In Rittenhouse Square his horns shine from years of being rubbed by climbing children and tourists holding onto him for pictures. In Camden, New Jersey his identical, younger brother spends most days alone, passed once and awhile by disinterested students or Board of Education employees. While these are not the glory days of the 1930s, when he was considered part of an international tourist attraction, these quiet times are better than 1984 when he found himself uprooted and tossed in the nearby bushes.
Camden’s Billy statue stands in Johnson Park, which surrounds the Walt Whitman Arts Center at Front and Cooper Streets. It is a whimsical place. Exaggerated faces on either side of an animated Buddha spit water into a large wading pool. Perhaps the Buddha laughs at the bronze turtle biting at the backside of the bronze duck in front of him.
“Billy” and the “Turtle and Duck” are part of the largest outdoor collection of Philadelphia sculptor Albert Laessle. At one time a fifth statue, “Frogs,” graced the side of the wading pool, but little record of the piece or what happened to it exists. Continuing the Park’s fancy, cement tiles depicting almost forgotten nursery rhymes like the “Man in the Moon” and “Peas Porridge Hot” surround Laessle’s “Dancing Goat” and “Pan.” Dancing Goat sticks out his tongue, almost taunting Pan playing his pipes across the wading pool.
At the far end of the pool, rising above a fence made of working beavers, alligators eating lunch, and fishing herons, Peter Pan (not Pan) looks down on bronze fairies, bunnies, squirrels, and the rest of the Park. Peter Pan’s author J.M. Barrie commissioned sculptor Sir George Frampton to make the the piece, which is one of seven castings. The original can be found in London’s Kensington Gardens, the setting for one of Peter Pan’s written adventures. Together these pieces take today’s park visitor back to a time when Camden childhood meant imagination, creativity, and play.
Richard M. Cooper originally built his house on this site in 1816. He was the great, great, great grandson of William Cooper (1632-1710), a Quaker who traveled to the area with William Penn. William Cooper became rich on transport to Philadelphia: ferries crossing the Delaware. Cooper bought himself an enormous estate, and his wealth enabled his descendents to have profound and lasting impacts on the future city of Camden. Richard and Mary Cooper raised their eight children in the mansion at 121 Cooper Street. One of their sons, also named Richard M. Cooper, became a doctor, and dreamed of building a Quaker hospital in Camden so the poor could receive free healthcare and residents no longer had to take a ferry to Philadelphia for treatment. While he died before work on the hospital began, his twin brother, other siblings, and relatives built Cooper Hospital in his memory. Today the hospital is a well-known and growing Camden institution.
In the late 1890s the Women’s Club of Camden, which pushed for free city kindergarten among other causes, persuaded the City to use this Cooper Mansion as a free public library. Cooper Street at this time was no longer a quiet road to the Philadelphia-bound ferry, but in the middle of the humming Victor Talking Machine Company factories. Inventor and founder Eldridge R. Johnson looked down on Cooper Mansion and its park from his office across the street, the site of today’s Camden Board of Education building. He bought the property in order to build and donate a better public library as a place of enjoyment and education for his employees and other Camden residents. In 1918, the newly built neo-classical Cooper Branch Free Public Library, one of the largest in the country at the time, replaced the Cooper Mansion. (And, in turn, the City of Camden changed the name of the surrounding park from Cooper Park to Johnson Park.)
Today the Cooper Branch Free Public Library is known as the Walt Whitman Arts Center. From its main steps looking over the wading pool and bronze creatures of Johnson Park, visitors can see the three remaining buildings of the Victor Talking Machine Company in front of a slice of the Philadelphia skyline. Turning from this view, the mosaic “America Receiving Gifts of Nations” peaks out from behind the pillars across the length of the building. A female figure representing America sits in the middle of the piece, with the words “equality” and “opportunity,” above her outstretched hands. These words feel eerily out of place as neither truly exist in today’s Camden. The figures to the left and right of America represent various time periods and locations and bring her a variety of gifts. Rome gives power and authority, Palestrina presents his sacred Renaissance scores, and William Penn contributes religious freedom.
A Peter Pan Pageant accompanied the unveiling of Sir George’s sculpture on September 24, 1926. Local schools closed early for the event. 3,000 children from Camden and the surrounding area attended and acted out scenes from the beloved story to another 7,000 people watching in the park. In the 1930s tourists from around the world visited the park and library. However, after World War II people began moving out of the city, factories closed, and as is too common in Camden, the park fell into disrepair. Billy was briefly stolen in 1984. Dancing Goat and Pan were stolen in January 1996 and found in a Philadelphia scrap yard. The wading pool was filled in, Peter Pan’s flute went missing, various pond animals from the fence disappeared.
But the story of the Walt Whitman Arts Center and Johnson Park ends unusually happy. Thanks to an investment of over $3 million over the last fifteen years, the sculptures and the park have been restored. A public visit inside the Walt Whitman Arts Center is on hold as Rutgers University, the steward of the property since 1986, restores and converts the interior space from a theater to a flexible lecture hall that will accommodate its growing student body. Rutgers plans to continue to allow the Walt Whitman Arts Center, the non-profit that ran the building from 1974-1986, and other community groups to use the space after renovations are complete.
Wow, I had no idea about any of this. Interesting piece!
Who knew? What an interesting history! (And good writing too. I especially like the very first and last paragraphs.)