Historic Camden High is reduced to rubble to make way for a new school

The “Castle on the Hill” is no more.

A clump of bricks and mortar could still be seen Tuesday afternoon beyond the backhoes in the 1700 block of Park Boulevard, where Camden High School had been. Gone are the mighty white columns and towering turrets, among the distinguishing features of the century-old building that had become the center of a preservation battle.

“Nobody has watched that demolition more than I,” said Ryan Bates, an alumnus of the Class of 1976, a former Camden High educator, and a Parkside resident who lives near the school’s campus. He fought to save the school and has vowed that he will not leave the city until a new school is built on the same ground. “With every brick they took out of there, I felt the pain,” he said.

Camera icon TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
The white columns and towering turrets of the historic century-old Camden High School are gone now.

The New Jersey Schools Development Authority has started preliminary work on a $133 million plan to build a modern school that could enroll 1,200 students. Construction is expected to take four years for the first new public high school in Camden in decades. Since February, demolition has been unfolding, with salvage crews taking parts of the school, including the tower, to be used in the future.

Bates worries that housing will be built instead of a new school because the large lot is on high ground. On a clear day, Bates said, there were picturesque views of the city and Philadelphia skylines from the three-story English Tudor school designed by Philadelphia architect Paul Armon Davis III.

“They tore out the whole heart and soul of Camden,” Bates said. “Is it a good change? Is it a bad change? I really don’t know.”

Others are optimistic about plans for a new campus that will include four separate schools, including options for the arts and sciences, while operating within the traditional public school district. The last Camden High class graduated in June.

Delia Ford Brown graduated in 1960 at a time when the halls were full with an ethnically diverse student population and a “marvelous” basketball team that included Golden “Sunny” Sunkett and Ronald “Itchy” Smith.

“I am so sorry my school is gone, because I loved that school,” said Brown, who still meets with more than four dozen alumni twice a year at the Pub in Pennsauken. Brown returned to Camden High, working there for 29 years until her retirement as an administrator.

“Our students deserve a modern school,” Brown said, explaining why she did not fight the demolition, but did head the historical and cultural preservation committee that identified what should be salvaged. “It’s exciting, but it’s also sad.”

Those who opposed demolition had protested, filed legal papers, collected signatures on petitions, and garnered the support of thousands on a Facebook group called Save Camden High School. The grassroots effort fell short.

Staff writer Melanie Burney contributed to this article.

Camera icon TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Alen Henry, 54, who worked in maintenance at the building in the 1990s, looks over what is left of Camden High School.