When Victor Talking Machine Co. founder Eldridge R. Johnson donated $250,000 to create the Moorestown Community House, he did so on one condition: The community had to support it, too.
Nearly a century later, the operators again are turning to the community to keep open the stately building on Main Street. It has been closed for several weeks by the COVID-19 crisis, and the losses could reach hundreds of thousands of dollars.
”There’s so much uncertainty,” said Caryn Lynch, executive director. “Nobody is really pulling the trigger on future events, and there is no end in sight.”
Lynch launched an online $100,000 fund-raising campaign last week that generated nearly $45,000 in four days. She was confident the goal would be achieved, which would keep the center afloat for several months until normal operations can resume.
Built in 1926, the Community House has been a popular social gathering spot in the Burlington County suburb of about 20,000 residents — hosting weddings, receptions, meetings, summer concerts on the grounds, and youth events. It has a ballroom, a garden room, a club room, and a library.
“It’s really the heart of our community in so many ways,” said Mayor Nicole Gillespie, who has performed weddings at the center. “There are so many milestone events that happened there.”
As a stipulation for his donation in 1923, Johnson said the community, not the government, had to create a permanent fund for the center’s upkeep. In eight months, more than $106,000 was raised in donations from 740 donors, 500 schoolchildren, and local civic and fraternal organizations.
Johnson became a millionaire after selling Victor in 1927 to bankers who later sold the Camden company to the Radio Corp. of America. RCA grew into a music dynamo that churned out 800,000 records a day and was known for its trademark fox terrier with its head tilted toward a gramophone with the motto “His Master’s Voice.”
For years, Johnson lived in Moorestown, in a Main Street home known as “the Towers,” originally owned by Samuel Allen, inventor of the Flexible Flyer sled. Today, it is the Lutheran Crossings Home, an assisted living facility.
Johnson was a well-known philanthropist who donated land and money to Camden, including what later became the Walt Whitman Center of Rutgers-Camden, said Frederick O. Barnum III, a Victor-RCA historian. He was known ”for being that kind of guy“ when he moved to Moorestown, he said.
”He wanted to be a good citizen of the town,” Barnum said.
The mostly brick and stone community center opened on April 11, 1926, with activities including a tea for teenage girls, a concert, and an exhibition by the University of Pennsylvania wrestling team. It had a $117,000 endowment and an $8,000 annual budget.
It costs about $700,000 to operate the center today, from rental income and donations, Lynch said. Two annual major fund-raisers, a wine tasting and a golf outing, typically generate about $90,000 for the nonprofit, she said.
Because of the pandemic, the fund-raisers have been canceled, most of the 14 full- and part-time employees have been furloughed, and more than 100 bookings have been canceled, she said.
Lynch said the center has outstanding bills for a recently completed $50,000 project replacing 100-year-old cast-iron sewer lines and a $20,000 brick paveway project. The remainder of its projects have been put on hold, she said.
The center’s request for help has gone viral with shares and remembrances. One Facebook commenter recalled her children learning to swim at the center.
After an electrical fire in the center‘s attic in 2015, donations poured in to help with repairs. Lynch said she believes the public will assist again, in the spirit of Johnson.
”When there’s a need in town, people really rally,” she said. “We have an amazing community.”