U.S. Post Office and Courthouse, Camden, New Jersey

Building History

William Royden and William Cooper, both arriving in 1681, were among the first known settlers of what would become Camden, New Jersey. Through the 1780s, the town was called Cooper's Ferry for the ferry service Cooper provided to Philadelphia, located directly across the Delaware River from Camden. In 1834, the Camden & Amboy railroad, then the longest railroad in the country, had a terminus in Camden; later that century Camden became a significant industrial hub for the northeast. In 1926, President Coolidge dedicated the Benjamin Franklin Bridge between Camden and Philadelphia, fostering a population increase in Camden.

By the mid-1920s, Camden had outgrown its first federally owned post office, which had been constructed in 1900 at Third and Arch streets. For the replacement building, obtaining a federal appropriation in February 1928 marked a major milestone, but not the end, of the multi-year effort preceding its actual construction. Congressional representatives Charles A. Wolverton and F. F. Patterson pressed the case in Congress, joined in lobbying by the Camden Chamber of Commerce. A two-year period was required for the land acquisition, demolition, and the site assemblage process.

Completed in 1932, the U.S. Post Office and Courthouse represents an important example of 1930s Neoclassical federal architecture in the Modernist manner. A cornerstone near the entry indicates this building was completed under James A. Wetmore, who served as acting supervising architect of the U.S. Treasury from 1915 to 1933. The design itself was likely overseen by Louis A. Simon, an MIT-trained architect who served as superintendent of the architectural division under Wetmore and designed hundreds of significant federal buildings across the country. In addition to the post office and the federal courts, the original tenants in the newly opened building included the U.S. District Attorneys, U.S. Marshals Service, Prohibition Service, U.S. Army Reserve, Internal Revenue Service, and Labor Department.

Completed in 1994, a six-story courthouse annex named in honor of federal Judge Mitchell H. Cohen intersects the U.S. Post Office and Courthouse via a second-floor linkway. Its architectural treatment is sympathetic to the 1932 building.

Architecture

Completed in October 1932, the U.S. Post Office and Courthouse in Camden, New Jersey, was immediately noticeable in its setting at the northeast corner of Market and Fourth streets due to its limestone and buff brick colored exterior. This treatment differentiates it from the other dark-colored brick and brownstone buildings comprising the local and state designated Market Street Historic District. The six-story Mitchell H. Cohen U.S. Courthouse Annex (Oliver & Becica, Architects; 1994) adjoins directly north, linked physically to the 1932 building at the second floor level, and aesthetically, through means of its simulated limestone concrete with granite accents.

In contrast to the social and political upheaval that characterized the Great Depression years in Camden and New Jersey's other large cities, the federal building and courthouse expresses the relative continuity of tradition seen in New Jersey's public architecture, and the preeminent place of the Neoclassical style-in this case, an updated version of this style in the Modernist manner. The symmetry associated with earlier forms of Classical Revival, such as the main entrance's grouping of three doorways and their centered placement on the Market Street facade, is retained here. The classical architectural vocabulary also is retained, but now simplified, abstracted, or suggested in a Modernist manner while still pointing to Neoclassical architectural tradition. Capitals at the fourth floor level suggest pilasters below, and the taut handling of the wall surfaces at the first floor level hint at the rough stonework of Renaissance- era buildings. Complementing these Neoclassical features are Spanish Revival elements, such as the interior's multi-colored quarry tile wainscot and floor tile treatment. The original mission tile roof also conveyed this theme. Art Deco elements present in the elaborate entrance doors, transom windows, and metal grille work express significant design trends of the early 1930s.

On the exterior, low-relief terracotta decoration enlivens each elevation, incorporating a surprising yet subtle variety of differing decorative elements, including Greek Fret, chalice, escutcheon, rosette and other patterning. These terracotta features include the belt course separating the first and second floor; pilaster capitals; spandrel panels between windows; as well as the roofline's cornice, bed molding and frieze elements. Certain of the center window bays at upper floor levels incorporate colorful terracotta window spandrel panels. The spandrel panels are blue in color and decorated with stylized sailing ships of earlier centuries drawn from the history of European colonization of North America.

On the interior, tile is again a distinctive character-defining element. The first-floor public lobby features red fire-flashed, jade green, and gray-blue tile that form a striking basket weave flooring pattern. In combination with the flooring, the lobby's American Pavanazzo marble wainscot paneling and Verde Antique marble base moldings, paneled plaster walls, and beamed ceilings and their stenciled decoration, together create a feeling of restrained elegance.

The third floor ceremonial courtroom contains one of the building's most notable interiors, featuring oak flooring and wainscot paneling, a stenciled beamed ceiling, and chandeliers with plaster bowls containing classically inspired designs. As a dignified focal point to the courtroom, a nearly ceiling-height, semicircular-headed marble panel with a filigreed bronze overlay marks the center of the wall behind the judge's bench and dais.

Beginning in the early 1960s, office floors have undergone remodeling and modernization. However, interior public spaces including the lobby and the ceremonial courtroom retain very good integrity.

History

1928: U.S. Congress appropriates $1.5 million for land acquisition and building construction

1931: Groundbreaking on May 22

1932: Building completed and opened to the public on October 29

Early 1990s: Major renovation work on fourth and fifth floors

1994: Completion of the six-story Mitchell H. Cohen courthouse annex

1999: GSA undertakes restoration and the selective recreation of decorative stenciling and toned metallic ornamentation in the courtroom and lobby

Building Facts

Location: 401 Market Street

Architect: James A. Wetmore

Construction Dates: 1931-1932

Landmark Status: Eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places

Architectural Style: Neoclassical

Primary Materials: Limestone, granite, brick

Prominent Features: Decorative and colorful terracotta detailing; Spanish Colonial interior ornamentation; Ceremonial courtroom with oak wainscot paneling

U.S. Post Office and Courthouse, Camden, New Jersey

The Federal Office Building and Courthouse, Camden, New Jersey is situated on a rectangular, 0.783 acre lot bound by Market Street on the south, Fourth Street on the west, the Annex on the north, and a nineteenth century row house on the east. The lot measures 196 feet wide and 180 feet deep. The structure is built out toward the southwest corner of the lot, adjoining a 16 foot sidewalk along its south or main facade and a 12 foot sidewalk along its west facade. Between the north facade and the Annex is a 40 foot wide, poured concrete parking area, while to the east is a 15 foot wide concrete light well, extending nearly the entire length of the facade. Enclosing the well is a decorative wrought-iron filigreed railing.

The structure, resting on a poured concrete foundation, is built of skeletal steel frame construction with masonry walls and precast concrete slab roofing. Measuring 122 feet x 180 feet overall, it contains a typical single floor area of 22,819 square feet and a gross floor area of 98,559 square feet. The structure consists of four major parts. The grandest is a four story main block, eleven bays wide and three bays deep, with a fifth floor setback and hipped roof. The roof is clad in red metal panels simulating the original Spanish tile. A simple rectangular brick chimney with limestone coping rises inside the north facade near its east end. The main, east, and west facades each are given a similar horizontal articulation. The base is faced in granite, the first floor in scored rusticated limestone, and the second through attic floors in smooth ashlar limestone. The first and second floors are separated by a continuous string course composed of alternating panels of terra cotta relief depicting a rosette, acanthus leaf, and shield motif. This string course continues around the entire structure. Above the fourth floor is a simplified limestone parapet and entablature, its frieze ornamented with terra cotta panels depicting a Greek key motif, its architrave with alternating, plain recessed panels and terra cotta relief panels depicting a baton and fasces motif.

Each bay on each floor corresponds to either a grouping of windows or a pair of doors. The windows have been replaced throughout with fixed aluminum units, varying between 2, 4 and 6 fixed lites. Originally, the fifth floor contained a window grouping in only every other bay. The center nine bays of the main facade, narrower than the end bays, are joined on the second through fourth floors by a set of simplified, giant order, fluted pilasters with terra cotta inset panels suggesting capitals. Linking the capitals is a series of metal transom panels depicting a cross motif, each corresponding in size to a window unit below. Further unifying the central bays are terra cotta spandrels beneath the windows, depicting the following motifs: beneath the second floor windows, acanthus leaves; beneath the third floor windows, alternating sword-rosette-sword, fasces-acanthus-fasces, septer-flower-septer, and ax-flower-ax; and beneath the fourth floor windows, three early sailing vessels. The third and fourth floor panels are bordered with terra cotta rosettes. On the first floor the three center bays each contain a recessed set of original double aluminum doors with bronze insets framed by a polychrome terra cotta relief surround depicting rosettes and acanthus leaves and flanked by bronze light fixtures in a modified Art Nouveau style with pendant lanterns. Above each pair of doors is a bronze spread eagle relief set in an acanthus leaf and shield motif background. Above the eagle is a bronze transom screen, executed in an elaborate Art-Deco design. The end bays, contrasting visually with the center bays, contain unornamented, non-original paired multi unit fixed windows on each floor and suggest corner pavilions in the Beaux-Arts manner.

Both the west and east facades have a treatment similar to that of the main facade. The center bay of the west facade is given the same ornamentation as the center bays of the main facade. However, here the pilasters are missing, only suggested by the presence of terra cotta capitals. An entrance similar to those on the main facade is located in the south bay, here surmounted by a large, carved limestone spread eagle just beneath the string course. On the east facade the terra cotta spandrels are absent, yet the capitals remain. The north facade is clad in buff brick, its ornamentation limited to a continuation of the limestone parapet, terra cotta frieze, and plain architrave panels of the other facades. Non-original fixed aluminum 4 and 6 lite windows are regularly placed in each exposed bay.

Adjoining the main block of the north are two symmetrically-placed, three story wings which are slightly recessed behind the established west and east facade lines. Each wing is five bays long and three bays wide with a flat composition roof. The space between the wings forms a U-shaped light court above the first floor roof. Except for the Fourth Street facade of the west wing which is clad in limestone, the exterior treatment of these wings is similar to that of the north facade of the main block. However, here the entablature is composed wholly of limestone ornamented with a shield and volute motif, each panel corresponding to a bay, while the corners are distinguished by limestone quoins. Symmetrically placed between the wings at the south end of the original U-shaped light court is a central four story wing with flat composition roof, similar in treatment to the north facade of the main block. Joining the central wing and west wing at the third story level is an enclosed bridge, clad in copper sheeting.

Filling in the space between the three story wings at the ground floor is a single story block with flat composition roof which originally contained two skylights. These were recently closed when a single story, steel-framed penthouse with brick cladding and a continuous ribbon window clerestory was built adjoining the north wall of the central wing. Also rising above the roof is a small, brick-clad elevator housing. The north wall is pierced by five sets of doors. Adjoining the north facade is a poured concrete loading platform sheltered by a flat-roofed canopy with simple steel columns. The original canopy with its copper-clad fascia has been replaced with a much simpler version. Adjoining the platform at either end is a stairwell enclosed with a pipe railing.

The interior of the structure is logically arranged around central corridors which traverse the length of the main block and east and west wings. Major exceptions include the basement which contains a corridor which irregularly connects many large mechanical and storage rooms and the first floor, where the public and restricted areas are separated by a continuous wall of postal windows and boxes. From the Market Street and Fourth Street entrances one proceeds into the Public Lobby, an L-shaped space adjoining the south facade, and proceeds to one of three places: the postal windows or boxes, one of two elevators, or the stairs immediately west of the elevators, adjoining the west facade. From the elevator or stairs one may proceed to the second, third, fourth, or fifth floor, each with its central corridor lined with offices which are typically on the south wall. The court rooms, toilet rooms, and closets, are typically on the north side of the hall. The fifth floor originally housed the elevator machinery and heating equipment, but presently contains a central hallway lined with meeting rooms and offices. *

The six story Annex was completed to the north of the original Courthouse in 1994. After its completion the original Courthouse was renovated. Sprinkler systems were added to many areas of the building, both with concealed head and sidewall systems. In 1999 the restoration and selective recreation of decorative stenciling and toned metallic ornamentation was undertaken in the Courtroom and Lobby.

* The significance and architectural descriptions are taken from the Historic Structures Report prepared for GSA by John Milner Associates, Inc. in 1986.

U.S. Post Office and Courthouse, Camden, New Jersey

The Federal Office Building and Courthouse, Camden, New Jersey, is historically significant for its contribution to an understanding of federal architecture during the late 1920's and early 1930's. The building was designed when A. W. Mellon was Secretary of the Treasury. The building cornerstone cites James A. Wetmore as Acting Supervising Architect. The design was likely overseen by Louis A. Simon, who served as Superintendent of the Architectural Division under Wetmore. The original building tenants were the Post Office, Federal Courts, U.S. District Attorneys, U.S. Marshall's Service, Prohibition Service, U.S. Army Reserve, Internal Revenue Service and Labor Department.

The Federal Office Building and Courthouse in Camden is informed by fundamental Beaux-Arts principles of composition, axiality, proportion, and facade articulation; however, the design vocabulary is transitional, relating to both classicism and modernism. For example, the building's facades are vertically articulated into rusticated base, stories, entablature, and attic, much like a Renaissance palace. But here these elements are simplified and somewhat stylized: the base lacks the appearance of solidity, while upper walls are taut and planar. The entablature is diminutive and compressed, more suggestive than literal. Likewise, the main facade with its vertical window groupings and simplified pilasters only suggest a giant order flanked by end pavilions. The result is a "stripped" classicism, signature style for many federal buildings during this period. Further embellishing the facades is a lively program of decorative and colorful terra cotta work, exemplary of stripped classicism. By contrast, though nonetheless consistent with the period, the building's interior is notable for the lively Spanish Colonial detailing of its public spaces. Lobbies and corridors are finished in multi-colored quarry tiles with ceiling soffits stenciled in intricate floral and geometric patterns. The third floor Courtroom is notable for its richly paneled walls, chandeliers with ornamental plaster bowls suspended from wrought iron chains, a bronze filigree and marble screen behind the judge's bench, and stenciled soffits and frieze.

The condition and integrity of the structure both may be classified as good to excellent. The building was included in a Post Office survey in the early 1980's. At that time the Office of New Jersey Heritage determined it to be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

The six story Annex, by Becica Associates LLC of Cherry Hill, New Jersey, was completed to the north of the original Courthouse in 1994, named in honor of Federal Judge Mitchell H. Cohen. The Annex is completely separated from the original Courthouse, but linked by an enclosed bridge at the 2nd floor. The Annex is clad in simulated limestone concrete with granite accents.

Year
Start
Year
End
Description Architect
1932 Original Construction US TREASURY DEPARTMENT
1934 Installation of Casement Sash Adjusters
1934 3rd Floor Court Room Trim Refinished
1935 Partition Wall in Grand Jury Room
1935 3rd Floor Court Room Rail Remodled
1936 Various 2nd and 3rd Floors Covered with Linoleum
1936 Lavatories Added on 2nd Floor
1937 Reinforcement of Aluminum Windows
1938 Linoleum Flooring Added on 1st, 2nd, & 4th Floors
1939 Remodelling on the 5th Floor
1950 Water Piping and AC
1950 New Marquise Over Mailing Platform
1950 Remodelling on the 1st, 3rd, & 5th Floors
1962 Remodelling on the 2nd Floor
1962 Remodelling in the Basement
1963 Remodelling on the 2nd Floor
1965 Remodelling on the 1st Floor, Fire Protection Sys.
1971 Remodelling on the 2nd and 4th Floors
1973 Building Security System Installed
1977 Modernization of Bldg. & Restoration of Court Rm 1
1979 Plank Flooring on 1st Floor Replaced w/Ind. Mastic