Who Built All This, Anyway?
A Look at Who Built Camden, and How They Did It

Something that I've always wondered about was the question above.... who built all the old houses, churches, and commercial buildings in Camden. By American standards this is a fairly old town. I was told back in the 1970s that a house that I lived at in the 200 block of Main Street went back to before the Civil War, and in the process of building this website I've become aware of other houses in the city that are as old or older. 

I've also learned of some of Camden's early builders and real estate developers. George Reeser Prowell, in his epic work HISTORY OF CAMDEN COUNTY, NEW JERSEY devoted almost twopages to the subject, and I thought I would use his work as a starting point. A few of the friends of this website, most notably John Ciafrani and Jim Bessing, have sent a few comments in about housing in Camden as well.

If you have any comments, corrections, or additions that you would like to make have made to this web-page, PLEASE do not hesitate to contact me via-email.

Phil Cohen
Camden NJ

While there is much written about Camden businessmen engaged in the production of lumber, bricks, and other building materials, to date (June 2004) I haven't seen much mention of those who engaged in the building trades as a profession prior to the Civil War. One notable exception to that is Gideon V. Stivers,  the second Mayor of Camden, and the builder of the Edward Sharp House at Second and Cooper Street and St. Paul's Church on Market Street.

The Edward Sharp House on Cooper Street

Homes were, it seems, for the most part custom built affairs. Real estate enteprenuers such as the Stevens brothers and Richard Fetters would subdivide their land into lots, but the idea of then building and then selling the dwellings seems to have come later. Camden, still for all intents and purposes not much more than a village or town, had many farmhouse type dwellings within what constitutes its present day borders, and houses within the existing city limits were for the most part custom built affairs. As American industry advanced, and the attractiveness of Camden's location became apparent, this would change, especially in the years after the Civil War.    

Accurate statistics regarding home construction in Camden in the 19th Century are lacking, however, estimates can be made, and a correlation can be drawn by looking at the number of building permits issued, and population of the city at the ten year intervals when the census was taken. During the decade 1860 through October of 1869, 1,180 permits were issued. The following decade showed great increase, with 3,258 permits recorded. The years 1880 through November 5, 1886 saw 2,138 permits granted. These permits do not reflect individual addresses, permits were issued for additions and alterations, and several houses could be erected under one permit (there is one instance of twenty-seven dwellings built under a sole license). A builder of the time estimated a ratio of 1.5:1 in the construction of new homes to building permits. The number of permits more accurately reflects the great activity in the construction industry in Camden during this period.

 Nearly all the building operations that transformed Camden from a village into a city were carried out by what may be called a wholesale system or legitimately speculative enterprise. Builders erected whole blocks, and in some instances several blocks of dwellings, and either sold them outright to investors, who rented the houses separately, sold directly to those who intended to live in the individual houses, or rented them. By the mid 1880s not one house in a hundred was built by the man who intended to reside in it. With the exception of those who desired to build elaborate homes and to which cost was no object, there was little reason for an individual to arrange to build his own home, as the builders of the time, with their access to building materials at wholesale prices, could complete a home far cheaper than the private individual would be able to. 

A large proportion of the houses erected in the late 1870s and 1880s were bought or were rented by men doing business in the downtown and riverfront portions of Philadelphia, who found that they could live in Camden more comfortably and more economically than in the other city. Many of them bought on easy terms, while others found that they could rent at much lower rates than what other homes of similar size brought in Philadelphia. In 1886 the ordinary two-story Camden house is rented for about fifteen dollars per month, while a good three story home could be had for between twenty and thirty dollars. Homes of the better class went for between thirty and sixty dollars monthly. Even though many homes were built during the period 1871 through 1886, George Reeser Prowell reported no glut in the marketplace during these times in his HISTORY OF CAMDEN COUNTY, NEW JERSEY, rather, homes were being sold or rented as fast as they could be completed. 

Prowell stated in 1886 that building in Camden was stimulated by the policy of the managers of the estate of Abigail, Esther, and Richard M. Cooper. He wrote that they "have advanced money to various builders for the purpose of making improvements on their property, and within the past then years as many as seven or eight hundred homes have been erected by their aid. These are for the most part dwellings of the medium size, and they are mostly located in the Second and Fourth Wards, between the Delaware and Sixth Street, and bounded North and South by Pearl and Penn Streets. Nearly all have been sold. About eighty are now in process of construction, the money employed being loaned by the estate”. Much of this tract has been redeveloped as Rutgers University has expanded its presence in this neighborhood. There are, however, still some homes from this period still standing. 

The following is taken from Prowell's book:

"Among the builders of Camden are several who have erected five or six hundred houses each. The heaviest operators are undoubtedly Cohn & Roberts, Wilson Ernst, and George Holl. Fine examples of the work of the firm first named are to be seen on Front and Point Streets, between Cooper and Linden. Mr. E.N. Cohn commenced building in 1866, erecting in that year 12 houses on Pearl Street. He then continued putting up blocks and separate structures, operating alone and in conjunction with Charles B., Richard, and Asa R. Cox, and building not less than one hundred and fifty houses. He also erected the Pfeil and Galtz building, which was burned. In 1882 he formed a partnership with Joseph E. Roberts, who, individually, had built about two hundred houses, and as a firm they have since constructed at least four-hundred and fifty dwellings, to which line of building they devote themselves exclusively. 

George Holl, who has been engaged in building for eighteen years, has erected from four to five hundred houses, principally in the central part of the city. They are nearly all of what may be denominated the medium class, in size and pretensions. His brother, Lewis F. Holl, has built many houses in the lower part of town. 

Wilson Ernst has been actively engaged since 1876 and about four hundred buildings, chiefly dwellings, attest to his enterprise. 

Cox Brothers, individually and together, have built from five to six hundred homes, the greater part being small ones.           

Reuben S. Cross has been in Camden forty-two years and engaged in building for thirty-eight years, during which period he has erected many dwellings, one church, a schoolhouse, and several factories and mills. 

Randal E. Morgan, ex-Camden County Sheriff, during the past fourteen years, has built over two hundred structures, including dwellings, stores, etcetera, about one-half of them in connection with other parties, and one half as his individual enterprise. 

Mahlon E. Harden has built over six hundred dwellings of different kinds and sizes, from the largest to the smallest, about fifty stores and offices, three sash and door mills, the Keystone Chemical Company’s building, three churches- First Presbyterian, Third Baptist, and Sacred Heart,- also the E.A. Stevens School, the  Wickes School, Mulford School, and Richard Fetters School buildings, and the colored school building in the Eighth Ward.   

M.E. Harden Buildings
Left: First Presbyterian Church 
Upper Right: Sacred Heart Church Lower Right: Richard M. Fetters School
Both Sacred Heart and the Fetters School are still in use in 2004
Click on Image to Enlarge

J.F. Dorman has built many houses, operating individually, and about thirty with J.M. Davis, under the firm name of Dorman and Davis. Mr. Davis, individually, during a period of six years has put up one hundred buildings, six of which were large stores, thirteen factories, one ferry-house (at Kaighn’s Point), and two churches, while most of the others were commodious and handsome dwellings.  

Kaighn Avenue Ferry
Built in by J.M. Davis prior to 1877

Among other extensive builders and contractors active in 1886 when George Reeser Prowell’s HISTORY OF CAMDEN COUNTY, NEW JERSEY was published were Robert Kaighn (who operated principally in the Eighth Ward), William Mead, John Schause, Scudder and Budd, Joseph Butcher, John C. Rogers, Thomas Howell, William Keen, C.C. Williams, W.B. Mulford, William Severson, John Stone, Reuben B. Cole, J.M. Bozarth, K.P. Torbert, James A. Coulter, Josiah P. Beckett, William T. Fortiner, William V. Hoover, Isaac C. Hielman, James McGuire, David Lummis, S.H. Morton, E. Lippincott, Samuel Maines, T.M. Moore, A.J. Richards, D.C. Reyburn, W.B. Smith, W.H. Taylor, Aaron Ward, Thomas Jones, and George E. Blensinger.

Others followed into the real estate and construction business in the following years. Camden's boom years, between 1890 and 1929, saw a great deal of construction all through the city. Alfred Cramer had been selling building lots on an installment plan by this time, and he continued to develop property in East Camden and what we now call call Cramer Hill. J. Howard Kirkbride and his son Howard came to Camden in 1893 and developed the area around 36th and Federal Streets, commonly called the Rosedale neighborhood, then a still a part of Stockton Township. North Camden in particular was virtually built to its limit, almost every bit of usable land utilized for housing, commerce, industry, or public use. William T. Bailey built many houses between 5th and 6th streets from State Street north, while John W.F. Bleakly became known as "the man who built North Camden", playing a vital role in developing the area north and east of State Street and 3rd Street. John J. Welsh became known as "the man who built Broadway, for the number of commercial buildings he erected in these years. James H. Reeve, who had been a foreman with Welsh, went out on his own and also did much work on Broadway, building the Lyric, Towers, and Princess there as well as the Victoria in East Camden and the Walt Whitman in Pennsauken, with his sons Leslie and Willis. Department store magnate William Leonard Hurley partnered with William J. Lorigan to build a row of homes on Princeton Avenue, between Pine and Division Streets, in 1902. Charles Kaufman played a vital role as a builder in the Parkside area, his home at 1540 Kaighn Avenue was the first of the large houses built on that stretch of Kaighn. During World War I, the Yorkship Village project, built to house defense workers, transformed the area below Newton Creek. T.G. Coulter built many houses across from the New York Shipbuilding Corporation shipyards in a neighborhood that was known as "The Terraces". Samuel Vrbalow and his family built houses in the 1910s on Winslow and Viola Streets and elsewhere in the city. Leon Todd built several blocks of homes between Rosedale Avenue and Westfield Avenue in East Camden in the 1920s.

In the mid-1930s, public housing came to Camden, as the federal government financed the construction of the Westfield Acres and Clement T. Branch Village projects. World War II interrupted private construction, but war-time housing was built, with the William Stanley Ablett Village and Chelton Terrace homes coming on line in these years. Temporary housing was also built in the Civic Center area, roughly on the land between Campbell Soup's corporate headquarters and the Sears-Roebuck Building. With the exception of Westfield Acres, these projects were all built under the aegis of the Housing Authority of the City of Camden.

After World War II Jewish businessmen such as Benjamin Natal and Samuel Varbalow, who also had a thriving movie theater chain, continued to build through the city, especially in East Camden, which, like North Camden, was almost completely built out. The construction of public housing and apartment complexes went on through the 1950s. By the end of the decade, however, new home and most other forms of construction would come to a virtual standstill as Camden's manufacturing jobs disappeared. The sixties would bring further changes to Camden's landscape.

A Few Comments on Homes and Housing in Camden
by those who lived there 1920 through 1960

Even if you had never seen the house's at Birch Street before or even on 2nd & 3rd Streets, you knew they were expensive at one time. It wasn't that far to where all those houses were taken for the bridge. A lot of those blocks had two, three, or four different style houses on a block, only later blocks had one style, and you could tell they were later were all the same. 

I don't know if you have noticed that a majority of houses had a window in the middle room on the first floor. They also had a small window in all bedrooms, and if built with a bath a skylight  or window as well. In the 1880s or so New York City passed a ventilation law for minimum air requirements. I've been told it became a model code for cities all over the country. 

I helped fix a wooden floor on Bailey Street once. The nails that were used were carbon steel or wrought. They were what we would call masonry nails today, just a flat nail punched out of steel plate. After the turn of century they started using machine made nails with heads. You can tell the difference as soon as you see them.

Lot of places had a clinker built foundation, made from clinkers (irregular shaped stones) held together with mortar, not brick or block as was used later. I owned a house built in 1922 that had a block foundation. You may have a clinker foundation where your at. The 500 block of Bailey Street had some houses with  a stone front, which I guess was granite, instead of brick. I think most houses in the city, at least the row-houses, had a brick first floor with the back of the second floor being wood frame. With some of the older Camden homes even the first floor was wood frame. 

John Ciafrani

Hey Phil an old man remembers some stuff. Some of the houses had indoor plumbing and some didn't, at that time most everyone rented except for a few of the elite. When [my cousin] Gene moved from 922 to 926 Howard it was because the previous tenants had installed a bath tub in the back bedroom, when it became available [his parents] Jenny and Lou jumped to it. At 936 where I lived we had no indoor plumbing except for cold running water. We had a galvanized tub that hung on the outhouse wall. We would heat buckets of water on the coal stove and manually fill the tub for our Saturday night bath. The outhouse was not like you would usually think of one as it was not free standing a distance from the house; it was up against the house and you would go out the back door and walk a few feet to the entrance. My mother, being a women of ingenuity sealed off the outside door and cut a new through the inside wall to keep from freezing you know what off.

Jim Bessing