Lauren Grodstein speaks with graduate student Nkenge Feagin in the main room of the Writers House.


Lauren  Grodstein speaks with graduate student Nkenge Feagin in the main room of the Writers House. James Faccinto is pictured behind them. 

Nick Romanenko

Having produced a steady stream of well-regarded writers during its seven years of existence, the M.F.A. program in creative writing at Rutgers University–Camden would not seem in need of offering any  further enticement to attract budding literary talent. But with the November opening of the Writers House, a historical Queen Anne-revival style home adjacent to the university campus that underwent an exacting yearlong renovation, it got a doozy of one.

“Everybody was counting the seconds until we could move in,” says Lauren Grodstein, the director of the program and author of the novels The Explanation for Everything (Algonquin Books, 2013) and A Friend of the Family (Algonquin Books, 2009). “The classrooms that we’ve been in since the program started seven years ago were fine, but Camden is a literary community with historic ties to Walt Whitman. To be in this beautiful building  dedicated to writing, in the heart of Camden, makes us feel like a graduate program with a real home.”

The residents did not move into their new home without making sure it retained its architectural pedigree: the building’s library, classrooms, and gallery were all restored with historical accuracy. “It’s pretty sad to see a house that’s beautiful on the outside denatured on the inside,” Grodstein says. “Everybody who’s been involved felt the Writers House should be preserved with attention to every detail.”

The Writers House, at 305 Cooper Street, was built in 1885 and designed  by the Philadelphia architect Wilson Eyre Jr. It was known as the Henry Genet Taylor House. Taylor, a prominent  local physician and the founder  of Camden’s first hospital, commissioned Eyre to construct a place where he could live and see patients under the same roof. Taylor died in 1916, but his descendants lived in the house until 1959. In 1989, it was entered into the National Register of Historic Places. 

SMP Architects, a Philadelphia firm chosen through a competitive bidding process, designed the renovation, one that quickly caught the attention of Lisa Zeidner, the M.F.A. program’s founding director who took an avid interest in the renovation, right down to ascertaining the authenticity of things like carpet texture and roof shingles. The author of the novels Love Bomb (Sarah Crichton Books, 2012) and Layover (Harper Perennial, 2000), Zeidner was among the faculty members in the Department of English who campaigned in 2012 to convert the aging house into the Writers House, building on the advocacy of Geoffrey Sill, the former chair of the department who was the first to pursue a dedicated Writers House, years before the Cooper Street site was chosen. 

“The architects have done a great job preserving the most impressive original features, like the grand wooden staircase and the wonderful fireplaces,” says Zeidner. “The rugs on the second and third floors duplicate all of the house’s  original colors. We’ve also got framed samples of the original wallpaper in various places.” Victorians, she says, were big on wallpaper.

“The renovation was made even more difficult by the fact that the building is historically certified,” says Zeidner, requiring extensive documentation of the materials used, for instance, in the construction of the exterior of the structure. The same care was taken when choosing period- appropriate furniture. “It’s not the average beige office stuff,” she says. “We went through hundreds and hundreds of samples to find the patterns and colors that best matched the space.”   

Lisa Zeidner, left, the founding director of the M.F.A. program in creative writing at Rutgers University–Camden, with her successor, Lauren Grodstein, who is also a professor of English.


English professor Lisa Zeidner, left, the founding director of the M.F.A. program in creative writing at Rutgers University–Camden, with her successor, Lauren Grodstein, who is also a professor of English.

Nick Romanenko

Grodstein and Zeidner are convinced that the amount of thought that went into planning and restoring the space is likely to be matched by the activities that take place within. Like the Rutgers University–Newark’s M.F.A. creative writing program—launched one year before Camden’s and recognized, under founding director and fiction writer Jayne Anne Phillips, as a preeminent writing program—students are recruited from the United States and overseas.

“But we also see a huge hunger for writing programs in the Philadelphia metropolitan area,” Zeidner says. “Our program is distinctive from most M.F.A. programs in that it takes a multi-genre approach. All of our students are encouraged to write outside their  comfort zones of fiction or poetry, for instance. We offer classes in memoir, narrative nonfiction, screenwriting, and even digital storytelling, where students work with illustrators to create picture books and graphic novels. We try to nurture the whole person, not just the writer’s craft, so we supplement classes with international studies programs in places as diverse as Amsterdam and Bangkok.”

The program’s offerings include the Writers in Camden series, which has brought highly regarded authors including Gary Shteyngart, Jennifer Egan, Tracy K. Smith, Tom Perrotta, and Brenda Shaughnessy to the university for workshops and readings. Novelist Karen Russell, a 2013 MacArthur Fellow, will return to the program in the spring to lead an M.F.A. seminar. StoryQuarterly, the award-winning literary magazine, is now headquartered at the Writers House.

“Being able to discuss their craft in such glorious spaces, with the tall windows and the lush oak wainscoting, will be a gift to the serious and talented writers in our program,” says Zeidner.       

But it is not only accomplished and up-and-coming writers whom Grodstein wants congregating at the house. “We see it as a place you can come and borrow a book, or where you go when you want help with any kind of writing, whether it’s digital writing or getting something you’ve written online or a novel,” she says, pointing out the value of the innovative Writing and Design Lab, located in the Writers House. “We’re going to have an active calendar of activities for anybody who’s interested. We see it as an asset for  the whole community, not just for our program.” •