211 N. Fifth Street

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Title

211 N. Fifth Street

Description

Built c. 1857, former residence within Cooper Street Historic District.

Significance

The building at 211 N. Fifth Street originated as a single-family home, among the earliest to be built north of Cooper Street during the period when Cooper family heirs sold their inherited land for development. It stands within the boundaries of the Cooper Street Historic District, although not assessed as a “contributing structure” due to extensive remodeling. Nevertheless, 211 N. Fifth Street has a significant history dating to its construction a few years prior to the Civil War. It has been a home for prominent families, a men’s clubhouse, a boarding house and apartment house, and an office and residence for prominent Camden physicians, among other uses. Owned by Rutgers University since 2005, the building by 2021 served as offices for the Rutgers-Camden Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

Architectural style

Obscured by twentieth-century renovations; assessed as apparently Italianate in Historic Structure Report by John Milner Associates, 2003. Originally a three-story structure, reduced to two stories by renovations in the 1950s.

Date of construction

c. 1857

History

The house at 211 N. Fifth Street is a testament to Camden’s urban development during the 1850s and 1860s, after the city gained new status as the seat of government for Camden County. Built c. 1857 at the back of two Cooper Street lots owned by Thomas Wharton Dyott Jr., a Philadelphia wholesaler of patent medicines, the three-story brick residence was among the first to be built north of Cooper Street as Cooper family heirs sold their lands for development. If Dyott and his family occupied the new house facing Fifth Street, as city directories suggest, the household included Thomas Wharton Dyott Jr., a white man in his late 30s; his wife, Sarah, also in her 30s; four children ranging in age from 8 to 16, and possibly two Irish immigrant domestic servants (who were with the family in 1860, at their next address).

Dyott commuted from Camden to his patent medicine business in Philadelphia, a remnant of a much larger enterprise developed by his father (for whom he was named). The elder Thomas Dyott had immigrated England in 1805, opened a drug store, claimed to be a doctor, and became one of the nation's leading purveyors of patent medicines. In need of bottles for his remedies, by the 1820s the elder Dyott also established a thriving complex of bottle-making factories in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. That venture grew into a company town called Dyottville but collapsed in bankruptcy after a run on its bank during the panic of 1837. The patent medicine business remained active during the 1850s as T.W. Dyott & Sons. The wholesaler marketed remedies such as “Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup” for quieting babies and cures for rheumatism, liver ailments, and other maladies.

Civil War Veteran, Public Servant

When Dyott sold his Camden properties in 1860 and returned to Philadelphia, the house at 211 N. Fifth Street conveyed to a nearby neighbor on Cooper Street, retired merchant David Vickers. By 1862, it became the home of Vickers’ daughter, Hannah Gibson, and her family. For the next two decades, the Gibson family infused 211 N. Fifth Street with experiences of the Civil War, public service in government, entrepreneurship, and family life in Camden. When the Gibsons moved in, the household included Henry C. Gibson, a white man in the wholesale paint business, in his late 40s; Hannah, also white, in her late 30s; and their three children, who in 1860 ranged in age from 17-year-old James to Lillie, age 9, and Hannah (in some records, Anne), age 3; and domestic servants. The young daughters grew to adulthood in the Fifth Street house. Between 1878 and 1880, the household also included Hannah’s younger brother, David Vickers.

The Gibsons’ move to Fifth Street coincided with Henry Gibson’s return from military service during the Civil War (he previously served in the Florida Seminole Wars). In May 1861, Gibson led 101 men from Camden to Trenton to muster into service with the Third Regiment – Infantry – New Jersey Volunteers. The regiment joined a reserve division at the First Battle of Bull Run in July and engaged in the Battle of Munson’s Hill in August. Gibson returned to Camden to staff a recruiting office and concluded his military service in August 1862; shortly thereafter his son James enlisted and served until 1864. After the war Henry Gibson served as a Republican member of the Camden Board of Chosen Freeholders, and he was among the incorporators of the New Jersey Chemical Works, a manufacturer of chemicals and fertilizers located on Cooper Creek.

The women of the Gibson family—Hannah and her daughters—left few traces in the public record. Hannah Gibson became owner of the home following the death of her father in 1865. The domestic labor of running the large household was borne at least partially by female domestic servants, but the Gibson women apparently did not act on this advantage to pursue public activities outside the home. The Gibsons’ domestic servants included Catherine Powell, an Irish immigrant who could not read or write, who was recorded with the family in 1860 while they still lived on Cooper Street. Their domestic workers at 211 N. Fifth Street included Anna Maria Ballet, who in 1875 was convicted of stealing about $50 worth of clothing from the Gibson house and sentenced to one year in state prison. In 1878, the Gibsons employed Anna A. Lloyd, whom the Camden city directory identified as “colored.”

Following the death of Henry Gibson in 1875, the house at 211 N. Fifth Street became an important instrument of security for his widow and daughters. They remained in the home until 1880, and Hannah Gibson derived income by renting the building out to tenants while living in other nearby houses until her death in 1895.

Men’s Club House

During the late 1880s and early 1890s, 211 N. Fifth Street served as a club house for two white men’s clubs, first the Camden Republican Club (1887-89) and then the Camden Wheelmen (1889-94). Both organizations remodeled and redecorated the interior to suit their purposes and comfort, and both employed Black men who lived in the building and did custodial work (one also operated a barber shop).

The “tastefully fitted up club house” of the Republicans was “the finest in the city,” according to the Camden County Courier. In addition to the parlor, library, reception room, and kitchen on the first floor, on the second floor the Republicans installed pool and billiard rooms, a card room, and a barber shop. (The resident barber was Charles H. Griffin, a Black man whom city directories also identified as a janitor.) At the time, the house had a veranda on its south side, which provided a stage for political and social events in the yard.

In 1889, the Republicans gave up their lease and moved to still larger and grander quarters at 312 Cooper Street (later the Alumni House for Rutgers-Camden). Taking their place at 211 N. Fifth Street were the Camden Wheelmen, a sports and social club rooted in the bicycle craze of the late nineteenth-century. The Wheelmen kept many of the amenities from the Republicans but also used a back room on the first floor for their “wheels” and turned part of the third floor into a gymnasium. The third floor also included quarters for a janitor, identified in city directories as Levin J. Saunders, a Black man who also worked as a messenger for the Pennsylvania Railroad. His son Clarence, also a messenger, was listed at the 211 N. Fifth Street address for several years, raising a question of whether more of the Saunders family may have also lived on the third floor. According to Census records, Levin Saunders was married and with his wife, Elizabeth, had at least three sons and one daughter. Saunders remained employed by the Wheelmen (renamed the Carteret Club in 1893) at their later locations on Penn Street and Cooper Street.

The men’s clubs of 211 N. Fifth Street demonstrated the racial disparities of Camden of their era, with prominent white men with leisure time served by Black male employees. Further elements of racism were evident in activities of the Wheelmen, who in addition to their many sporting pursuits put on minstrel shows for public audiences in Camden and other nearby venues. A popular form of entertainment for white audiences, minstrel shows in the nineteenth century featured white performers in burnt-cork blackface makeup who ridiculed the mannerisms of Black people. Members of the Wheelmen produced and performed in these shows during their years on Fifth Street. During this period, the League of American Wheelmen also barred Black riders from membership.

Boarding House

The death of the longtime owner of 211 N. Fifth Street, Hannah Gibson, in 1895 led to a sheriff’s sale of the building and opened a period when subsequent women owners and tenants operated boarding houses at this address. Their boarders also were primarily white women, who represented the spectrum of life circumstances and economic strategies available to them in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Elizabeth Peterson, a white widow who had been working as a sewing machine operator, obtained a mortgage and purchased 211 N. Fifth Street in 1899 from another widow who had acquired the building at the earlier sheriff’s sale. Born in England, Peterson had immigrated to the United States in 1886. During her ownership, 211 N. Fifth Street also became home to her adult daughter and a changing cast of boarders who included a widowed woman who worked as an editor and a single woman who worked as a forewoman. The boarders also included female employees of the Esterbrook Steel Pen Company, then one of Camden’s most prominent industries, and a woman who made her living by dressmaking.

By 1910, the boarding house keeper at this address was Isabel Dubois, a white widow then 60 years old, who rented the building and made it home for her 86-year-old mother and two adult daughters. One daughter, Edna, worked as a legal stenographer, and the other, Isabel, as an accountant for the Victor Talking Machine Company. The boarders in 1910 included a 70-year-old widow with an independent income, a single woman who worked as a title clerk, and another single woman employed in candy manufacturing.

The ownership of 211 N. Fifth Street passed in 1911 from Elizabeth Peterson to Anna Janke, a white widow whose husband had been a bank clerk and a veteran of the Civil War. While city directories indicate residents with different surnames living together with Janke between 1911 and 1914, some were relatives (including her sister, Anna Platt). Janke’s social activities, reported in Camden newspapers, suggest a middle-class life not common for boarding house keepers. When Janke bought the home, the Camden Morning Post noted the sale and her intentions to thoroughly renovate – perhaps a sign of transition back to a single-family home or at least fewer occupants. Janke hosted card parties and was active in the New Era Club, which promoted college education for women and proper hygienic care of babies. Another woman who lived in the Janke home, Harriet Branson, hosted meetings of the Beethoven Club.

Medical Office

The next transition for 211 N. Fifth Street aligned it with nearby Cooper Street’s evolution into a location for medical professionals. The transformation had been underway since the 1880s, when Cooper Hospital opened nearby. Residences serving dual purposes as doctor’s homes and offices included 211 N. Fifth Street’s neighbor on the corner of Fifth and Cooper. There, at 429 Cooper Street, surgeon Edward A.Y. Schellenger lived with his family and maintained his practice between 1898 and 1917.

The house at 211 N. Fifth became a doctor’s home and office in 1915, when Dr. Alfred I. Cramer Jr. purchased the building from Anna Janke. Cramer, who was white, listed the Fifth Street home in city directories as the business address for his practice as an eye surgeon. It also became the family home for Cramer’s wife, Annie (a member of the locally prominent Browning and Doughten families) and their three sons and one daughter ranging in age from two months to seven years old. The Cramers made “extensive improvements” to the home, according to local newspapers. They employed two domestic servants, a sign of their economic and social standing. In 1915 the servants were Nellie McCabe, an 18-year-old Irish immigrant who cooked for the family, and Winifred Lyons, a 19-year-old daughter of Irish immigrants employed as a nurse. One of the previous owner’s tenants, a single woman who worked in the garment industry, also remained in residence with the Cramer family.

Cramer, a graduate of Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, was affiliated with Cooper Hospital and active in Camden’s public health movement to combat the spread of disease in poor neighborhoods. He also invested in real estate, which was the primary business of his extended family. In the late nineteenth century Cramer’s father, Alfred I. Cramer Sr., and brother Joseph had transformed farmland adjacent to Camden into Cramer Hill, a neighborhood for local shipyard workers. The development was later annexed into the city and remains a neighborhood of Camden.

Real estate considerations may have played a role in Dr. Cramer’s investment in the Fifth Street home and the Cramer family’s subsequent move to suburban Moorestown in 1924. Cramer bought 211 N. Fifth Street shortly after legislatures in Pennsylvania and New Jersey began planning for a bridge or a tunnel between Camden and Philadelphia. Those plans came to fruition in 1926 with completion of the Delaware River Bridge (later renamed the Benjamin Franklin Bridge), which terminated in Camden a few blocks north of 211 N. Fifth Street. The bridge project triggered a wave of real estate speculation in North Camden and a booster campaign to transform Cooper Street from a residential street into a commercial district. Amid these disruptions, many wealthy families moved from Camden to suburban Merchantville, Haddonfield, or (like the Cramers) Moorestown. Automobiles helped to make the moves not only possible but preferable for their owners in need of garages and parking spaces.

The Cramer family retained 211 N. Fifth Street as an investment property, and it remained Dr. Cramer’s office location until his death in 1929. Inherited by his wife, Annie, the building reverted to multiple-family use as an apartment building from the 1930s into the 1940s. The tenants in those years included married couples and single women, their occupations ranging from school teachers to clerks, skilled tradespeople, and factory workers. The building also continued to house a medical practice: from at least 1931 through 1943, the office of another eye surgeon, Dr. George J. Dublin. While maintaining the office on Fifth Street, Dublin, a World War I veteran, lived in the Parkside section of Camden with his parents, who were Russian immigrants in the retail clothing business. In 1937 Dublin also bought a house across the street from his office, at 214 N. Fifth, but in the years after World War II he married and joined the post-World War II suburban migration to Cherry Hill.

Renovations and a Jewish Family Home

By the 1940s, 211 N. Fifth Street was more than eighty years old and deteriorating, like many other houses of similar vintage in North Camden. In 1937, the federal Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) “redlined” the blocks north of Cooper Street and west of Tenth Street as “hazardous” based on perceived negative characteristics of the housing stock and residents. The stigma affected even the most substantial homes, like 211 N. Fifth, by branding the area as high-risk for mortgage lenders.

Nevertheless, in 1945 a new owner saved 211 N. Fifth Street from its declining state and remodeled it to serve as his family home with two medical offices on the first floor. Dr. Charles Kutner began renting in the building in 1943, then bought the home and started renovating in 1945 when he returned from three years’ military service during World War II. Kutner, the son of Jewish immigrants from an area of Poland under Russian control, grew up in South Camden among six siblings. His father worked as a baker. Although his parents spoke only Yiddish when they arrived in the United States and could not read or write, Charles graduated from high school, then Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, and by 1926 had his medical degree from the University of Maryland. While attending medical school in Baltimore he met his future wife, Leah Friedlander, who was also Jewish. They married in 1927 and returned to Camden, where they had two daughters. Dr. Kutner became active in public health initiatives, especially the fight against tuberculosis in Camden public schools, and Leah Kutner participated in Jewish woman’s organizations. They joined the Jewish country club, Woodcrest, in Cherry Hill.

The Kutners’ renovation of their new home preserved the building but altered its original form and nineteenth-century character. They removed the dilapidated third floor, making 211 N. Fifth Street into a two-story structure without its original roofline and cornice. Inside, the resulting living quarters on the second floor had varied levels, somewhat like the split-level designs that were becoming popular for suburban family homes. They divided the first floor into two medical offices, one for Dr. Kutner and the other rented to Dr. Walter Crist, who maintained his practice in Camden while living in West Collingswood. The Kutners also solved the problem of parking space for an automobile by buying an adjacent small rowhouse on Lawrence Street and converting it into a garage. A new two-story, brick-faced concrete structure at the rear of both buildings connected the garage with the Fifth Street house.

The Kutners and their daughters lived at 211 N. Fifth Street through the rest of the 1940s and 1950s, the period when Rutgers University began other buying other nearby properties. After their daughters were grown, Charles and Leah Kutner stayed until at least 1962, when urban renewal demolition began to clear nearby blocks to create the Rutgers-Camden campus. They later lived in suburban Cherry Hill, but Dr. Kutner commuted daily to his medical practice at 211 N. Fifth Street until 1989 and rented the rest of the building to commercial and medical tenants. The occupants during the 1970s included First Harlem Management Corp., which specialized in management and technical assistance for minority entrepreneurs.

Real Estate and Rutgers

When the Kutners sold the property, following the death of Leah Kutner in 1989, 211 N. Fifth Street became one among many Camden properties owned by real estate investors Alfred and Ninfa DeMartini of Cherry Hill. The building housed legal and real estate offices until 2005, when Rutgers purchased it together with a package of other properties in the area of its expanding campus: 526 Penn Street, 423 Cooper Street, and 428-430 Lawrence Street. The building subsequently served as offices for Disability Services, Communications and Events, and the Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities (MARCH) before becoming home to the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in 2021. The building’s long history as a family home, men’s club house, boarding and apartment house, and site of medical practices was reconstructed in 2022-23 by graduate students in the Rutgers-Camden Department of History.

Associated Individuals

All known residents and businesses are listed in the Fifth Street Database: click here.

Sources

Camden and Philadelphia Newspapers (Newspapers.com, GeneaologyBank).
Camden City Directories (Camden County Historical Society and Ancestry.com).
Camden County Property Records.
Digital Photographs Collection, Library Company of Philadelphia.
New Jersey State Census, 1885, 1895, 1915, and U.S. Census, 1870-1950 (Ancestry.com).
Structure Survey, 211 N. Fifth Street, John Milner Associates for New Jersey Office of Cultural and Environmental Services.

Note on sources: The historic structure report for this property dates it as c. 1860. This research updates and corrects the record.

Research by

Sebastian LaVergne, Charlene Mires, Victoria Scannella, John Sprague, and Gina Torres.

Listen to a podcast about this project.

Posted by

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

Collection

Citation

“211 N. Fifth Street,” Learning From Cooper Street, accessed March 2, 2024, https://omeka.camden.rutgers.edu/items/show/89.

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