May 22, 2013: We’ve just learned that the owner of the Benjamin Cooper House has placed a tarp on the building! This is a simple step that will go a long way to helping protect the property from the elements as the emergency stabilization plan begins.
The seriousness of the threat to the Benjamin Cooper House is quite obvious from the photo of the damage caused by a fire on Thanksgiving Day 2012. The building is privately owned and was vacant at the time of the fire. It is badly in need of a future rescue plan beyond the short-term immediate stabilization for which planning is currently in the works.
This Dutch Colonial stone house was built by Benjamin Cooper in 1734 and is not only one of the earliest remaining buildings in Camden, but is also one of the most significant extant ferry-related properties in the city.
Benjamin Cooper was the grandson of William Cooper, one of the earliest Englishmen to settle in Camden in the late 17th century. Benjamin Cooper died in 1772, leaving the house to his eldest son, Joseph. During the British occupation of Philadelphia during the Revolutionary War, the house, still in Cooper family hands, was commandeered for use as the headquarters of British Lieutenant Colonel Abercrombie. In later years, the building was used as a saloon known as “The Old Stone Jug,” and as a “pleasure garden,” or recreational destination, for the residents of the various surrounding independent villages that would later consolidate into the City of Camden. Beginning in the early 20th century, the property was used by John H. Mathis & Company Shipyard, and its successor, Camden Ship Repair, as offices. Most recently, it has been vacant and subject to vandalism.
Despite the long-term neglect, the Benjamin Cooper House retains significant original and historic features. It’s full Dutch Colonial form, including massive gambrel roof, was intact until the recent fire. The roof’s west gable includes a keystone that reads “B.+H.C. 1734,” recognizing the builders (Benjamin and Hannah Cooper) and year of construction. Much of the building’s first floor, including historic woodwork plaster walls, remains intact despite the recent fire.
With the prominent roof entirely open to the elements as a result of the fire, the Benjamin Cooper House need to be immediately protected from the elements. This could be accomplished most simply by placing a tarp over the damaged roof to temporarily reduce further water infiltration. This very temporary measure would act to protect what’s left of the interior long enough to facilitate initial steps toward the house’s stabilization.
Area advocates have stepped up in support of saving the house. In 2007, the Camden-based non-profit Save Our Waterfront, working with area stakeholders, published a North Camden Neighborhood Plan that prioritized rehabilitation of the Benjamin Cooper House. Most recently, the property’s owner has been willing to sign an agreement with another non-profit, the Cooper’s Ferry Association, which assumed the responsibility of applying for a recently-awarded grant from the New Jersey Historic Trust to fund a desperately-needed stabilization plan for the house. While this progress is promising, the future of this important historic resource is still in jeopardy, as the house will require immediate stabilization pursuant to this plan, and the prospect of securing additional funding for its preservation and determining a future use for the house remains uncertain.
The Benjamin Cooper house is Camden’s only remaining ferry tavern. It is one of a handful of buildings left that evidence the significance of the ferry industry and trade with Philadelphia to the development of Camden, and the prominent Cooper family’s interest in Camden’s ferry business for over 150 years. Preservation New Jersey applauds the Cooper’s Ferry Association, Save Our Waterfront, and other local interests that have moved to ensure this landmark’s future prospects, By increasing awareness and appreciation of this National and State Register of Historic Places-listed resource, these groups will hopefully be able to help craft a new chapter of revitalization that can serve as an inspiration in a city that needs preservation success stories.
Rodney S. Sadler
Save Our Waterfront