The first time Carl Dranoff entered the Victor building on the Camden, N.J., waterfront, he wore a hard hat and steel-toe boots and carried a flashlight—the only way to safely navigate the abandoned manufacturing plant.
Despite the site's appearance, Thomas Corcoran, the president of the local economic development association, knew how to convince Dranoff of its potential. He pried the boards off a window so Dranoff could see the view. “It was astounding,” Dranoff says of the panorama, which included the waterfront, Benjamin Franklin Bridge, and Philadelphia's skyline.
Today, when Dranoff, founder and CEO of Philadelphia-based Dranoff Properties, enters The Victor, he doesn't see graffitied walls and broken bricks; instead, he sees an exquisite lobby, landscaped courtyard, and tenants going about their day. He sees a successful project that has rejuvenated a blighted area. He sees an icon of American industry transformed. And he no longer needs a hard hat.
Indeed, despite numerous obstacles and a rocky history, the 348-unit Victor Luxury Waterfront Lofts has helped spur development of the formerly blighted area. Today, the Camden Waterfront is a thriving urban neighborhood with The Victor at its core.
A FORMER POWERHOUSE Developed originally as a manufacturing factory, the Camden site became a hub of the modern music recording industry for most of the 20th century. But its long history also meant it fell victim to the ups and downs of the economy.
The property's birth began with Eldridge R. Johnson, who founded the Victor Talking Machine Co. in 1901. In 1909, Johnson expanded operations with a waterfront factory to build Victrola cabinets, the casings that combined a turntable and amplifying horn in an attractive wooden cabinet. By 1917, the facility occupied 525,000 square feet and was surrounded by 32 other Victor buildings, which housed everything from phonograph needle production to recording studios.
The massive brick structure's most iconic feature was the 75-foot-high Nipper Tower, which housed huge water tanks used for fire protection. In addition, stained glass windows on all four sides featured the Victor logo—dog Nipper listening to a record player to hear “his master's voice.”
In 1929, the Victor Talking Machine Co. was purchased by the Radio Corporation of America. Not long after RCA's 1985 merger with General Electric, the Camden plant was shut down. The decline of the facility mirrored the decline of the city, which was hit by a recession and the demise of manufacturing in the Northeast.
By the time Corcoran and Dranoff walked into the boarded-up factory, conditions were improving on the Camden waterfront. Developers already had built the 25,000-seat Susquehanna Center amphitheater, the 2 million-plus-gallon Adventure Aquarium, a minor league baseball stadium, and the Battleship New Jersey Museum and Memorial. In planning were transportation improvements to New Jersey Transit's River Line, which runs in front of the building.