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About the time Edward Smith was building his summer home in Camden, New Jersey at the very beginning of the nineteenth century, there were about 4,500 residents and most lived in simple one-story wood frame houses. Most of Cooper Street was empty; there are very few entries for residences on Cooper Street in the even in the 1850 Camden city directory. Now consider how impressive the massive brick, three-story, two-lot mansion that belonged to the Smith family looked to the average person on the street. Reflect back on the fact that this was only their summer home. Edward Smith and his family were not just well off, they were an extremely wealthy family that sprang from generations of prosperity. We can only speculate as to the number and quality of luxury items that filled the Smith home. Judging from the lavish architectural details and items found in the archeological excavation of 312 and 318 Cooper Street (done prior to building the new dormitory at Rutgers Camden), one suspects the items that were in the inside the Smith home were as impressive as the scale of the building.

When the Smiths were constructing their new summer home in the early 1800s, a revolutionary change happened in home construction: the position of architect was professionalized. Prior to 1800 a group of carpenters and masons mutually decided the details and architectural elements that would go into your home. If you were lucky enough to have a skilled carpenter, then you might end up with a beautiful mantle. Similarly if you happened to hire a good mason, the quality of stone work in your home could be stunning; it all depended on what who you hired could do. However, when the Smiths built their summer home, an architect likely planned what and where each detail would go. If your carpenter could not build the desired  spiral staircase, the architect would find one who could. As a result the home of gentry became more and more elaborate architecturally. Millwork was elaborately carved, mantles beautifully decorated, and every stone placed perfectly. The architect was a revolution. Architects began by designing large buildings such as banks, government structures and elite homes but soon moved on to design most types of buildings.

Today 312 Cooper sits next to the ultra modern dormitories and in comparison appears antique. 312 Cooper is one of the oldest homes still standing on Cooper Street, its relatively plain brick façade looks unimpressive to our modern eyes. I can’t help but wonder how the new dorm will appear to Cooper Street visitors in two hundred years.

Kim Coulter
Rutgers University- Camden