For English students on campus, nothing is more frustrating than having their major classes scattered all over campus or struggling to find a quiet place to read before class. Fortunately, the writing community at Rutgers Camden will soon have a home in a modern renovation of one of the several historic buildings located on the 300 block of Cooper Street.
The University has approved the restoration that will turn the Henry Genet Taylor House on 305 Cooper Street into the new Writers House with the help of a $4.5 million state grant. The project is meant to provide English students and faculty with “a place to inspire their own creativity,” as stated by the Rutgers Camden website.
“At present there is no central space that is committed to the encouragement of good writing, said Geoffrey Sill, former chair of the English Department. “I’m looking forward to a regular, almost daily schedule of low-profile, relaxed meetings and events that will stimulate activities centered on writing. “
It is planned that the house will provide enough space for lounge areas and seminar rooms on the first floor to hold discussions, workshops, and student and author readings, such as the ongoing Writers in Camden Series. The second floor will be dedicated to English faculty offices and the offices for the Rutgers Camden literary journal, StoryQuarterly. Additionally, the Writers House is intended to welcome students and faculty in the Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program.
According to Dr. Geoffrey Sill, the idea of creating a Writers House at Rutgers Camden was conceived in 2001-2002, when he became chair of the English Department. “I was looking for a signature project that would enable the English Department to have an even greater impact on the study of writing, and particularly English, on the Camden campus,” says Sill.
After visiting the Kelly Writers House on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania for an event, Sill was impressed with the kinds of opportunities presented to students and community members as a result of having a common space. His interest then became focused on developing a similar space at Rutgers Camden.
“The biggest challenge since the idea was formed has been funding,” said Tyler Hoffman, chair of the English Department at Rutgers Camden and sponsor of the Writers House. Hoffman explained that the Board of Governors only approved the funding for this project in the spring of 2014.
Vice Chancellor Larry Gaines has been overseeing the funding aspect of the project since its conception, explaining that it is difficult to accurately estimate the cost of the project and have it be approved by the Board of Governors.
“An estimated cost of the project was developed before the project was sent to the Capital Projects Advisory Committee and then approved by the Board,” Gaines said. “An architect then worked with a ‘program committee’ to develop the project and then the cost to complete the contract is bid by a construction management firm.”
It is common that the funding originally estimated does not address all of the issues and costs that are included in the construction management bid, so the program committee is forced to adjust the plans to stay within their budget without compromising the quality of the program. Aside from being covered by a state bond, the cost of the Writers House was also partially covered by RU general obligation bonds, or bonds that fit into the operating budget and are therefore included in student tuition.
Aside from having setbacks with the funding of the project, Hoff man also cited a lack of centralization of all interested in writing as a current problem on campus. “Our intention is to use [the Writers House] to support writing in all its forms, both on campus and in the community,” he said. “It’s been hard to build a community without the proper space.”
Hoffman stressed the inclusion of Camden residents in the future events planned at the Writers House, as well as an emphasis on civic engagement in this project. Second-year English major Tiara DeGuzman agrees: “The arts are a way to reach everyone so I am hoping that we hear a lot from artists in the Greater Philadelphia area so that this Writers House is culturally and artistically diverse. My hope for this center is that it will be a place for writers and readers to commune.”
The Henry Genet Taylor House was built in 1885 by Philadelphia architect Wilson Eyre, Jr. for the Camden physician Henry Genet Taylor as a home for his family and his own doctor’s office. Until 1959, descendants of Dr. Taylor still lived in the house of Queen Anne style. The historic house was then added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1989, along with surrounding buildings in the Cooper Street Historic District.
“I’ve worked closely with the architects, and we have taken careful precautions to maintain the historical integrity of the building,” said Hoffman. He explains that part of the reason why the cost of the renovation is so high is because they are going to extreme measures to leave the historical aspects of the house intact as they fix the deterioration that has befallen it in the last 50 years.
Now, after years of careful planning, the Writers House is scheduled to open for public use in the fall of 2015. Sill says, “I hope the Camden community will embrace the House and that the program committee will make an effort to schedule events of interest to residents of Camden as well as graduate and undergraduate students at Rutgers-Camden.” To read more history on the writers house visit their website.