319 Cooper Street
Date of construction
Before a classroom building stood at 319 Cooper Street, the lots beneath it were the site and side yard of a three-story, brick Italianate rowhouse built in 1867. It was one of a pair that included the surviving structure next door (321). The houses were built for two prominent two prominent Camden business and civic leaders, Benjamin Archer (319) and Joseph De La Cour (321). They were advancements in architectural style from Cooper Street’s Greek Revival rowhouses of the 1850s, so striking that they stirred the West Jersey Press to describe them with a reference to the popular song of the Civil War era, “Home Sweet Home.” Noting the superior workmanship and the latest in 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, Archer and De La Cour installed iron fences on white marble foundations between the street and the side yards of their adjoining homes.
Urban Prosperity and Reform
For more than four decades, 319 Cooper Street was home to the Archer family, headed by Benjamin F. and Mary W. Archer. They moved to the new residence from their previous home at 227 Cooper Street, and by 1870 their household consisted of Benjamin, then 36 years old; his second wife, Mary, 31; a 12-year-old son from Benjamin’s first marriage, George; and a 1-year-old daughter, Helen. They employed two domestic servants, both Irish immigrants: Rosie MacEntire, 40, and Bridget Rogers, 35.
Benjamin Archer was near-lifelong resident of Camden, born in 1833 to Philadelphia parents who moved to the emerging city across the river when he was an infant. Both cities remained important in Benjamin’s life; in his early adult years, while still living in Camden he worked as a wholesale grocer in Philadelphia near the riverfront. His life took a turn, however, after he married Kate Starr, the daughter of a Camden iron manufacturer, in 1857. His new father-in-law, Jesse W. Starr, took him into the family business: 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, generating employment for foundry workers and wealth for the Starr family.
Benjamin and Kate Archer had one son, George, while they lived in the Starr household in Haddonfield early in their marriage. But struggles lay ahead. In 1864, Kate Archer died at the age of 26 from causes that were not publicly disclosed, leaving Benjamin a widower with a young son while still in his early 30s. He remained a partner in the Camden Iron Works, but in 1865 he remarried. Mary W. Sloan, a schoolteacher prior to their marriage, bore one child before the family moved to 319 Cooper Street—a daughter who died in 1866 at the age of 3 months. The next was Helen, born in the new home in 1869, who survived.
Struggles in business also lay ahead. The financial panic of 1873 strained the iron foundry, leading Benjamin Archer to depart the business in 1875 before it reached the stage of voluntary bankruptcy. His familiarity with urban utilities from those years at Camden Iron Works apparently worked to his advantage, however. After a short period with another iron foundry in Burlington, Archer took a lasting position as manager of the Camden Gas Light Company, which held the city’s franchise for gas street lighting. He had also attained a degree of status and business reputation to qualify as a director on important corporate boards, including the National State Bank of Camden. During the 1870s he was among the incorporators of a company to build a turnpike between Haddonfield and Berlin; in the 1880s he was among the investors who built the first cottages at Barnegat City on the Jersey Shore. His prominence in Camden included elective office; a Republican, he served on the City Council and Board of Chosen Freeholders.
Benjamin and Mary Archer’s family grew to include an additional son, F. Morse Archer, born in 1873. They were active members of the Centenary Methodist Episcopal Church at Fifth and Cooper Streets, where Benjamin served on the board of trustees and led Sunday School and Mary, who had been educated at the M.E.-affiliated Pennington Seminary, took leading roles in the Ladies’ Aid Society and the Women’s Home Missionary Society. When the church contemplated expanding with a new building in 1893, the Archers hosted the meeting for reviewing the plans. When a new pastor arrived, the Archers were the couple in the receiving line who introduced their neighbors.
The Archers’ affluence gave them the means to contribute to social welfare. During the financial panic of the 1870s, Benjamin Archer joined committees to provide aid for the poor through a Relief Society and a Soup Society. But it was Mary Archer who took the most prominent role as a social reformer, especially in the 1890s after her children were grown. She joined the Camden branch of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), a national organization that had formed in the 1870s to promote prohibition and abstinence from alcohol. By the 1890s, the organization also engaged campaigns for prison reform, labor laws, and woman suffrage. Mary Archer served as treasurer of the Camden branch and as a representative at regional and national conferences. She supported the WCTU prison reform platform by advocating for a matron to be appointed to oversee the Camden City Jail.
Mary Archer was one of the driving forces in the WCTU’s creation of a Camden “Boys’ Parlor,” envisioned as a wholesome environment to divert news boys and other youth from juvenile delinquency. Opened in 1891 in rooms on Arch Street, the project sought ways “by which neglected boys may be lured from the resorts now enticing them, such as the pool room, and similar places frequented by the idle and vicious, and by the aid of such a helping hand, lifted to good citizenship,” the Camden Morning Post reported. The project evolved to offer carpentry lessons and entertainment, albeit alongside lectures on temperance. Archer, the treasurer of the project, instituted a savings program that encouraged the boys to deposit pennies into a collective bank account instead of spending them on cigarettes. Over time, the project added programs for girls and additional training for industrial trades. When boys were too old for the parlor, they were referred to the YMCA or assisted with job placement.
The house at 319 Cooper Street remained the Archers’ residence until 1910. At times they provided homes for elder relatives, and they always employed two domestic servants – for a remarkably long period from the mid-1880s until 1910, an Irish immigrant woman named Jane Lynn, and for a time her daughter with the same name. The children grew up, married, and left home. Both boys went to Princeton. George joined his father at the gas lighting company; Morse continued to Harvard Law and later returned to Camden, where he was appointed assistant prosecutor. Helen Archer followed her mother into church and reform activism, nurtured in this direction by childhood fund-raising fairs for the Camden Home for Friendless Children. When she married in 1892, her first home with husband Richard Develin was directly behind her parents at 318 Penn Street (although the Develins later moved to Merchantville).
In the first years of the twentieth century, Benjamin Archer advanced to president of the Camden National Bank after many years on the board of directors. He was by then in declining health with debilitating rheumatism, however, and sought respite with long stays at hot springs and mountain resorts. When he died at home in Camden in 1903, the Camden Courier eulogized his contributions to the city. “During his active business career [he] was identified with most of the public enterprises that have promoted the growth and prosperity of the city, and was ever among the foremost to participate in any movement having its welfare in view,” the newspaper editorialized. Helen Archer remained at 319 Cooper Street until her death in 1910, when she was recalled as “quite active in religious and charitable work,” especially the Boys’ Parlor, the WCTU, the YMCA, and the Centenary M.E. Church.
Funeral Director and Banker
After the Archer family, 319 Cooper Street briefly became a rental property that was converted into rooming house and restaurant called the New Stratford. By the middle of 1912, however, the house had a new owner and full-time resident, prominent funeral home director Fithian S. Simmons. Perhaps best known as the director of 1892 funeral for the poet Walt Whitman, Simmons had been in business in Camden for decades. By moving to Cooper Street, he established a residence separate from the funeral parlor on Market Street that had previously been his home.
Simmons was born in Port Elizabeth in Cumberland County, New Jersey, in 1855, and by 1870 moved to Millville to learn undertaking and cabinetmaking. At the age of 20, he went to work as a salesman for a Philadelphia undertaking supplies firm, but he left after two years, moved to Camden, and started his own funeral home. He married a young woman from Millville, Alverta Stanger.
By the time they moved to 319 Cooper Street in 1912, Fithian and Alverta Simmons were in their 50s – roughly the same age as their new home. They quickly commissioned alterations that added porches to the front and side, suburban-style upgrades that were becoming common for Cooper Street’s older residences. They had no children, but a nephew, Dr. Harry H. Grace, lived nearby at 303 Cooper Street; they also had a vast network of acquaintances created through Fithian Simmons’ many memberships in clubs and fraternal organizations. The household typically employed one domestic servant, in 1915 a second-generation Irish maid and, unusually, in 1920 a woman who had recently immigrated from Jamaica. The Simmons’ affluence also supported trips to Europe, and they were early adopters of the automobile.
Fithian Simmons’ customary life transformed during the 1920s, at home and in business. He was left a widower when Alverta died from influenza in 1919, the second year of the global epidemic. Shortly thereafter he created a new family of sorts when he co-founded the Camden Club in an available house next to his own (315 Cooper Street). He was immediately elected president of the businessmen’s club, which remained an institution on Cooper Street for nearly two decades. Simmons also remarried in 1922, making 319 Cooper Street also the home of his new wife, Roberta, who had also been previously widowed.
In the early 1920s, Fithian Simmons retired from undertaking and focused on other business interests, which included directorships of building and loan associations and the Central Trust Company, which he had co-founded with other Camden businessmen in the 1890s. From 1922 until 1927 he served as president of the bank. Fithian and Roberta Simmons remained at 319 Cooper Street until 1939, when he died at the age of 83 and she several months later at 71. They left bequests to siblings, to nieces and nephews, and to Cooper and West Jersey hospitals. The household belongings, including antiques and a 1938 Packard sedan, went up for auction to settle the estate.
The era of 319 Cooper Street as a single-family home ended with Fithian and Roberta Simmons. The street had largely transformed to commercial uses during the 1920s, indirectly as a result of the Delaware River Bridge (completed in 1926, later renamed the Benjamin Franklin Bridge). Camden boosters and real estate interests, expecting a business boom, promoted the transition of Cooper Street into a commercial thoroughfare. They bought, sold, and converted former residences into office buildings and apartments, including the twin to 319 Cooper Street (321), which became a six-unit apartment house. The next house to the west, 315 Cooper Street, became the Camden Club headed by Fithian Simmons.
The next chapter for 319 Cooper Street reflected another aspect of Camden’s history, its emergence and decline as an industrial powerhouse. By 1943, during World War II, the rowhouse at 319 Cooper Street became headquarters for the union that represented workers at the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), Local 103 of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers. RCA’s massive production complex at the foot of Cooper Street was then running at full strength to fulfill defense contracts. But in the wake of a series of labor conflicts and strikes in Camden during the 1930s, RCA had begun to move most of its production work to other parts of the country with cheaper labor. Wartime production masked the full impact of these moves on Camden, which after World War II retained primarily high technology elements of the company.
The union headquarters at 319 Cooper Street was a place for shop steward meetings, elections of officers, and charitable activities of the union. But rival unions also struggled over representation of RCA workers, with consequences for the headquarters building. By 1950, the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America lost its role as bargaining agent to its rival, the International Union of Electrical Workers (IUE). In a settlement between the unions, the IUE received title to 319 Cooper Street in 1951.
In 1959, the IUE broke ground for a new two-story office building in place of the rowhouse at 319 Cooper Street and its undeveloped side yard. The demolition was in keeping with urban renewal practices of the era, including plans by Rutgers University to demolish adjacent blocks of nineteenth-century rowhouses to create an expanded Camden campus. In place of the Italianate house built in 1867, the union commissioned a thoroughly modern, glazed brick and glass commercial headquarters designed by William L. Duble of Erlton, N.J. The new building housed an auditorium, administrative workspaces, and a wood-paneled conference room and office for the union president.
The new IUE headquarters, opened in 1960, became the setting for the mass meetings about prospects of RCA layoffs and for voting on contracts that averted a strike in 1967 and ended a 10-week walkout in 1970. In 1963, the headquarters also was a point of departure for busloads of Camden industrial workers bound for the August 28 massive March on Washington, where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Renovations for Classrooms
The IUE remained at 319 Cooper Street until 1973, then moved its local headquarters a block away to Market Street. A new era opened for 319 Cooper Street as a classroom building for a series of educational institutions, signaling Cooper Street’s emergence as an educational corridor. Renovations in 1974 transformed the union headquarters into the “urban campus” for Camden County College, which had its main campus in suburban Blackwood. With offerings that included classes in Spanish for Camden’s growing Puerto Rican population, Camden County College stayed until moving to a new building at Seventh and Cooper Street in 1978.
After Camden County College, 319 Cooper Street served as home to the Juvenile Resource Center (JRC) Alternative School and, next, the proprietary Kane Business Institute. Owned by Rutgers University since 2000, the building became a temporary location for the high school of the LEAP Academy University School, then a Rutgers-Camden classroom building, and beginning in 2013 home for the Rutgers-Camden Honors College. Multiple renovations for educational uses left the building unrecognizable as a landmark of Camden’s labor history. The modern office building of 1960 disappeared behind a brick façade that harmonized with the traditional materials used in Cooper Street’s older rowhouses—yet at the same time, obscured much of the building’s past.
Camden and Philadelphia Newspapers (Newspapers.com and Genealogy Bank).
Camden City Directories (Camden County Historical Society and Ancestry.com).
Camden County Property Records.
Cowie, Jefferson. Capital Moves: RCA’s 70-Year Quest for Cheap Labor. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1999.
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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