Johnson Park Restoration

History of Eldridge R. Johnson Park
Camden, New Jersey

Johnson Park and Cooper Branch Library - 1922
enlarge

Eldridge R. Johnson Park, and the former Cooper Library which stands at the park’s center, represent one of the most significant and unique cultural, historic, and artistic resources in the City of Camden and the State of New Jersey. 

Built between 1914 and 1930, the complex occupies an entire block near Camden's waterfront on the Rutgers-Camden campus. When it opened in 1918, the site became southern New Jersey's foremost cultural and recreational center. Today, the library houses the Walt Whitman Arts Center and is owned by Rutgers-Camden. The site has been designated as a State and Federal Historic Landmark and is currently undergoing extensive rehabilitation to preserve its splendor for future generations.

Eldridge R. JohnsonThe project for these facilities was the brainchild of Eldridge R. Johnson, founder of the world renowned Victor Talking Machine Company and one of Camden’s most important philanthropists, who donated the Neo-Classical Cooper Branch Library and surrounding Johnson Park to the City of Camden.

Constructed in several stages between 1916 and 1930, Johnson Park’s grand design exhibits a classic symmetry and formality offset by delightful and original pieces of sculpture and a diverse collection of trees.

Eldridge Johnson’s Vision

From his office on the seventh floor of the Victor Talking Machine Company’s executive building at Front and Cooper Streets, Eldridge Johnson had a vision.  He imagined a cultural center for the benefit of local employees and city residents and a park where children from all over the region would come to play.

 To bring this dream to fruition, Johnson proposed and personally managed the design and oversaw the construction of the Classical Revival style Cooper Library and an equally magnificent park. 

 
Victor Talking Machine Plant, Camden, NJ
 
 
Victor Talking Machine plant (ca. 1920)
 

The park exudes a sense of youthful enjoyment and amusement. In every aspect of the park’s design, from the fountains and sculptures to the beautiful colored tiles representing children’s nursery rhymes, Johnson’s love for children can be seen.  In fact, the story is told that Mr. Johnson converted, what was originally intended to be a lily pond, to a wading pool after the pond immediately filled with children before it could be completely filled with the water and the lilies had arrived. 

 
Wading pools in Johnson Park, ca. 1920
 
 
Wading Pools in Johnson Park (ca. 1920)
 

As a result, instead of adding lily pads, Johnson ordered changing pagodas to be added to the park, one for boys and one for girls.  Lovely plantings completed the park, which by 1930 had become an international tourist destination.

Art & Architecture

Peter Pan StatueThe “Peter Pan” sculpture which stands at the park’s entrance is one of only five in the world.  Made by Sir George Frampton, the “Peter Pan” is perhaps his most famous work.  The original stands in Kensington Gardens, London, England. 

This 11’ cast bonze statue replica was purchased by Eldridge Johnson for Johnson Park.  Peter Pan’s arrival to Camden on September 24, 1926 was a momentous occasion.   To celebrate the dedication, a Peter Pan pageant committee organized over 3,000 schoolchildren from Camden, Merchantville, and nearby towns to depict scenes from the story of Peter Pan. (See image below) Schools closed early, and over 10,000 people from across the region attended.

 
Peter Pan Pageant at Johnson Park (1926)
 
 
Peter Pan Pageant Johnson Park (1926)
 


In 1930, a distinctive cast bronze fence, designed by Otto Schweitzer, a Philadelphia sculptor, was added to surround the Peter Pan sculpture.  The fence is shaped in an irregular, complex, open mesh of birds, fish and flowers, 28” high with a circumference of 45”. 

In addition, it is at Johnson Park that the most complete group of outdoor sculptures by Philadelphia sculptor Albert Laessle can be found.  “Billy,” “Dancing Goat,” “Pan,” and “Turtle and Duck” are among the whimsical additions to the park.


For more information on the marvelous Victor Talking Machine, visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victor_Talking_Machine_Company

Watch a video on Camden's impact on the history of communications
(1:20 min - RealPlayer)
rtsp://rss6.streamhoster.com/HoagLevins/rca.rm

Read about Enrico Caruso's recording "Over there" (1918) at RCA Camden and listen to this soundtrack (2:48 min) by visiting the Internet Archive and clicking on the title in the dark gray box.
http://www.archive.org/details/overthere1918

Read about a seminar by the Camden County Historical Society
(includes links to video files)
http://historiccamdencounty.com/ccnews110.shtml

Johnson Park plan
The Johnson Park Rehabilitation Project is financed by the Camden Redevelopment Agency, the Economic Recovery Board for Camden (ERB), and the State of New Jersey Green Acres Program. The Cooper's Ferry Development Association and Rutgers University are overseeing the project.

Rutgers-Camden logo