321 Cooper Street
321 Cooper Street is a contributing structure of the Cooper Street Historic District, which is listed on the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places. The Italianate rowhouse supports the district’s designation for architectural merit and offers a valuable contrast to the adjacent 323 Cooper Street built in Queen Anne style 20 years later. The house also reflects the historic district's statement of significance that Cooper Street demonstrates "change from residential and professional to commercial." The 321 Cooper Street building began as a family home then turned to professional and commercial uses in the twentieth century. The residents of 321 Cooper Street connect this address with varieties of pharmacy and medical practice in the nineteenth century and demonstrate Camden’s role in forging connections between Philadelphia and the nearby countryside. As an office building for Rutgers-Camden, in the twenty-first century 321 Cooper Street houses the Center for Urban Research and Education (CURE).
Date of construction
The building at 321 Cooper Street is a survivor of a pair of Italianate rowhouses built in 1867 for two prominent Camden business and civic leaders, Joseph De La Cour (321) and Benjamin Archer (next door, 319). An advancement in style from the nearby Greek Revival rowhouses of the 1850s, 321 Cooper Street and its neighbor inspired the West Jersey Press in 1867 to invoke a vision of home life from the song popular during the Civil War era, “Home Sweet Home.” Noting the superior workmanship and the latest home comforts, the newspaper commented, “It is by the addition of such buildings as these that will make Cooper Street in reality what it has been jokingly styled, the ‘Fifth Avenue’ of Camden.” Completing the picture, De La Cour and Archer installed iron fences on white marble foundations between the street and the side yards of their adjoining homes.
Pharmacy and Public Service
Joseph C. De La Cour had been the proprietor of a drug and chemical store in Camden for thirty years by the time he and his family moved to Cooper Street from their quarters near the store (Third and Arch Streets). De La Cour, whose father was French, was born in New York in 1813 but spent most of his boyhood in in Philadelphia. He went to work there as a cabinet maker, but he studied pharmacy and chemistry at night. In 1836, he bought his Camden drug store. He and his wife, Elizabeth, lived adjacent to the store in a household that grew to include two children and often other extended family members and employees.
The De La Cour pharmacy expanded into a manufacturing business. The same year the De La Cours moved to Cooper Street, the druggist bought a brick building at Front and Arch Streets for an enlarged laboratory. As manufacturing chemists and pharmacists, De La Cour and his son (also named Joseph, also a pharmacist) produced and sold compounds and supplies for other drug stores. Their products included extracts, ointments, syrups, and powders of various kinds, and they became especially well known for a non-irritating adhesive plaster. The company also gained a contract to provide surgical equipment to the United States government.
Joseph and Elizabeth De La Cour also devoted energy to civic and charitable activities. Joseph served as a city alderman and for many years was a member and treasurer of the Camden Board of Education. During the 1860s, the couple joined their neighbors in founding the Camden Home for Friendless Children to provide shelter and aid to poor children. Elizabeth De La Cour joined the women of home’s Board of Managers, who raised funds and oversaw the facility as it grew to serve as many as forty children, including those who lost fathers in the Civil War. While altruistic, the home also reflected prevailing attitudes toward the poor by seeking to bind out children to homes where they could learn useful trades.
At 321 Cooper Street, the 1870 Census recorded a multi-generational De La Cour household that included Joseph C. De La Cour, then 57 years old; Elizabeth, 50; their daughter Emily, 27; and their recently married son Joseph Loriot De La Cour, 32, with his wife, Mary, and 1-year-old son, Joseph Carl De La Cour. (Joseph L. De La Cour was a veteran of the Civil War, having enlisted in 1861 with a Zouave unit that deployed to Virginia and guarded railroads near Alexandria for three months; while there, they were visited by President Abraham Lincoln.) Also in the De La Cour household in 1870 were the elder Joseph’s mother, Mary Peall, 76 years old, and two Black domestic servants: Rachael Green, 42, and Tinsey Weeks, 17.
During the 1870s, the father and son pharmacists were among the founders of the New Jersey Pharmaceutical Society, which sought to advance the science of pharmacy and establish professional standards through state regulations. After forming in 1874, the group achieved a state law governing the practice of pharmacy, including a requirement that drug stores be managed by registered pharmacists. Joseph L. De La Cour served as vice president and president of the society during these productive years.
The composition of the De La Cour household evolved in the 1870s, first with the death of Mary Peall in 1874, at the age of 80. Around the same time, Joseph L. and his family moved to their own home on Sixth Street, but meanwhile Emily De La Cour married and brought a new son-in-law to 321 Cooper Street. With her husband Edward F. Nivin, a Philadelphia tin dealer, Emily bore two daughters, who were 3 and 2 years old by the time the 1880 Census documented the extended family. The household continued to employ two domestic servants, but in 1880 they were white, Irish immigrants: Mary McCort, 40, and Elizabeth Murphy, 25.
The De La Cour family lost an anchor in 1883 when Elizabeth De Le Cour died at age of 64, two days before Christmas, from an illness that was not publicly identified. The Board of Managers of the Camden Home for Friendless Children published a tribute in the Camden Morning Post, calling her “ever ready with her time, strength and means, to help on the good work.” Elizabeth De Le Cour also held title to the family home, which upon her death became the property of her daughter, Emily Nivin.
While Joseph C. De La Cour continued to head the household at 321 Cooper Street, it was increasingly a home full of Nivins, who had two more children by 1885. In 1887, De La Cour marked his fiftieth year in business while still at this address, but soon thereafter he moved in with his son on Sixth Street. When he died in 1891 at the age of 79, he was described admiringly as “one of the oldest and best-known citizens of Camden.” The Nivins built a new house in the adjoining side lot to the De La Cour home, at 323 Cooper Street, but lived there only briefly. The De La Cours’ era on Cooper Street ended in 1890, when both houses were put up for sale.
During the early 1890s, 321 Cooper Street changed hand several times, in part due to court actions related to debts of new owners. While the title transferred from one owner to the next, for about two years, in 1892 and 1893, the house gained a high-profile new use as the “medical parlor” of James Parker Finlaw. A familiar face in Camden from the portrait that appeared in his constant advertising in the local newspapers, Finlaw offered remedies for “chronic diseases of all kinds in both sexes.” In the ads, he published testimonials to his success treating everything from throat and lung diseases to hemorrhoids to “female complaints of all kinds.” He had been in the business for twenty years by the time he came to Cooper Street.
Finlaw was a practitioner of “eclectic medicine,” a nineteenth-century method of healing that stressed plant-based remedies and avoided chemical compounds, over-drugging, and invasive surgery. Finlaw, born on a Salem County farm in 1847, came to this field following service in the Civil War. While still a teenager, in 1863 he had enlisted in the Second Cavalry Regiment of New Jersey, which skirmished, fought, and foraged for two years in the middle and deep South. After the war, he apparently remained in the midsection of the country; he married a woman from Ohio, and by 1876 they settled in Hutchinson, Kansas.
In Kansas, Finlaw apparently discovered eclectic medicine. He attended Kansas Eclectic College in 1879 and then returned East to attend and graduate from the Eclectic Medical College of the City of New York. The year after he graduated, in 1885, he was back in South Jersey with a home and office on Broadway in Camden. He was a rare eclectic practitioner among the many mainstream doctors who came to Camden from the medical schools of Jefferson College and the University of Pennsylvania. Conventional medicine frowned upon the alternative practices of eclectics, but Finlaw appealed to patients with his copious advertising. A characteristic headline offered “Dr. Finlaw’s Dyspepsia and Liver Cure, Which Will Remove All Obstruction to the Comforts of Healthy Womanhood.” The ads identified him as “J.P. Finlaw, M.D.” and offered assurances that he had graduated from a “regular medical school.” Among the many published testimonials, a signed statement from the city editor of the Camden Democrat declared that Finlaw was not “a quack.” The editor went on to “cheerfully recommend Dr. Finlaw’s medicines, the dyspepsia and liver cure especially.”
While in Camden, Finlaw rented offices at several locations, tending to favor places where he could advertise proximity to Cooper Hospital, the bastion of the local medical establishment. He also expanded the reach of his practice by publishing treatises and incorporating as the Finlaw Medicine Company. Shortly before moving to Cooper Street, he took an extended trip through the West, and upon his return advertised the advantages of his clinical study “of the morbid changes which take place in the human system under different climatic influences.”
By moving to 321 Cooper Street, Finlaw claimed another location of medical respectability in a neighborhood populated by some of the city’s most eminent physicians. Along with the medical parlor, Finlaw’s household included his wife, Elizabeth (Lizzie), and three children who ranged in age from 10 to 14 at the time they arrived on Cooper Street in 1892. They moved again in 1893, when they bought a house on south Sixth Street, thereby regaining the opportunity to advertise a location near Cooper Hospital. They remained in Camden until at least 1900, but in later life Finlaw returned to Kansas. When he died there in 1933, he was still remembered in Camden as a “patent medicine doctor” who “had a large following who believed implicitly in his remedies.”
Following the brief interlude of the medical parlor, 321 Cooper Street had more conventional occupants. A produce merchant who worked in Philadelphia, Richard Augustus Brice, bought the property in 1893, and it remained the Brice family home for the next 24 years. Brice, who was born in Maryland, gave up farming in the late 1870s and moved to Philadelphia to engage in the business of acquiring farm produce and reselling it in the city. Chickens, eggs, potatoes, peaches, and more arrived in Philadelphia from the farms of Delaware and Maryland for resale by Brice and his partner, Joseph E. Hendrickson, another former Maryland farmer. By 1893, the year he moved to Cooper Street, Brice had his own produce establishment near Front and Callowhill Streets in Philadelphia.
The Brice household at 321 Cooper Street was headed by Brice and his second wife, Margaretta (Rice) Brice. When they married in Philadelphia in 1876, Brice was a recent widower with two young daughters. They lived briefly in Philadelphia, where Margaretta oversaw renting rooms in their Vine Street home to boarders, but relocated to Camden by 1880. They had five additional children, three of whom were still young enough to be at home and attending school in 1893. The 1900 Census recorded the household at 321 Cooper Street as Richard Augustus (he was called by his middle name), then 55 years old; Margaretta, 44, and three of their children ranging in age from 9 to 16. The family employed domestic servants, at least periodically. One, Mary Alston, lived with the family in 1902, and the 1905 New Jersey Census documented the presence of a 14-year-old Black “house girl,” May Fisher. In addition to the employment of servants, the family’s achievement of affluence was marked by their purchase of a cottage in Ocean City, New Jersey, in 1900.
On Cooper Street, Brice was a rare Democrat among the many Republicans who then controlled local politics and frequented the Camden Republican Club, then at 312 Cooper Street across from Brice’s house. Brice ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat from Camden City Council in 1889, and in the 1890s he supported the “Committee of One Hundred” reform movement. In addition to fielding candidates for office, the Committee of One Hundred spurred a wide-ranging investigation of city-awarded contracts. The effort turned up little malfeasance, but its targets for scrutiny included the Camden Heating and Lighting Company led by Brice’s neighbor at 323 Cooper Street, John Burleigh.
From time to time, the Brices’ older children returned to the household. Their oldest son, Charles Augustus Brice, triggered sensational headlines in local newspapers in 1896 when he penned a suicide note after a quarrel with his father and a girlfriend. In 1904 and 1905, the same son’s then-wife sued for divorce, and the subsequent court hearings again filled news columns with the private and business affairs of the Brice family. Charles Brice was back at home with his parents and other adult siblings from 1905 until 1910.
Richard Augustus Brice experienced failing eyesight in his later years and relied on his sons to carry on the produce business, renamed R.A. Brice & Son. He died in 1910, but Margaretta Brice remained at 321 Cooper Street until 1917. She then moved to the family’s shore home in Ocean City and lived there until her death in 1933.
Commercial Cooper Street
After the departure of the Brice family, 321 Cooper Street served as home and office for two Camden dentists: John Owens, who rented the property in 1920, and Milton J. Waas, who owned the house from sometime after the Brices left until 1926. This ended the era of 321 Cooper Street as a single-family home as construction of the Delaware River Bridge (later renamed the Benjamin Franklin Bridge) brought change to Cooper Street. Expecting a business boom for Camden after the bridge opened in 1926, local boosters and real estate interests sought to transform Cooper Street into a more commercial corridor of office and apartment buildings.
In 1926, 321 Cooper Street conveyed to Julia M. Carey, a 26-year-old daughter of Irish immigrants who was staking out a career in real estate sales after working as a stenographer and notary. 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. In the case of 321, the investor group retained her name as “The Carey Company.” The Camden Courier-Post reported on the work of the "energetic realty lady" on September 11, 1926. Effectively block-busting a residential street into commercial uses, Carey renovated 321 Cooper Street into an apartment house, gave 421 a Mission-revival makeover to create an office building, and converted 521 into offices for lawyers.
The next occupants of 321 Cooper Street demonstrated the effects of Carey’s efforts. One of the apartments became the Be-Del Beauty Shop, which opened in the building in 1927 and offered “permanent waves and all other ranches of beauty culture work” in a “newly and modernly equipped—beautifully and comfortably appointed” salon. The apartment tenants reflected the spectrum of working-class life in Camden. In 1930, they included Julia Carey and her sister, Anna, and a railroad clerk whose wife was an officer worker in the RCA radio factory. By 1940, there were two employees of the radio factory, a shipper for a printing company, a railroad clerk, an advertising copywriter for a department store, a housekeeper, and a secretary in a public school. By 1950, the range of occupations was similar, but each apartment had at least one child under the age of 5 – evidence of the post-World War II baby boom. A tenant in the late 1950s, Betty Lichtman, operated a reading group for children.
Despite the increase in population density, the apartment venture was not profitable enough to outweigh the debts for renovation. The building began to appear in notices for sheriff’s sales as early as 1929 and again in 1932 as the Great Depression bore down on Camden. Additional changes in ownership occurred until 1954, when the house was put up for auction, advertised as six apartments and six baths, located near the Walt Whitman Hotel and one block from Campbell Soup and RCA. “Excellent professional location,” the auctioneer promised. “Always 100% occupied. Long waiting list. Two apartments on each floor, private entrance, separate gas and electric meters, fire escape, all new copper piping, large yard through to Lawrence Street, detached two-car garage building.”
By 1980, when the City of Camden surveyed and documented the ownership of historic structures on Cooper Street, the 321 Cooper Street apartment house had been donated to Rutgers University. A new campus for Rutgers-Camden had grown in the blocks between Cooper Street and the Benjamin Franklin Bridge during the 1960s and 1970s. While the campus replaced blocks of similar rowhouses through urban renewal demolition, 321 and other former residences on Cooper Street had been spared because of their perceived commercial value. The appeal and potential of Cooper Street buildings increased with the advent of federal tax credits for historic preservation projects and later in connection with a new federal courthouse annex completed at Fourth and Cooper Streets in 1994.
In 1991, Rutgers entered into a partnership with a redevelopment firm, Vintage Living, to rehabilitate both 321 and 411 Cooper Street into modernized offices. The buildings’ locations across the street from the site for the new federal courthouse then under construction positioned the buildings well for legal offices, the project managers believed. Renovations proceeded, but by 1998, back taxes owed on the properties forced a sheriff’s sale and led to the title transferring entirely to Rutgers. Thereafter a building of Rutgers-Camden, 321 Cooper Street at first housed offices for the LEAP Academy University School and the Community Leadership Center. It later became home to the Center for Urban Research and Education (CURE).
Bynum, W.F., and Roy Porter, eds. Companion Encyclopedia of the History of Medicine. London: Taylor & Francis Group, 1993.
Camden, Philadelphia, and Chestertown, Maryland, Newspapers (Newspapers.com and Genealogy Bank).
Camden City Directories (Camden County Historical Society and Ancestry.com).
Camden County Property Records.
Dorwart, Jeffrey M. and Philip English Mackey. Camden County, New Jersey, 1616-1976: A Narrative History. Camden County, N.J.: Camden County Cultural & Heritage Commission, 1976.
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.
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