Rutgers alumni house to be set in Camden

Larry R. Gaines (left) , a vice chancellor at Rutgers-Camden, and Scott Owens, director of alumni relations. AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer
Larry R. Gaines (left) , a vice chancellor at Rutgers-Camden, and Scott Owens, director of alumni relations. AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer
Posted: November 05, 2013

CAMDEN When Rutgers-Camden bought the lot for its new graduate dormitory, it didn't know what it would do with the three-story building next door, at 312 Cooper St. The university bought it figuring something would turn up.

It did. The university's board of governors in December approved a $2.5 million renovation plan to transform the vacant and run-down building, which once housed the American Red Cross of Camden County, into Rutgers Alumni House, the first across all of the university's campuses.

"We needed the lot to build the dorms, but we had no plans for the building. So now Rutgers suddenly owns a building without any plans. The chancellor went to New Brunswick, sold the plan, they funded it," said Larry R. Gaines, campus vice chancellor for administration and finance.

"Things just came together."

Construction is set to begin as early as this week, depending on when the final permits are received and all plans are approved.

Renovation plans have been complicated by the western side of the building, which is in the Federal style and dates to the early 19th century, the school says. It has been classified as historical and is being renovated according to federal standards.

The architect and builder still project an end date of April 30, Gaines said, though construction has already been delayed from the original summer 2013 start date.

"I think it's ambitious, but if the architect and the builder think they can do it, go for it," he said, laughing. Gaines is focused on having the building open by the new school year.

When complete, the 8,015-square-foot building will have a new elevator and stair tower adding 1,150 square feet. The second and third floors will house the alumni relations and development offices, moving from their current space in nearby 411 Cooper St.

The big difference, administrators said: the 2,035-square-foot first floor, which will house a library, "spirit room," and other multipurpose rooms for meetings and gatherings.

Alumni groups can use the space for events, said Scott D. Owens, campus director of alumni relations. He also sees a daily use for the space for the "hundreds and hundreds of alumni who work right here in the City of Camden."

Rooms will include photographs of distinguished alumni, trophy and awards cases, and displays of Rutgers paraphernalia.

"This will be a space that on their lunch breaks we may be able to start having some mini-concerts, musicians, or little bistros and having open houses for our alumni in here," Owens said. "We're hoping that it will be that home that they will come to and want to stop in and say, 'Hi, how can I volunteer, how can I help out, what opportunities are there?' while they're having some coffee."

The renovation also helps the university in its efforts to boost alumni giving and project a better image.

"It is unsightly to have an unoccupied, boarded-up property next to a newly constructed dormitory and sends the wrong message in our efforts to recruit topflight students," the board's plan reads, adding: "While we have a core of alumni supporters, most alumni are disengaged with the campus. . . . This building would spur greater interest and giving."

But there was a stirring of alumni recently: Many stepped forward to oppose a proposed merger with Rowan University last year, becoming much more vocal and visible than in the past. Lawn signs sprouted up, with matching buttons on shirts and bags, saying: "Keep Rutgers in South Jersey!"

Administrators recognize the symbolism of the university's first alumni house being built in Camden.

"I just feel like all of the work that the Rutgers-Camden alumni, the Rutgers alumni that live in South Jersey, all of the advocacy that they did and they have been doing . . . this is our acknowledgment of our appreciation for that," said Donna Thornton, university vice president for alumni relations.

And if alumni would like to show their appreciation with a financial contribution, she said, that would be nice, too: "Alumni are usually very willing to invest in a project like this," Thornton said.

Of the $2.5 million required for the project, $2 million comes from university accounts. An additional $255,000 in private funding had already been secured by the development office when the board of governors approved the project, with the remainder expected to come from a mix of private sources.

Naming rights for rooms in the house - such as a spirit room, already reserved by the alumni association - are available for large donations, Owens said, and the alumni association is conducting a brick campaign, selling engraved bricks to be set in the sidewalk outside the building.

Bricks cost $300, $900, or $3,000, depending on size. That campaign should raise about $150,000 by the end of next year, Owens said.

A Rutgers-Camden alumnus twice over who met his future wife on campus, Owens said that his offices would be upstairs but that the heart of the building would be the first-floor alumni space.

"It's a [place] that they can now come to and show their Rutgers pride for years and years and generations on. This house will be here forever," he said.



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