Any major building in Camden that survives with its integrity intact is a miracle. Over the last 50 years, much of the downtown has been cruelly erased, leaving an archipelago of disconnected structures. Those losses have increased since power broker George Norcross and his brothers helped revise New Jersey’s economic development law in 2014 to offer huge tax incentives to suburban companies that move to the city — a law now being scrutinized by a state task force and a grand jury.
One Camden company that did not receive tax breaks for making the city its home is DCM, an architecture and engineering firm that designs seaside resorts around the world. DCM has two offices: Camden and Barcelona. You might be surprised to learn that Camden is the company’s headquarters.
DCM’s 30 Camden employees work out of a beautifully restored, early-20th-century firehouse at the corner of Front and Linden Streets, two blocks from the new vanity tower that houses Norcross’ insurance firm. Built in 1909 for Camden’s Engine Company No. 6., the Victorian-era beauty is one of the defining landmarks of the historic Cooper Grant neighborhood, which sits in the crook of the Ben Franklin Bridge. Although DCM didn’t do the initial renovations, it became the firehouse’s steward in 2017 when it bought the building and relocated from Cherry Hill.
Looking at the immaculately maintained, red-brick firehouse today, with its proud tower watching over the neighborhood, it is hard to imagine that it was ever a burned-out shell. But after the engine company moved out of the building in 1978, the firehouse was left to the elements. Arsonists and vandals became regular visitors.
By the time an architect named Gaver Nichols spotted the building in 1988, while visiting a friend at Campbell Soup, only the four walls were standing. The brick townhouses that once provided context were long gone. The firehouse was the block’s sole survivor.
Nichols fell in love. Although he was based in Virginia, he decided to buy the building and make it a demonstration project for his growing historic preservation practice. But after scraping together $69,000 to purchase the firehouse, he found it nearly impossible to get financing for renovations. “Fifteen banks turned me down,” Nichols told me.
Eventually, Nichols brought in partners to help fund the project. Over six years, the group put a new roof on the firehouse, stabilized the tower, and rebuilt the triple-arched bay that overlooks Front Street. They converted the firefighters’ sleeping quarters into loft-style apartments. A local artist, William Butler, opened a gallery on the ground floor, where the horse-drawn fire pumps had once been housed.
The old firehouse cleaned up spectacularly. As Nichols and his partners scrubbed the limestone lintel over the garage door, they discovered a curvy number six in the center keystone. The lintel forms a hilly outline over the three, ground-floor openings, echoed in the bay’s arched windows. Diamond-shaped tiles embedded below the cornice provide the final flourish.
Because the hoses that firefighters used in the early 20th century were made from cotton, virtually all firehouses from this period include a tower where the equipment could be dried out. No. 6′s is a squat, brick turret, reminiscent of the widow’s walks that sometimes cap Victorian houses.
Nichols’ bet on Cooper Grant paid off. The neighborhood has flourished over the last two decades. But as Nichols approached retirement age, he began to think about passing the firehouse on to to a new owner who would respect the architecture. It took a while to find the right person. Eventually he was introduced to Eduardo Guzman, DCM’s founder, who was looking for a larger office.
Guzman jumped at the chance to buy the building. Although his firm designs sprawling resorts for monied clients, he liked the idea that DCM would be part of a neighborhood.
Since buying the building, DCM has done its own renovations, converting the apartments into offices for its 30 employees. Guzman, who emigrated from Mexico two decades ago, said he invested more than $500,000 to upgrade the building. He added a spiral staircase in the tower and installed the office library at the base. The name of the firm was added to the bay, one letter on each of the three medallions. Last year, Camden Mayor Frank Moran formally recognized the improvements with a ribbon-cutting and plaque.
Unlike the enormous offices being built on Camden’s waterfront, DCM has no company cafeteria and doesn’t escort its employees to and from their cars. “Our guys,” Guzman said, “go out into the city every day. They walk to the sandwich places, to the beer garden.” Like the firehouse itself, DCM is now fully embedded in the life of Camden.