Building Lives at 427-29 Cooper Street

427 and 429 Cooper Street, at right this photograph taken c. 1916, show ornamentations of a front yard at 429, a porch added to the front of 427, and hitching posts at curbside. (Camden County Historical Society)

A Brief History of the Home of the Department of History
and Department of Religion and Philosophy at Rutgers-Camden

At the corner of Fifth and Cooper Streets, two large residences built in the 1880s represent the height of Camden’s nineteenth-century prosperity and the transition of a fashionable neighborhood following the 1926 completion of the first bridge across the Delaware River to Philadelphia. Anchoring a key intersection within the Cooper Street Historic District, these houses contribute to the National Register of Historic Places’ recognition of Cooper Street’s significance in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, “when industry, commerce, and agriculture combined to make this city the economic and urban center of Southern New Jersey.”  They demonstrate transitions from nineteenth-century trades, to real estate development, to the practice of medicine in the houses on Cooper Street.

Cooper Street’s role as the major route linking South Jersey to Philadelphia-bound ferries dates from the eighteenth century, but the north side of the street remained undeveloped farmland until the 1840s. Prior to construction of the present houses, earlier occupants of residential structures at 427 and 429 reflected the economy and opportunities available in Camden in the mid-nineteenth century.

Early owners of the two lots included Thomas W. Dyott Jr., a Philadelphia wholesaler of patent medicines who bought the corner property (429) in 1846 and the adjacent lot in 1852. In business with his father, also named Thomas, Dyott sold remedies such as Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup for quieting babies and cures for rheumatism, liver ailments, and other maladies. His father had immigrated England in 1805 opened a drug store, claimed to be a doctor, and became one of the nation’s leading purveyors of patent medicines. Seeking bottles for his remedies, the elder Dyott also went into the bottle manufacturing business and by the 1820s had a thriving complex of factories in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. That venture grew into a company town called Dyottville but collapsed in bankruptcy after a run on its bank during the panic of 1837. The patent medicine business remained active during the 1850s as T.W. Dyott & Sons.

By the time Dyott sold the two properties and returned to Philadelphia in 1860, houses stood on both lots — a brick house at 427 and a frame house at 429. Dyott and his family likely lived in the brick house, suggested by the listing of his location in city directories as “Cooper above Fourth.” The family in 1860 included Thomas, his wife Sarah, and four children ranging in age from 8 to 16.

Investing in Camden

The next owner of the brick house, Thomas Atkinson (later a mayor of Camden), resold it just two years later. This transaction in 1862 opened a long period of ownership by William T. Doughten, a pioneer in Camden’s riverfront lumber industry. Doughten had moved to Camden from Gloucester City in the 1850s to establish a lumber business at Kaighn’s Point. Before acquiring 427 Cooper Street, Doughten and his wife, Abigail, had rented another home in the same block, a less substantial wood-frame house at 413 Cooper Street. At the new address, by 1870 their household included two sons and two daughters, two unrelated women seamstresses, and a domestic servant, Phebe Oney, described in the 1870 Census as “mulatto,” born in Delaware and illiterate. Although the family moved elsewhere in Camden in the 1870s and 1880s, Doughten retained ownership of the house as an investment property. Among the tenants was a dentist, Alphonso Irwin, who had his home and office at 427 from 1881 until 1885, when he purchased the house next door, 425 Cooper Street, which still stands.

The frame house on the corner lot (429) became home to Lewis Wilkins, a livery stable operator.  Wilkins, who had moved into Camden from Burlington County in the 1850s, selected a good location for a stable in a growing city, near the ferries that crossed to Philadelphia. At 51 years old in 1860, his household at 429 Cooper included his wife, Rebecca; their 20-year-old daughter Katura (Kate); Rebecca’s mother, Katura Moore, and her sister, Emeline Dobbins, a nurse. In a later U.S. Census, Kate was noted as having a “spine disease,” which could explain the presence of a nurse in the family.

Wilkins, his immediate family, and various other relatives lived at 429 Cooper Street for twenty years, and during that time Wilkins improved the house to keep up with architectural fashion. In 1869, Wilkins added a mansard roof, a hallmark feature of the French-inspired Second Empire architectural style very popular in the United States during the 1860s and 1870s. In the same year, Second Empire mansards were adopted for a new mansion built nearby by a member of the Cooper family (406 Cooper Street, still standing in the twenty-first century) and for other less grand houses rapidly filling Penn and Linden Streets. Across the river, Philadelphia officials chose the same style for the new City Hall then under construction.

Renovations and Reconstructions

Both properties changed ownership during the greatest takeoff of Camden’s population, which nearly tripled between 1880 and 1920, from about 41,000 to more than 116,000 people. Fittingly for a period of such growth, the new houses constructed at 427 and 429 Cooper Street both were built for the families of prominent real estate developers. Much larger and more attentive to architectural fashion than the houses they replaced, the new residences advertised their owners’ success and ambition in business.

The first of the two properties to change hands was 429, on the corner of Fifth and Cooper. Lewis Wilkins, the livery stable operator, sold his property in 1880 to Joseph J. Read, a beneficiary of the changing worlds of work and opportunity in the nineteenth century. Born in Camden in 1815, in his youth in South Philadelphia Read learned the craft of coopering—barrel-making—and he practiced this trade in Camden as late as the 1860s. But in the 1860s and 1870s Read also began to buy and renovate houses and at least one office building in Camden, and he amassed enough wealth to also invest in property in Philadelphia and Atlantic City. Established in the real estate business, the former cooper moved to Cooper Street.

In the early 1880s, residents of Cooper Street sought to distinguish their thoroughfare in this growing city by narrowing the street to create front yard spaces that allowed for gardens, small yards, or front porches. The change in the streetscape prompted a wave of construction of grander, architect-designed houses. For his part, Joseph Read gained approval from the Camden City Council “to alter and change the frame dwelling house at the northwest corner of Fifth and Cooper streets by extending the same to the house line on the north side of said Cooper Street.”

Read’s proposed renovation in 1882 raises a question of when – and how – the original frame house at 429 Cooper Street became the brick house that remained standing at 429 Cooper Street in the twenty-first century. The historic building survey conducted in 1980 prior to National Register listing dated the house as c. 1880, consistent with Read’s purchase of the property. But the sources for this report did not include two key pieces of evidence: local newspaper reports that Lewis Wilkins added a mansard roof in 1869 and that Read in 1882 requested to renovate a house that was frame (wood), not brick. The still-standing brick house has both a mansard and a front bay consistent with Read’s 1882 proposal – could it be the same house, further renovated with brick facing by Read, or did he rebuild entirely? There is no answer in the known public record, but by 1885 the Sanborn Insurance Company map for Camden lists only brick houses in the 400 block, and the 1891 map depicts a brick house on this corner of Fifth and Cooper Streets.

For Read, a recent widower, 429 Cooper Street became the home of his second marriage, in 1881 to Elizabeth Schellenger (in public records of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century also spelled Schellinger), the widow of a sea captain. Their extended household included Elizabeth’s son William Schellenger, a clerk, and Edward A.Y. Schellenger (known as Ned), who during the 1890s completed medical school at the University of Pennsylvania and returned to Camden to practice. While William moved to the Philadelphia suburbs after his marriage in 1891, Ned remained in the household at Fifth and Cooper. After Joseph Read died in 1898, Ned headed the extended family including his mother, his wife Lillian, their son also named Edward, and their daughter Elizabeth. The family also employed domestic servants and a driver for the doctor; those that can be documented were African Americans: Julia Burse, a 36-year-old widow at the time of the 1900 Census, was born in Maryland. Mary Taylor, who worked in the household in 1910, was also a widow, 61 years old and born in New Jersey. She cooked for the Schellengers for at least a decade.

Architectural Distinction

Next door, the older brick home at 427 Cooper Street transferred in 1889 to a new owner, real estate broker James White. In keeping with the changing fashions of Cooper Street, White commissioned a new house designed by the Philadelphia architectural firm Moses & King to serve as both his office and residence for himself, his wife, and two daughters. The distinctive home incorporated a strong statement of Richardsonian Romanesque style with a stone arched window on the first floor but also ornamental touches that could be described as Queen Anne, a style that gained in popularity in the United States following its appearance at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. The residence thus combined two architectural statements in one building, speaking to two purposes as home and office. Moses & King were known for designing churches as well as residences, which may help to explain the stained glass installed over the front door.

The White family remained at 427 Cooper Street until the 1920s. After the death of James White in 1902, his wife Margaret became one of several widows heading households in the 400 block of Cooper Street. Her family in the first decade of the twentieth century included a married daughter, the daughter’s husband, and a grandchild. The house they occupied changed in appearance with the addition of an ornamental front porch that obscured the heavy Romanesque arched window of the first floor.

Medical Treatments and Tragedies

Like 427 Cooper Street, the house at 429 Cooper Street served dual purposes by the 1890s as a family home as well as the medical office for Edward A.Y. Schellenger.  Medical offices became common on Cooper Street, where front parlors on the first floors of nineteenth-century homes served well as offices, and the physicians had close access to Camden’s Cooper Hospital. Schellenger specialized in surgery, and in addition to a growing practice served on the Board of Managers of the County Tuberculosis Hospital. The Schellenger family confronted medical challenges of their own: their daughter, named Elizabeth after her grandmother, contracted polio in 1913. She lived six years longer, until age 18, when a cold developed into pneumonia and caused her death. The Camden Morning Post noted that “although handicapped by deformities,” Elizabeth took an active part in combatting the influenza epidemic of 1918-19. “She was an accomplished automobile driver, despite her tender years and day after day … she was busy conveying nurses, attendants, patients, and Red Cross workers to and from hospitals.”

By the time of Elizabeth’s early death, her father also had succumbed to complications from an illness that was publicly described only as a “serious ailment” that he had treated in others as a surgeon. In 1917, he cited ill health when he resigned his position with the Tuberculosis Hospital. While hospitalized shortly thereafter, he experienced burns from an x-ray that were blamed for a subsequent burst artery that ended his life. He was 47 years old.

Commercial Cooper Street

The houses at 427 and 429 Cooper Street remained home to the Whites, the Schellengers, and their extended families until the 1920s.  By then, suburbanization and the construction of the Delaware River Bridge—later  the renamed the Benjamin Franklin Bridge—were changing Camden, and so too the occupants and fates of the houses at 427 and 429 Cooper Street. Real estate interests seeking to position Cooper Street as a more commercial thoroughfare converted numerous former homes into offices and apartment buildings. The house at 427 Cooper Street became a medical office when Mary White sold it in 1922, and shortly thereafter the building converted into apartments. As Camden became a recorded-music mecca with the rise of RCA-Victor, the tenants included a World War I veteran named Edwin Wartman who lived at 427 Cooper from 1929 to 1931 while working as a Vitaphone recording system operator (and later a movie projectionist). During the Great Depression, 427 became a boarding house with boarders and lodgers including factory workers, waitresses, and a draftsman employed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). By the 1940s, the building housed businesses that included a dealer in hearing aids and a real estate agent, and in the 1950s its tenants include a lawyer’s office.

The Schellenger family moved to Merchantville in the 1920s but retained ownership of 429 Cooper Street. A real estate firm renovated the building into offices and at least one apartment. In 1930, the apartment was rented by a church organist and his family. By 1940, the residential tenants included a German-born Naval draftsman and his family and a second household consisting of a widowed artist and her adult daughter, a secretary. In the 1940s, the former home once again became a location for medical offices, this time for doctors who practiced in Camden but chose to live in the suburbs. Among them was the son of the original Dr. Schellenger – his son with the same name. The younger Schellenger, a gynecologist, opened his practice after graduating from Thomas Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. World War II interrupted his career as he served with the U.S. Army Medical Corps in Africa and the Middle East. While overseas, he met the Army nurse who became his wife, Margaret Clayton, and they raised their family of two daughters and a son in Merchantville.

After a long career, the younger Edward Schellenger donated the building at 429 Cooper Street to Rutgers University in 1977, and for a time it served as a home for student health services. Rutgers also gained ownership of 427 Cooper Street from absentee owners in 2008. Both houses gained a new purposes in 2011 through a renovation that joined them together to create office spaces for the Rutgers-Camden Department of History and the Department of Philosophy and Religion.

– Charlene Mires

Copyright 2012, Charlene Mires, updated 2022.  Cite as: Charlene Mires, “Building Lives at 427-29 Cooper Street,” http://publichistory.blogs.rutgers.edu/our-home-in-camden.  Please direct any comments or corrections to: cmires@camden.rutgers.edu.

Sources

Camden City Directories, 1840-1940, Camden County Historical Society.

Camden Historic Survey. Camden: City of Camden, Bureau of Planning, Office of Development, 1982.

Cammarota, Anne Marie. Pavements in the Garden: The Suburbanization of Southern New Jersey, Adjacent to the City of Philadelphia, 1769-Present. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2001.

Cohen, Phil. “Dr. Edward A.Y. Schellenger Sr.” http://www.dvrbs.com/People/CamdenPeople-DrEAYSchellengerSr.htm (viewed July 23, 2012).

“Cooper Street Historic District” National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form. Washington: National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1989.

Dorwart, Jeffery M. Camden County, New Jersey: The Making of a Metropolitan Community, 1926-2000. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2001.

U.S. Census, 1840-1930.

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