Op-ed: In Camden, the fix is in for a beloved Castle

Doris Carpenter has done everything she could to protect her alma mater, Camden High—or at least its regal, hundred-year main building known as the Castle on the Hill—from forces that would destroy it.

The retired educator studied Gothic architecture for weeks to win a certificate of eligibility for placement on the N.J. Register of Historic Places for the school–currently slated to be demolished by the state’s Schools Development Authority.

She’d spoken passionately on the steps of the N.J. State House in May when Preservation New Jersey named Camden High one of the state’s ten most endangered historic places.

Thursday in Trenton, the State Review Board for Historic Sites was scheduled to review Camden High for the historic designation that would have made it eligible for preservation grants, and given it more protection from public encroachment.

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But two weeks ago, the High was removed from the agenda.

A crestfallen Carpenter was told by N.J. Historic Preservation administrator Kate Marcopul that a regulation dictates that a building can’t be considered if its demolition is underway; the Schools Development Authority awarded a contract to raze the school in September.

When Carpenter asked to see the rule, she was sent a link to a 142-page document. A spokesperson for the preservation office declined to identify any such regulation for this column.

Carpenter still has hope; she and other activists have recruited attorney Matthew Litt to issue a court challenge to stop the demolition of the three-story iconic Castle, designed by prominent Philadelphia architect Paul Armon Davis III. U.S. District Court judge Robert Kugler will hear the case on Nov. 20. Litt contends that the deletion from the agenda is moot because the High actually achieved historic status when it was granted eligibility in January of this year.

The SDA has agreed not to level the Castle before legal issues are resolved.

But for community leaders who rallied and circulated petitions to save the beloved edifice, the catch-22 was more evidence that the fix was in for the Castle.

Because this is Camden, where the privatization of education pushed by Governor Chris Christie has been a cottage industry since the state took over the school district in 2013 and began closing traditional schools and opening charters. The SDA plan is not for a reinvigorated Camden High, but for a “campus” comprised of four “learning communities” representing three magnet schools and CHS, with only 300 students in each.

The plan precludes the High, once a flagship that held over 2,000 students and produced entertainment and sports luminaries like songwriter/producer Leon Huff and athletes Art Still and Milt Wagner, from ever returning to its former glory.

This is Camden, where tearing down a powerful symbol of black achievement in a city rife with poverty and pain fits nicely into the gentrification efforts of South Jersey Democratic political boss George Norcross. The Courier-Post reported that at a recent Chamber of Commerce breakfast, he envisioned a completely redeveloped Camden, saying, “I think Camden in 10 or 15 years will almost virtually be a brand-new city” and predicting that current residents would sell their homes and move to the suburbs.

If they do wind up in the suburbs, former Camdenites will at least be able to vote for their own school boards and send their children to historic schools. For months, CHS alums have been gathering on the steps of the High to say goodbye and take pictures of the Castle, but rarely protest its demise, because—unlike Doris Carpenter–they assume it won’t do any good.

For Carpenter, one of the most telling moments in the saga to save the Castle came at an August 2017 meeting, when the SDA’s CEO Charlie McKenna offered her and other activists a chance to save it —if they raised $50 million.

Because feasibility studies had shown that the cost of renovation versus demolition and new construction was roughly $5 million, she was bewildered.

“Did you just add extra zeroes by accident?” Carpenter remembers asking McKenna.

The community leaders asked McKenna for 30 days to try to get the money.

“There was no way,” said Camden County NAACP President Darnell Hardwick, also present. “We’d have had a problem raising the $5 million!”

Later, McKenna raised the amount to $60 million and sent the activists a list itemizing costs. SDA spokesperson Kristen MacLean explained that while the school “is not for sale,” McKenna had told Carpenter and the others that saving the Castle “would require a $60 million investment in order to stem the physical degradation.”

Both sides acknowledge that the $60 million was actually part of the overall cost of renovation; the project is budgeted at roughly $133 million. “But all of those things on his list,” said Carpenter, “were already in the funding.”

McKenna’s offer didn’t surprise the others, but it enraged her.

“Who are they to tell us—lay people, ordinary people — that we should come up with $60 million? What he should have done was say that they would try to find $60 million!

“It made me feel like he thought we were jerks,” said Carpenter. “They’ll send us scurrying to find money while they do what they have to do. That’s the way they treat black people. They want us to feel like we’re idiots.”

She also felt betrayed by historic administrator Marcopul, who had removed the school from the November agenda, but earlier had written a letter lauding the High as “among the most architecturally distinguished early 20th century school buildings in the state” that was attached to Litt’s Oct. 17 request for an injunction to stop the demolition.

“It seemed odd to me,” said Carpenter, “that the very office that should be protecting the school is ready to let it go.”

Litt is smitten with the Castle, and the activists who have rallied, networked and signed petitions to preserve it. He calls them “inspiring,” their unity “overwhelming.”

“What frustrates me so much about these historic preservation cases,” Litt says, “is that there’s always a middle ground, if the people in charge would take a moment and listen. Progress and historical preservation do not have to be enemies.” While the activists seek to preserve the Castle building, they also support the construction of several new, updated structures behind it.

A recent reunion of the CHS class of 1960 drew a melting pot of 45 multi-cultural alumni to a local eatery. Many, like Jim Franchetti, knew of the demolition but not that a campus would replace their beloved high school.

“We knew it was going to be torn down,” he said. “But just 300 kids? This is awful. It’s not just about the people who went there, it’s about the people of Camden. This transcends them.”

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