Razing of an old Camden house raises preservationists' hackles

A three-story brick townhouse dating to the early 20th century was supposed to give the future 12-story Rutgers University-Camden graduate housing project some historical character.

But a month after construction began at Fourth and Cooper Streets, the quaint building is gone.

"I am irate, to say the least," Kristine Seitz, chairwoman of the City of Camden Historic Preservation Commission, said at Thursday's commission meeting. "It should have been protected with scaffolding."

Construction of the graduate-student housing, which will house 350 and have about 7,000 square feet of retail space on the ground level, began the first week in April. It is scheduled to be completed by August 2012.

"As the project evolved . . . there was more and more concern," said Michael Hagarty, the Camden County Improvement Authority director of project management. The 326 Cooper St. townhouse became a safety risk, he said.

The roof collapsed during the last week of April, and the authority, which is managing the construction project and owned the brick townhouse, consulted city officials and the state Department of Environmental Protection Historic Preservation Office.

"We saw the problems with the house, and we approved the emergency demolition," said Larry Ragonese, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The historic preservation office's April 27 letter of approval said "the structural instability of 326 Cooper St. constitutes 'an immediate, direct, demonstrable and severe hazard to the safety of the public.' "

Although Seitz agreed with the state's assessment of the property right before the house was demolished, she contended that the construction crews caused the structural damage that did the townhouse in.

"It wasn't like that before," she said, adding that though not perfect, the structure had been sound enough to be incorporated into the facade of the new dormitory.

Calls to the Original W. Hargrove Demolition Co., which is doing the demolition and clearing of the housing site, were not returned.

Vibrations from drilling, digging, and the demolition of four vacant rowhouses on Fourth Street may have contributed to the roof collapse, but not much, Hagarty said.

"There were reports before the demolition that [the townhouse] wasn't going to last long," he said. The plan was to build a structure within the townhouse to keep it up.

Built as a single-family residence in the early 1900s, 326 Cooper St. was the last remaining townhouse facing Cooper Street in the 300 block. It was representative of the scale and texture of the construction period that has been preserved in the historic neighborhood, according to Rutgers' plans.

The townhouse served as a doctor's office for some time and several years ago was converted into three apartments. In 2007, the Camden Redevelopment Agency bought it for $170,000 from its Philadelphia owner.

Scaffolding was not put around the building during the first phase of the construction project. But Hagarty said that even scaffolding would not have saved the townhouse.

Because the sleek, modern housing project is in the middle of the Cooper Street Historic District, the improvement agency had to present its plan to the local historic preservation committee in July.

That team suggested preserving 326 Cooper St. and the former Red Cross building at 312 Cooper St. as part of the project.

"I was excited that someone was respecting the streetscape," Seitz said Friday, recalling the July presentation. "It was always, 'We are keeping the shell' " of 326 Cooper St.

Preserving 326 Cooper would have been expensive, Hagarty said. Most of the bricks needed replacement; the foundation required repair; and other aesthetic procedures would have driven up costs. But the developers were willing to do it.

In the fall, the improvement authority presented a project proposal to the city planning board and the state Historic Preservation Office, both of which approved the plans.

The groundbreaking ceremony was April 4. The townhouse was demolished between the evening of April 29 and April 30.

Now that 326 Cooper St. is out of the picture, Hagarty and his team are working on a mitigation plan for the remains of the brick townhouse.

Ideas include a free-standing plaque with historical information on the house or an exhibit of artifacts nearby.

Only after 326 Cooper St. had been razed did the city's historic preservation commissioners learn of the demolition.

"A building doesn't just disappear overnight. It was intentional," Seitz said at Thursday's meeting. She and other commissioners would like the city to investigate the events that led up to the demolition.

City code enforcement directors were unavailable for comment Friday.


Contact staff writer Claudia Vargas at 856-779-3917 or cvargas@phillynews.com.