, leaving a side lot along Fourth Street. His house anchored a row of three similar residences, each constructed of brick, three stories high.

Bockius came to this newest area of Camden from Philadelphia’s oldest. His lineage traced to the colonial-era settlement of Germantown, and his family’s tannery operated in the traditional leather district around Third and Callowhill Streets near the Delaware River. The location near the waterfront gave the tanners good access to the skins that they imported from Mexico, South America, and Asia, and their operations north of Vine Street separated the hot, noxious activity of boiling and tanning skins from the heart of the city. The Bockius tannery, a longstanding family business, specialized in morocco leather, the soft product used for gloves, shoes, and book bindings.

Ferries between Camden and Philadelphia allowed Bockius to move his young and growing family to new surroundings while still tending to his business. In 1849, he had married Elizabeth Frances Logan (known as Fanny), the daughter of a Philadelphia merchant. She bore two children by the time they relocated to Camden, and three more after they moved. By 1860, their household consisted of George, then 38 years old; Fanny, ten years younger, and the children ranging in age from one-month-old Peter to a nine-year-old daughter, also called Fanny. The Bockius household also employed domestic servants. In 1860 they included two women, Irish immigrant Mary Dwire, 26 years old, and Mary Sanders, 19, who was born in Pennsylvania. A third servant, a man named Orman (Armon) Barranger (variously spelled Barringer or Barrenger), was 22 years old, born in New York, and identified by Census takers as “mulatto.” When he registered for the draft in Camden in 1863, he listed his race as “coloured” and his occupation as “waiter.”

As the Bockius family grew, it also experienced loss. One child, 5-year-old Maria Logan Bockius, died in 1858 from causes not made public. In 1861, Fanny Logan Bockius was 10 years old when she developed “dropsy,” the condition of swelling later called edema, which can be an indication of disease in the heart, kidneys, or liver. In the custom of the time, funerals for the children were held at home before their burial, which took place at Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery. A relative or family friend memorialized Fanny with a poem published in the Camden Democrat, beginning:

How sweetly, e’en in death, that fair young face
            Shone out amid the flowers clustered there;
One felt, tho’ beautiful, each blossom placed
            To deck her form, were even still less fair.

Yes, beautiful she looked, so soon to lie
            Enclosed within the vault at Laurel Hill;
So soon removed from earth, so young to die
            Yet must we bow submission to His will.

The Bockius family returned to Philadelphia after the death of young Fanny. The move also coincided with the expanding business interests of George Bockius. During the 1860s he took an active role in organizing a trade association, the Morocco Manufacturers’ Exchange, and he expanded his investments to include a ferry line between Philadelphia and Gloucester City, a railroad on South Broad Street in Philadelphia, and a coal company in New York. The house at 329 Cooper Street was rented to tenants until its sale to a new owner in 1865.

Wealth and Health

Like the Bockius family, the owner of 329 Cooper Street for the next 15 years had ties to Philadelphia and a large family. Cooper P. Knight, a fish and provisions merchant on the Delaware River waterfront in Philadelphia, had long lived in Camden in a house on Third Street with his parents and siblings. He started his own family there after marrying Catherine Fisher, who was known as Kate, in 1859. Although the Knights were Quakers with roots in Woodbury and New Castle County, Delaware, the wedding took place in Philadelphia at the First Presbyterian Church.

The Knights moved into 329 Cooper Street in 1865, filling the house once again with the activity of young children. In the 1870 Census the family consisted of Cooper, age 44, Kate, then 32; six children ranging in age from 1 to 10; and Kate’s father, James Fisher, 68. They employed two domestic servants: Anna Potts, 32 years old, who had immigrated from England, and Martha Hatton, age 18, who was born in Pennsylvania. In addition to the servants, the family had luxuries that reflected financial prosperity: a gold watch and a piano. Cooper P. Knight had sufficient wealth to join other Camden and Philadelphia investors in capitalizing an oil-drilling venture in West Virginia.

The family’s fortunes at 329 Cooper Street illustrated the tenuous relationship that could exist between health and wealth in the nineteenth century. In 1874, Cooper P. Knight experienced chest pain while out riding. A doctor provided medication, but “about half-past two in the morning Mrs. Knight was awakened by the struggling of her husband and found him dying, and dissolution speedily ensued,” the Camden Democrat newspaper recounted. He died at age 49, leaving Kate a widow with six children. They remained in the Cooper Street house, although with less household help. In the 1880 Census, when the children ranged in age from 9 to 20, their one servant was a 12-year-old girl, Florence Bickington. She was illiterate without knowledge of her mother’s identity, suggesting she might have been placed out to work by an orphanage.

The death of Kate Knight in 1880 left her oldest daughter, Emily, the head of the household. The siblings could not sustain tax payments on the Cooper Street home, which was seized and put to sheriff’s sale in 1882. The siblings stayed together but moved to Stockton Township, the more rural area that later developed into the Cramer Hill section of Camden.

Physician’s Family

The sheriff’s sale of the Knight family’s home occurred during a decade of transformation for Cooper Street. During the 1880s, the thoroughfare was increasingly favored by physicians, often recent graduates of Philadelphia medical schools who found the growing city of Camden a good opportunity for starting new practices. The trend was encouraged by the construction of Cooper Hospital, which opened in 1887.

Dr. J. Orlando White, head of the next family to live at 329 Cooper Street, followed the path of many other Camden physicians but was ahead of the trend for Cooper Street. Born in Atlantic County in 1847, White came to Camden as a young man to study medicine with a member of the Cooper family, Dr. Richard M. Cooper, and then enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania medical school. By 1871, he settled his family and practice into a rented house at 326 Cooper Street (across from the Knight family then at 329). He married Elizabeth Starr, the daughter of a prominent Camden industrialist; they had one son who died in infancy and another, Jesse, who was about 10 years old when they moved across the street. In the same block, Dr. White’s widowed mother, Mary, lived with one of his sisters at 325 Cooper Street.

Although considerably smaller than the earlier families at 329 Cooper Street, the Whites still employed two domestic servants, usually Irish immigrant women. During their first years at this address, from 1883 to 1887, the household also included Elizabeth White’s father, Jesse W. Starr. Then in his 70s, Starr had made and lost a fortune as proprietor of the Camden Iron Works, a massive foundry that produced pipes for the water, sewage, and gas works of growing American cities. The company held contracts and franchises from Boston to San Francisco, and Starr’s prosperity became Camden’s good fortune through acts such as the donation of a site for new city hall. The iron works foundered during the financial panic of 1873, however, and began accumulating debt that led to voluntary bankruptcy in 1878. Starr, whose personal wealth had been estimated between $2 million and $3 million, lost his home, real estate, and horses to satisfy creditors. A widower, he spent the last years of his life with his daughter at 329 Cooper Street. He died there in 1886 of “nervous prostration,” at age 77, after exhibiting indications of dementia.

While the Whites lived at 329 Cooper Street, the doctor pivoted from the practice of medicine to another matter of public health, the promotion of water plants and sewage disposal plants. (Perhaps not incidentally, the public works projects he promoted required pipes, which continued to be produced by successor owners of the Camden Iron Works.) He also led a legal fight to retain his wife’s standing as the sole designated heir of Jesse W. Starr, which was contested by her three brothers. Despite the bankruptcy ordeal, the estate amounted to several hundred thousand dollars.

J. Orlando White lived until 1909, and 329 Cooper Street remained home for Elizabeth White for twenty-eight years longer, until her death in 1937. Unlike other widows on Cooper Street, she did not rent rooms to boarders; nor did she follow the practice of living with adult children (her married son, Jesse, lived in Merchantville). She shared the home only with servants, usually a married couple. For a remarkably long period—at least 15 years, from 1913 to 1928—her employees were James and Lucy Harris, African Americans who were born in Virginia. In their 30s and 40s while working for Elizabeth White, their lives had spanned from the Reconstruction era in the South to the wave of migration north that became known as the Great Migration. Lucy Harris had family ties in Philadelphia—at least one nephew, who worked as a porter at the Union League. Another member of the Harris family, Robert, was employed as a butler in the home of Elizabeth White’s son Jesse.

End of an Era

After the death of Elizabeth White, her son and daughter-in-law placed it in the care of a housekeeper and lived there themselves between 1940 and 1943. But the era of single-family homes on Cooper Street had passed. Since construction of the Delaware River Bridge (later renamed the Benjamin Franklin Bridge), completed in 1926, real estate interests in Camden had pushed conversions of residences on Cooper Street into offices and apartment buildings. By the 1940s two institutions of higher education, the College of South Jersey and the South Jersey School of Law, also were a growing presence. These forces combined to chart the future of 329 Cooper Street.

In 1949, the College of South Jersey purchased 329 Cooper Street from the estate of Jesse S. White. The acquisition added to the collection of buildings that the college, founded in 1926, was acquiring in the vicinity of Cooper, Penn, and Linden Streets. A short walk from Cooper Street, the former mansion of advertising pioneer Francis Wayland Ayer at 406 Penn Street had been purchased by the college in 1946 for its main offices. At 329 Cooper Street, the college embarked on a renovation to create recreation rooms and a snack bar for students on the first floor and classrooms on the second.

The strategy of campus expansion soon changed, however, when the College of South Jersey and the South Jersey School of Law affiliated with Rutgers University in 1950. Although 329 Cooper Street had been so recently renovated for student use, Rutgers developed a master plan for new buildings on an expanded campus to be created by urban renewal demolition in the area between Cooper Street and the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. Cooper Street houses were spared from demolition because of their perceived commercial value, but Rutgers sold 329 Cooper Street in 1954 to a dentist and his wife, Saul and Frances Artis.

Dentistry and Donation   

Saul Artis was among many other professionals during the 1950s and 1960s who made their living in Camden but chose not to live there – a common pattern in the decades following World War II. Saul, a graduate of Camden High School and the University of Pennsylvania Dental School, had served in the Army Dental Corps in the Panama Canal Zone. Following the war, he established his dental practice in Camden, but after marrying Frances they and their three children lived in Haddon Township.

Although living in the suburbs, the Artises invested in Camden, purchasing not only 329 Cooper Street from Rutgers but also the adjoining rowhouse, 327. The buildings served as Saul’s office as well as rental apartments for students. While other buildings in North Camden suffered from the neglect of absentee landlords, the Artises participated in the Cooper Street Association, which carried out beautification and maintenance projects. In 1960, they remodeled 329 Cooper Street into modernized offices and apartments. The project reoriented the building to place its entrance on the Fourth Street side, and the addition of an exterior stair tower allowed inside stairs to be ripped out to create more room for offices and apartments. A former stable behind the house also was remodeled and converted into an air-conditioned office.

While the Artises invested and remodeled, Rutgers carried out its urban renewal plan for the adjacent blocks to the north. Appreciating the growth of the university next door, by 1981 the Artises donated  their buildings to Rutgers; Saul Artis still maintained an active dental practice at 329 Cooper Street until he retired, even after it became the Rutgers-Camden admissions office. The building, named the Artis Building after the donors, also served as the campus financial services office before being renovated once again for a new purpose. In 2018, 329 Cooper Street and the adjacent rowhouse at 327 Cooper Street became home to the Rutgers-Camden Department of Childhood Studies.

Associated Individuals

For a list of known occupants of 329 Cooper Street, visit the Cooper Street Residents Database and scroll down to 329.

Sources

Camden and Philadelphia Newspapers (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, and U.S. Census, 1850-1950 (Ancestry.com).
Prowell, George R. The History of Camden County, New Jersey. Philadelphia: L.J. Richards & Co., 1886.

Note on sources: Earlier historic structures surveys placed George Bockius at 325 Cooper Street, but property deeds establish that he lived at this address, 327.

Research by

Charlene Mires, Lucy Davis, Melissa Bryson, and Mary Katt.

Posted by

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

Collection

Citation

“329 Cooper Street,” Learning From Cooper Street, accessed October 1, 2022, https://omeka.camden.rutgers.edu/items/show/80.

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