The New Plaza
The hotel, built in 1927, was the last hotel, open or closed, to stand in Camden. It shut its doors in 1985 and has remained vacant and corroding ever since.
On Tuesday, an 85-foot crane grabbed industrial claw-size fistfuls of brick and metal, dumping the debris onto the ground as passersby paused in the freezing temperatures to gawk.
"The loss of the Plaza is saddening to the entire community," said Chris Perks, president of the Camden County Historical Society. "It'd be comparable in Philadelphia if you proposed to tear down the Bellevue-Stratford in terms of community affection for the architecture."
The Camden preservation commission had voted to deny the New York-based land owners of the hotel, Cooper Plaza Associates, a certificate to demolish the building at Fifth and Cooper Streets.
But the Camden Planning Board in April 2013 voted, 3-2, to allow the demolition after no developers came forward with ideas on how to save the place from years of neglect.
The building was assessed at $50,000 in 2014, according to property records, and Cooper Plaza Associates paid $23,390 in taxes, city spokesman Robert Corrales said.
The seven-floor brick hotel in its heyday featured a German dining room and live music in the ballroom. Its proximity to the RCA recording studio made it a common place for visiting musicians to stay.
"When you compare the beauty of the Plaza, with its brickwork and limestone ornamentation, to the contemporary buildings that are being built on Cooper Street, the difference is stark. It's a tragedy which makes everyone in the community that much sadder at the loss," Perks said.
In 1938, children could eat 75-cent Sunday dinners at the hotel dining room, nicknamed "the friendly inn." The original cost of a single room was $6 to $12 weekly.
After a renovation in the 1950s, the hotel became more of a motor lodge in the 1960s, with $2.75 breakfast specials and air-conditioning advertised as major perks.
"It was the last icon of when the city was a thriving center of commerce and insurance and banking and industry," said historian Paul Schopp, also a member of the Camden County Historical Society. "We already lost the Walt Whitman Hotel, and now this one's gone and that's the end of it."
The private owners could not be reached for comment, and a lawyer, Edward Sheehan, did not respond to calls.
Rutgers-Camden spokesman Mike Sepanic said the university, which has been acquiring property on Cooper Street in an attempt to redevelop the area, has no plans to buy the parcel. The school was rumored to be eyeing the lot for a business school. Rutgers previously declined to purchase the building for dormitory space because of the high cost of refurbishment.
"We do not have a funded project that could go on that site," Sepanic said.
Tuesday, a building inspector surveyed the site where six laborers and Phil Franchi, owner of Franchi Wrecking Co., continued the demolition. Franchi's firm also took down the Richard Esterbrook Pen Factory, which was owned by RCA at the time of its demolition in the 1970s. That building was also on Cooper Street.
"We'll have everything on the ground in three to four weeks," Franchi said Tuesday. Security will be on-site 24/7 to deter thieves from stealing the scrap metal, he said.
Some passersby stopped to ask if the building was being renovated; others watched in silence as debris came crashing down.
Schopp criticized the absentee owners of the building for the hotel's state of disrepair. Laborers on Tuesday said concrete walls were so dry-rotted that they would fall over with the push of a hand.
"They didn't maintain any pumps in the basement, so the entire first floor flooded," Schopp said. "To me, it was demolition by neglect, and ultimately the planning board rewarded them for doing so."
Schopp said he wouldn't be stopping by the demolition, comparing it to attending a wake.
"I keep hearing the song where they tear down paradise to put up a parking lot," Schopp said. "It's a real shame, to know it's gone."