Updated: Wednesday, March 7, 2018, 6:44 PM
The place where the Victor Talking Machine Co. made music history in downtown Camden may soon strike a new note in the city where the recording industry was pioneered more than a century ago.
A developer has purchased one of the last remaining buildings from the sprawling complex near the Delaware River where phonograph recordings were made by the likes of Fats Waller, Enrico Caruso, and Camden’s Russ Columbo, and where Frank Sinatra signed his first contract with Victor Studios.
Millennial Partners wants to transform the eight-story building at Front and Cooper Streets into commercial office space with a taste of its past as an early leader in the music business, memorialized by the image of the dog Nipper listening to “His Master’s Voice.”
Most of the building, near the city’s prime real estate on the river, would be leased for offices, said Chris DiGeorge, managing partner for Millennial, based in Camden. The top two floors would be converted for entertainment uses, he said.
The preliminary plans, which could take several years to carry out, call for bringing back the eighth-floor recording studio and stage where legendary artists recorded and live orchestra performances were given, DiGeorge said. A TV studio and other media operations may be added, he said.
“We would have no shortage of people who would want to come here and record,” said DiGeorge. “It’s where it all started.”
The Victor Talking Machine Co. began in 1901 in a small machine shop on Front Street and in 1906 began to produce Victrolas, disc phonographs with a turntable and amplifying horn inside a cabinet. Over the years, it grew to a massive operation that covered the equivalent of 10 city blocks, churned out 800,000 records a day, and had sales of over $400 million in phonograph instruments, records, and parts.
“It’s probably the most historic place for recorded music in the world,” Chris Perks, president of the Camden County Historical Society, said Wednesday. “They recorded every type of thing imaginable.”
The building’s first floor may be used to house a Victor museum with shops, DiGeorge said. The plan also calls for the eventual addition of a rooftop restaurant, a venue that could be leased for weddings, banquets, and other events, he said.
“We want to make this building an important part of Camden for many years, like it was in the past,” DiGeorge said recently as he stood on the rooftop across from another Victor building that was transformed into Camden’s first luxury apartment building, the Victor Lofts, by Philadelphia developer Carl Dranoff.
Entrepreneur Graham Alexander, who launched the Victor-themed musical venue and archive Vault at Victor Records in Berlin in 2011, is among the tenants expected to lease space in the building. Alexander bought the Victor brand several years ago and has a collection of memorabilia from the company’s heyday in Camden.
Alexander, a singer-songwriter and Broadway veteran, wants to bring his enterprise, currently housed in three locations, under one roof in Camden. The firm has a live performance venue, a retail showroom, and a facility that manufactures phonographs and vinyl records, which have become popular among a new generation of music lovers.
“It’s the music capital of the world as far as I’m concerned,” Alexander said this week. “I can’t think of a place I’d rather be. You want to walk the halls where all these amazing artists walked.”
Joseph Pane, a retired Radio Corp. of America engineer and vice president who helped create an RCA museum at Rowan University, said he would consider donating some items for the Camden building. The Rowan collection includes phonographs, home radios from the 1920s, a generator from a Trident submarine, and other relics from RCA, which made Camden a leader in developing radios and televisions.
The building is part of what little remains of the former 58-acre Victor complex, which included more than two dozen buildings. Victor was owned by Moorestown resident Eldridge B. Johnson. The company was sold to RCA in 1929, then morphed into a General Electric division in 1986.
In December, Millennial acquired what was known during Victor’s heyday as Building No. 2 for $5.2 million from the Camden School District. The deal is expected to close by next week.
“It’s just amazing to me to be able to get this building,” said DiGeorge.
The district put the building up for sale in December 2016 with a $6.7 million asking price, but neither of the two bids met that price, officials said. The district paid about $2 million for the property in 2006 and used it as its headquarters for more than a decade.
School officials say the building is now too big for its needs, with only about 148 employees assigned to the central office. They are packing up and preparing to move soon to the old Washington School in the Cramer Hill section of the city, vacant since the district closed it in 2012.
The building, constructed in 1916, first served as executive offices of Victor, which had factories across the street. The company employed thousands of people, including DiGeorge’s paternal grandfather, Antonio, a cabinet maker who took the ferry from Philadelphia to Camden.
DiGeorge said the seventh floor, well preserved in its original condition, includes an ornate boardroom where giants like Sinatra and Woody Guthrie signed contracts with Victor and would likely be left intact. Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, and Billie Holiday also recorded for the label. Andy Warhol drew album covers at the location, too, Perks said.
Like many Camden School District buildings, the structure is outdated and in need of upgrades, including new windows; plumbing; heating and cooling systems, and electrical work. DiGeorge said the renovations would be done in stages. The commercial tenants would be able to move in shortly after the district completes its move.
The Victor building is among several projects that Millennial has in the works in Camden. The company plans to turn the old city library on Federal Street into an office and retail facility, and build a gated apartment building in the Parkside neighborhood on a former Monsanto manufacturing site.
“I intend to turn the name Camden into a brand and not a stigma,” says DiGeorge.