By Phaedra Trethan
Camden, N.J. (AP) – It really should be hallowed ground, at least for music fans..
New Jersey’s own Frank Sinatra signed a recording contract in the seventh-floor boardroom.
So did Woody Guthrie.
And some guy named Elvis Presley.
The Philadelphia Orchestra’s earliest recordings were produced within its walls.
But the building isn’t in New York or Los Angeles – it’s in Camden. And it’s undergoing a long-overdue renovation, with its owners hoping to restore most of the building to its early- and mid-20th century glory.
RCA Control Room in the 1940s
Millennial Place LLC is turning the Victor Talking Machine Co. building, once the corporate offices for a multinational recording company, from a run-down former school district headquarters into something that honors its historic past while turning its eye toward a modern, resurgent city.
Just what the structure, built in 1916, will eventually become is not yet clear, explained Fred Hagen of Millennial Place.
Hagen recently took the Courier-Post on a tour of the building just hours before its coming-out party, with invited guests from the public and private sector, as well as potential tenants, able to get a glimpse of its potential.
After securing $5.5 million to acquire, market and rehab the Victor corporate building, Millennial Partners is promoting it as possible apartments, business offices or even a hotel. They envision retail on the ground floor as well.
The site is not to be confused with the nearby Victor Lofts (a former factory-turned-luxury apartment building) or the Radio Lofts (a gutted former factory whose conversion to condominiums has been in limbo for several years after delays in environmental remediation).
Detail of the well-preserved Executive Boardroom
The Victor Talking Machine Co. headquarters was once part of a thriving, 58-acre campus on the Camden Waterfront. At its height, RCA employed 13,000 people in the region along 10 blocks in the city.
The historic Victor Talking MachineCo. building in Camden is currently undergoing renovations to convert the onetime world headquarters for a former industrial giant into modern office and retail space.
For the last 20 years, the Camden School District used the building as its headquarters. Millennial acquired the building in December, after the district determined months earlier that it “was no longer needed for school purposes.’’
Officials last year called the building a financial drain for the cash-strapped, state-run district, with annual maintenance costs that averaged about $381,000 and utilities that totaled an additional $130,000 per year.
“The property is appealing for its historic value as headquarters for the company that revolutionized the radio and television industry, as well as its location in Camden, a city that is on the cusp of a major renaissance,’’ said William “Billy’’ Procida, president and CEO of Procida Funding LLC, which provided Millennial Partners with the funding.
“We’re excited to support a project that will transform the former epicenter of the music industry into its next generational use.’’
“This was the Silicon Valley of the early 1900s,’’ said Hagen, a carpenter by trade but now head of a company that’s counted the Divine Lorraine Hotel and Academy of Music in Philadelphia among its historic restoration projects. “They built these majestic buildings, with these stunning architectural details in Camden.’’
Millennial Partners is seeking – and expects approval – to have the building listed on the National Register of Historic Places, a designation that would bring financial incentives for preservation.
Much of that work has already begun: On the ground floor lobby, a mosaic tile was painstakingly restored, found under layers of ceramic tile. A replica of the original chandelier hangs above, but the rosette framing it on the ceiling is from 1916.
Rich, dark wood, its character restored, surrounds visitors to the seventh-floor president’s office, though the original grand fireplace is gone. Large windows afford each floor a 360-degree view of the city and the waterfront, and the eighth-floor is a sweeping, open space with a high ceiling ringed by columns that is a natural performance room (as it once was) or a potential event venue.
While RCA Victor left a gaping hole in the city when it departed, developer Carl Dranoff helped lay the groundwork for a revival when he restored the Victor Lofts as high-end apartments, Hagen said.
One of the building’s original entries
“There’s a lot of new construction (in Camden), but this is restoring that old sense of grandeur,’’ noted Hagen. “This building is one of the cornerstones of Camden history.’’
The first five floors are still being gutted, still a tangle of wires, drywall, duct work and debris. But change is coming, just like it has to the building’s showcase floors – and that’s how Hagen and his partners see the city in which they’ve invested.
“This is the future as we see it in Camden: beautiful and safe,’’ he said, adding the building has “significant interest’’ from potential tenants, including a hotel company. “It’s an incomplete process. Camden has its problems, but it has a bright future.’’
Top Photo: RCA Building No. 2, the former Camden Board of Education