For more than a year, they have rallied, protested, and bemoaned plans to demolish their venerable alma mater, Camden High School, but to no avail. In what may be the last hope to save "the Castle on the Hill," an alumni group has initiated a new legal move to try to block demolition.
It is the latest undertaking by a grassroots movement to preserve the building in the city's Parkside section that has educated generations of students. Thousands joined the Facebook group Save Camden High School, and there have been online petitions and bracelet sales to build a public campaign.
But time is running out. The New Jersey Schools Development Authority has already started preliminary work on its $133 million plan to replace Camden High with 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.
A motion filed in federal court in Camden two weeks ago seeks a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction to stop plans to demolish the historic school, built in 1916. Attorney Matthew R. Litt argues in part that the school "is a state and national architectural treasure" and that state officials are "moving forward autocratically" without consulting the local community, as required by the New Jersey Register of Historical Places Act.
"Progress is not an excuse for any and everything," Litt said. "We want to save the school."
School Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard said the state-run district has held meetings with community leaders, elected officials, and alumni since plans were announced in October 2016 to raze the century-old school. It is simply not cost-effective to keep the school, and constructing a new building is the best option, he said. The plans for the new building call for creating four independent learning communities that would operate within the traditional public school.
"This simply comes down to a group of alumni who don't agree with the direction we are going," Rouhanifard said Thursday. "We would certainly love to preserve the building. It came down to what's best for the kids."
A hearing has been scheduled for Nov. 20 before U.S. District Judge Robert Kugler. Until the issue is resolved, the Schools Development Authority said it would not undertake any demolition to the main building.
Litt, who waged a similar battle to save a Revolutionary-era former farmhouse in Bellmawr, is hoping for a different outcome for Camden High. The Hugg-Harrison-Glover House was reduced to rubble during a predawn demolition last summer to make way for a state highway project, despite an emergency court application filed by historic preservationists a day earlier.
In February, the state's Historic Preservation Office said Camden High was eligible for placement on the state and national historic registers. Such a designation, however, does not block demolition. The three-story brick English Tudor Gothic style school was designed by Philadelphia architect Paul Armon Davis III.
"As such, it's among the most architecturally distinguished early 20th century school buildings in the state," Katherine J. Marcopul, a deputy state historic preservation officer, wrote in a letter attached to the injunction request.
Asked if the injunction request would likely be the last maneuver to save Camden High, Litt replied, "Probably."
"In terms of litigation, it looks like this is it," he said.
Outside the school Thursday morning, Ronald Venella, a 1960 Camden High graduate, gazed nostalgically at the school's landmark tower. "A lot of memories here," he said.
Venella said he hoped that a semi-annual lunch gathering of about 50 classmates would be able to stop by Monday for a photograph in front of the school, possibly for the last time. Around the back of the school, a small construction crew worked with a backhoe cleaning up the fenced-in complex.
"We're holding out hope they can save it. That would be great," said Venella, 75, of Mount Laurel.
Some Camden High alumni have been in an uproar since the demolition plan was announced. The school once held more than 2,400 students, but over the years, the student body dwindled, and the infrastructure deteriorated. The district has spent millions on repairs in recent years.
The school graduated its last class in June. Camden High's roughly 500 displaced students and staff were moved this school year to Cooper B. Hatch Middle School, a few blocks away, until the new school is ready. Students in the Big Picture Learning Academy, who were also housed at Hatch, were moved down the street to the Boys and Girls Club, he said.
Rouhanifard said the district would move forward with a plan to salvage some of Camden High's decorative architectural features and transform them into sculpture on the nearby grounds of the Camden County Historical Society. Parts of the building's turrets and some of the stonework atop the central tower and surrounding the front entrance of the school would be saved, he said. Preserving the tower while constructing the new building around it would cost at least $200 million, officials have said.