CAMDEN – A demolition project is turning a downtown landmark into rubble, but not all of the structure is doomed.
The Camden County Historical Society has acted to preserve two massive county seals that adorned exterior walls at the Aletha R. Wright Administration Building.
A large mural painted on a brick wall of the county-owned building could not be saved. But the Society had the artwork photographed, allowing production of copies that will be displayed elsewhere as a remnant of the city’s history.
The salvage work was “part of our effort to collect Camden County history when a building cannot be saved,” said Jack O’Byrne, the historical group’s executive director.
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“We did this with the Campbell’s Field demolition and re-erected one of the Camden High spires from the demolished Camden High tower in our sculpture park,” he noted.
Workers have demolished the southern end of the Wright building, a converted department store that stretches – at least for now – along Broadway between Market and Federal streets.
The $5.5 million state-funded project began in May with a contractor preparing the building for demolition, including interior and underground work.
Precautions taken during the project include reducing Broadway to one lane of traffic in each direction.
Wright Administration Building has only months remaining
The four-story building is scheduled to disappear by the spring of 2024, most likely in April, said Camden County spokesman Dan Keashen.
The sprawling site is then expected to become a staging area for construction crews working on renovations at the nearby Walter Rand Transportation Center, Keashen said.
Beyond that, officials currently have no permanent plan for the property.
The 128,000-square-foot building was erected in 1955 as a showcase for Lit Brothers, a former department store chain based in Philadelphia.
When it was converted to a largely windowless, brick-walled office building, virtually no trace remained of its retail roots.
O’Byrne did not want that history to repeat itself.
After reading several years ago about long-term plans for demolition, O’Byrne said, “I was like, “Oh my God! Is there a way to relocate the mural?”
“There wasn’t, because it was painted on the bricks,” he said.
But with funding from a county grant, the Society commissioned a photographer to preserve an image of the mural.
The picture was made into a print that’s being attached to a wall at the group’s 1900 Park Boulevard headquarters for an Oct. 22 Made in Camden exhibit.
“The exhibit focuses on the mural’s three major manufacturers of New York Shipbuilding Corp. RCA, and Campbell Soup,” O’Byrne said.
O’Byrne thought about saving the seals when he drove past the Wright building, which was fenced off in advance of demolition.
“I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have those seals?” he recalled.
“I just ask,” O’Byrne said of his strategy for saving local history. “People are like, ‘Yeah, of course.’”
Camden County, which had included the removal of the building’s four seals in its demolition contract, gave two discs to the Society.
“They look like Frisbees at the top of the building,” said O’Byrne. “But they’re just massive!”
He noted a local contractor, AP Construction of Gloucester Township, provided a flatbed truck to move the seals, which measure nine feet across and weigh 500 pounds each.
The seals will be displayed initially in the Society’s sculpture park and rain garden.
“One of the seals may eventually be moved to our new project, the restoration of the Benjamin Cooper Tavern (on North Camden’s waterfront into) the American Revolution Museum of Southern New Jersey.
“The new museum will be the trailhead for the 33-mile county circuit trail,” said O’Byrne. ”That’s my dream right now.”
Jim Walsh is a senior reporter with the Courier-Post, Burlington County Times and The Daily Journal. Email: Jwalsh@cpsj.com.