The Walt Whitman Arts Center in downtown Camden, home to theatrical and cultural events since the 1970s, will live to stage another show.

Over the summer, Rutgers University, the owner of the neoclassical structure, announced plans to convert the performance space into classrooms. The nonprofit arts center then sued, saying it would no longer be able to hold performances and the construction violated its lease.

A settlement reached this month will turn the building into a hybrid classroom-theater.

"We look forward to working together," said Philip Freeman, president of the arts center.

Named after the poet who lived in and is buried in Camden, the arts center was originally a branch library donated to the city in the early 20th century by Eldridge R. Johnson, inventor of the modern phonograph and founder of the Victor Talking Machine Co., which became RCA Victor.

When the library opened in 1918, the building and its surrounding park, on Cooper Street a block from the Delaware River, became a cultural and recreational center for South Jersey.

After the library closed, the arts center opened in 1975, and 11 years later the city deeded the building to Rutgers for $1.

There it remained, hosting summer camps, operas, plays, music lessons, school graduations, political debates, readings, and other cultural events.

Rutgers' plans to convert the 184-seat theater into two lecture rooms were halted by a judge's restraining order after the center filed suit in July.

The settlement, signed this month by Freeman and Rutgers chancellor Wendell Pritchett, calls for a smaller stage, chairs with attached desks that can be stacked and temporarily moved, and, possibly, a curtain for performances.

The new space will be smaller, accommodating about 100 people. But under the agreement, arts center events can alternatively be held at the university's larger Gordon Theater if schedules allow.

The arts center also will become an internal department of Rutgers, and therefore will have to plan programming around scheduled classes.

"You clear off the lectern and you can do a performance, you can do a poetry reading or a drama reading," said Mike Sepanic, a university spokesman. "The whole point is to keep the space flexible."

Contact staff writer Matt Katz
at 856-779-3919 or mkatz@phillynews.com.