Friday, May 10, 2013

John Cooper House / Headquarters of Lord Cornwallis

"The history of a nation is only a history of its villages written large." - Woodrow Wilson


Above is pictured the Broad Street home of the past President Judge of Gloucester County courts, John Cooper. Cooper was an extremely prominent citizen of Colonial era Woodbury during the tumultuous times of the Revolutionary War. However, don't bother looking for this American Patriot's home nowadays... it was torn down in the late 1970s for a parking lot. The unattractive slab of tar that replaced this once grand manse also sits quite near the street that bears John Cooper's name, Cooper Street. Is this then the only tribute to a man that helped shape our nation? A paved surface for the storage and transport of motor vehicles? He deserves so much more than this.

John Cooper was born on January 5, 1729 in Deptford Township, Gloucester County. He was the 8th and last child born to a Quaker family, his parents: John Cooper Sr. and Ann C. Cooper. Around 1767 he moved to Woodbury and had a fine red brick mansion with large fireplaces and fine paneled woodwork built on Broad Street. It would stand across from the Colonial era Courthouse when it was eventually constructed in 1787 (Gloucester Town was still then the county seat). In 1776, Cooper was elected to the Provincial Congress and chosen a delegate to the Continental Congress. He also served on the Committee of Correspondence and Observation and was a member of the first State Council, now the Senate. To him belongs the credit, while the contest of the colonies for their freedom was yet undecided, the first step ever taken in the Legislature of New Jersey for the freeing of the slaves. On September 21, 1780, he introduced a bill entitled, "An act to abolish slave-keeping" (Prowell, 1886). His sister Ann Cooper married James Whitall and was also famously involved in the Revolution by way of her house being located adjacent to Fort Mercer. Unlike her unfortunate brother's house, the James and Ann Whitall house still proudly stands. The Gloucester County Historical Society (GCHS), was responsible for saving the Whitall House and adjacent Red Bank Battlefield which are to this day successful examples of heritage tourism in Gloucester County; it was the reason the GCHS was formed in the first place. When the British occupied Woodbury late in November, 1777 Lord Cornwallis selected the "finest and best equipped house," that being John Cooper's. Cornwallis and fellow British soldiers amused themselves by prying open cupboards with their bayonets. 
John Cooper's house in middle, new bank to the left. It is a pity these two structures were not permitted to coexist as the pairing of newer and older Colonial style buildings actually work well together, but America's addiction to the automobile ruled. Not only was this a blow to our nation's history but to our city's density.
photocopy image courtesy: Gloucester County Historical Society
Unfortunately the entire architectural structures existing on the east-side of Broad from Cooper St. to Newton Ave. were doomed in postwar America. What started with Ralen's mindless "modernization" of the beautiful Merritt's Block building on the corner of Cooper and Broad in 1954, ended in the early 1970s with the destruction of the proud residence of the Honorable David O. Watkins located at the opposite corner of this block, Newton and Broad. It was demolished to make way for a branch location for the First Federal Savings and Loan Association of Hammonton (present location of PNC Bank). But this was not enough. Outrageously they also tore down John Cooper's mansion, the home of an American Patriot and site of a significant Revolutionary War event, for a parking lot and easier drive-thru access. Apparently Robert E. Small the president of the Hammonton Savings and Loan thought these were more important than our cultural heritage. Not only was this a blow to our nation's history but to our city's density. What could have been a potential destination to attract thousands to our downtown was reduced to a flattened expanse for the convenience of a few automobiles. Duany, Plater-Zyberk in their landmark book Suburban Nation explain the dangers of on-site parking further:

"When it comes to parking, every city must eventually answer two questions: Do new buildings have to provide their own parking, and where should that parking go? Most cities answer both of these questions incorrectly. A commitment to suburban standards of parking is a commitment to a second-class transit system used by virtually no one but the poor, since everyone else will drive. Further, most cities require new and renovated buildings to provide their own parking on site. This is probably the single greatest killer of urbanism in the United States today. It prevents the renovation of old buildings, since there is inadequate room on their sites for new parking; it encourages the construction of anti-pedestrian building types in which the building sits behind or hovers above a parking lot; it eliminates street life, since everyone who parks immediately adjacent to their destination and has no reason to use the sidewalk; finally, it results in a low density of development that can keep a downtown from achieving critical mass. Cities that wish to be pedestrian-friendly and fully developed should eliminate this ordinance immediately and provide public parking in carefully located municipal garages and lots. Parking must be considered a part of public infrastructure, just like streets and sewers."

Have we learned our lesson since the 1970s? Not yet it seems as one can't help but feel that the City of Woodbury dropped the ball on this account regarding the recent Bottom Dollar sprawl zoning allowance fiasco. In addition, numerous studies and articles show that much of what zoning ordinances have dictated in the past 50 or so years regarding parking requirements are completely unnecessary and actually damaging, especially in traditional downtown scenarios. You absolutely want people to walk... and they will, as long as your downtown is aesthetically attractive, clean, and safe! The Downtown Research & Development Center is just one example organization that provides many publications chock full of statistics and studies in favor of eliminating outdated zoning for parking! I was particularly impressed with this example in Broad Ripple, IN where people regularly are willing to park 6 blocks away from their destination... but that's the thing... there needs to be a destination!

John Cooper house then...

... same spot now. Classy, huh!?

John Cooper's home did manage to stand for over 200 years and was honored by the GCHS in 1906 by the erection of a tablet (see below). By rights it should still be standing today for reasons of national historic importance but this was before any sort of action was taken in the city to enact protection for its history. It is often mentioned that the very formation of the City of Woodbury's Historic Preservation Commission and the Woodbury Historic District was put in place as a direct reaction to the public outrage that such a building was allowed to be destroyed so easily for something as mundane as a bank parking lot. Fortunately the GCHS managed to save a second floor ornamental fireplace and wall with adjoining paneling which still bears the sword marks of Cornwallis and his men. It can be seen in the Reading Room of the current GCHS library located at 17 Hunter Street.

The John Cooper Manse, a noble building to the very end.
Cooper house and neighboring Surrogate's Office circa 1900
Guess we won't need this hanging around anymore!
The original placard honoring the Revolutionary War site.


As there is a big push to rebrand Woodbury as a home to the arts, I thought it appropriate to share a little poem that was written by John Cooper himself during the Revolution for one Hannah Ladd. Look at it as an homage to Patriot Cooper, a way of connecting his nearly forgotten past contributions to Woodbury's hopeful artistic future:


Armstrong, W. C. (1906). Patriotic poems of New Jersey. New Jersey society of the Sons of the American revolution. Retrieved from

McGeorge, I. C. (1972). John Cooper, Patriot. Bulletin of the Gloucester County Historical Society

Prowell, G. R. (1886). History of Camden county. Philadelphia, PA: L. J. Richards and Co. Retrieved from of camden 1886&source=gbs_navlinks_s