Ugly-house contest aims to draw attention to Camden's vacant-property problem

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The Samuel Cooper house, dating to 1790, is among 13 that have been picked by a church group to compete in the Cramer Hill Ugly Home Contest in Camden. (Camden Churches Organized for People)

It was built by one of South Jersey's founding families and once served as a station on the Underground Railroad. Nowadays the large, brick colonial at 22nd Street and Wayne Avenue in Camden's Cramer Hill section is just plain ugly, a local church group says.

But just how ugly is the vacant, 210-year-old Samuel Cooper house, compared to the thousands of other abandoned homes in Camden?

Cooper's house is among 13 of Cramer Hill's most burned, battered and broken-down homes designated by the Camden Churches Organized for People to compete in the first Cramer Hill Ugly Home Contest, which will culminate next month when votes are tallied.

Brother Jerry Hudson, of St. Anthony of Padua Church in Cramer Hill, said no one was aware of the Cooper home's historical significance.

"We just drove around and took pictures of houses that looked bad or close to falling down," he said.

Camden has thousands of vacant properties, and, like Cooper's house, many are boarded up by the Public Works Department and slated for eventual demolition.

The purpose of the contest is to draw attention to the city's vacant-property problem.

Some of the homes on the organization's list have been vacant for decades, gutted by fires with entryways often accessible by anyone, said Rev. Jud Weiksnar, the parish pastor of St. Anthony of Padua.

Weiksnar has been trying to obtain and demolish a property next door to the parish school, ever since it was abandoned in 2006. That River Road home is ugly, he said, but it probably won't win the competition.

"It's probably not even going to be in the top 10," he said. "Others are much worse."

At Cooper's house, the letters C.S.P. (P for his wife, Prudence, according to a historian) and the year 1790 can still be made out, embedded in the crumbling brick facade just below the burned, collapsing roof.

"It's desperately in need of some attention, but it's anything but ugly," said local historian Paul Schopp. "It's one of the last pieces of patterned-brick architecture left in the city. Maybe being called ugly will get it some attention."

Schopp said the home is not registered as a state or national historic place.

"That's the real shame of it," he said.

The Cooper home, which Schopp said was converted to a duplex, has two listed owners. Neither could be reached for comment yesterday.

The churches' organization said Camden has approved the Abandoned Properties Rehabilitation Act, which allows cities to use eminent domain to take a home, but has not implemented it.

The "winner" of the ugliest-home contest will be announced at a ceremony Aug. 27 during the Feast of St. Monica, the Patron Saint of Patience, at St. Anthony of Padua Church.