Admiral Wilson Boulevard


Admiral Wilson Boulevard, a two-and-a-half-mile section of U.S. Route 30 extending from the Benjamin Franklin Bridge in Camden to the Route 70 overpass in Pennsauken, was the first “auto strip” in the United States. Originally named Bridge Approach Boulevard when it opened in 1926, it was renamed in 1929 to honor Rear Admiral Henry Braid Wilson, a Camden native who served in the Spanish-American and First World Wars. The road had a significant impact on the development of the inner South Jersey suburbs and Camden City in the twentieth century.

When the Benjamin Franklin Bridge (originally named Delaware River Bridge) opened in 1926, the accompanying egress road on the New Jersey side attracted little fanfare. Yet boosters in Camden envisioned Bridge Approach Boulevard as the flagship road in an automotive-centric civic project known as “Greater Camden’s Gateway to New Jersey.” They hoped the project would elevate Camden’s position in the region and make Camden a “second Brooklyn,” the hub of southern New Jersey.

a color map of Camden following the proposed Leavitt plan
Landscape architect and civil engineer Charles Wellford Leavitt designed this plan for Camden based on the principles of the City Beautiful Movement. His proposal included green spaces and wide, tree-lined roads, including Admiral Wilson Boulevard. (Camden County Historical Society)

To this end, the city hired landscape architect Charles Wellford Leavitt (1871-1928) to create an intricate web of highways that would connect Camden to the suburbs all the way to the Atlantic coast. Leavitt was an advocate of the “City Beautiful Movement,” which advanced the idea that the beautification of cities through parks and monuments would have a positive effect on the morals and behavior of their residents. Leavitt believed the entryway into South Jersey should showcase Camden, and city boosters lobbied for a hotel near the foot of the bridge, as well as a civic center. The remainder of the Boulevard, which extended into the suburbs, would feature extensive landscaping and a park with a view of the western tributary of the Cooper River and Camden High School.

It was not long before business interests saw opportunities on the new Boulevard that would alter its original civic goals. When it decided to open its first store in Camden, Sears, Roebuck & Company insisted on a location along the Boulevard, rather than in downtown Camden. The company and the city struck a deal that modified the original plan for a civic center near the western end of the Boulevard, and instead a new Sears with ample parking opened there in 1927. Although the city abandoned the civic center concept, it still influenced the design of the store. Unlike other Sears retail stores it had designed in Boston and Chicago, the architecture firm Nimmons, Carr and Wright adopted the classical revival style for the Camden location, influenced by Leavitt and the City Beautiful Movement.

a black and white photograph of automobiles parked in front of the drive-in movie screen in Camden
The first drive-in movie theater was opened on Admiral Wilson Boulevard in June 1933. Its inventor and owner, Richard Hollingshead Jr., lived in nearby Riverton. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

With the opening of Sears, other businesses envisioned opportunities to appeal to the driving consumer on the Boulevard. In 1933, Camden native Richard Hollingshead Jr. (1900-75) opened the world’s first drive-in movie theater on the north side of Admiral Wilson. Based on a design he worked out in his driveway, Hollingshead combined his blueprints and received a patent on the drive-in theater in 1932. The drive-in resonated with an automobile– and Hollywood-crazed public, and Hollingshead’s first night showing of Wives Beware, in June 1933, was a sellout. In ensuing years, drive-in movie theaters opened all over the country. Unfortunately for Hollingshead, most of the theater owners ignored his patent and he received few royalties from their success. Hollingshead’s own theater struggled to make a profit, as an independent theater owner during the studio era he had to pay upwards of $400 for each film shown, and many of the pictures had already shown at traditional theaters before he acquired them. Hollingshead sold the theater in 1935 to a Union, New Jersey, theater owner who relocated the screen and equipment to that city.

Other automotive entertainments were attempted on the Boulevard, including the “whoopee coaster,” a Depression-era attraction in which drivers could take their cars on a series of roller coaster-like tracks. Unlike Hollingshead’s drive-in, the whoopee coaster failed to gain national footing.

Changing City, Changing Boulevard

Businesses continued to grow and expand through the 1950s and 1960s. Several car dealership franchises found success on Admiral Wilson, jointly declaring it “the right route for savings” in a 1952 newspaper advertisement, and motels thrived on both sides of the Boulevard. The opening of a bar in 1949 called The Admiral prompted Henry Wilson to unsuccessfully petition the city to remove his name from the Boulevard, after which he vowed never to travel on the road again.

A black and white photograph of Philadelphia-bound traffic on Admiral Wilson Boulevard, 1949
By the late 1940s, Charles Wellford Leavitt’s plans for an aesthetically pleasing boulevard were abandoned. This photograph of holiday traffic on the Boulevard also shows newly constructed liquor stores and bars along the south side. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)

In the 1970s a business model that had not been seen before on the Boulevard emerged: the go-go club. A Camden City ordinance passed in 1977 restricted businesses related to “prurient interests” to Admiral Wilson Boulevard and banned such businesses from the rest of the city. By the 1980s, adult-themed clubs, hourly rate motels, and other businesses related to sex work dominated the southeastern end of Admiral Wilson. At the same time, Camden’s uptick in crime left employees and customers of these businesses vulnerable to robberies, assaults, and other crimes. In addition to the clubs and motels, many sex workers lined the Boulevard working outside the sanctioned businesses. As these new businesses thrived, the car dealerships and retail businesses that had been at the heart of the Boulevard for much of its existence closed or moved to new suburban locations, following Sears, which left Camden for Moorestown in the early 1970s.

The Gateway Project

In the 1990s, the state of New Jersey and the Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA) proposed a new plan for the road that would incorporate the original tree-lined design with new development. Called the Gateway Project (later expanded to the Gateway Redevelopment Plan), the proposal called for the destruction of a majority of the businesses on the southeast end of the Boulevard, to be replaced by a park along Cooper River with paths for pedestrians and cyclists.

a black and white photograph of the Four Winds liquor store on Admiral Wilson Boulevard
In the late twentieth century, Admiral Wilson Boulevard was lined with liquor stores, hourly rate motels, and strip clubs. An initiative in 1999 closed and demolished most of these buildings in preparation for the 2000 Republican National Convention. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)

The plan remained dormant until the national Republican Party announced it would hold its 2000 presidential nominating convention in Philadelphia. Convention planners expected many delegates would stay in hotels in the South Jersey suburbs, using the Ben Franklin Bridge and Admiral Wilson Boulevard to commute back and forth to the city. With that prospect in mind, New Jersey’s Republican governor, Christie Todd Whitman (b. 1946), seized the opportunity to accelerate the Gateway Project by pledging $45 million to “restore Admiral Wilson Boulevard to the beauty that it enjoyed long ago.” Thus beginning in 1999, demolition of the strip clubs, hourly motels, and other businesses advanced, and by the time the Republican National Convention opened in late July 2000 the south side of Admiral Wilson Boulevard once again resembled the tree-lined road imagined in the original design, with a public park to be completed at a later date. There were exceptions: A new gas station and mini-mart opened on the south side of the road along Cooper River, and the Sears Building remained on the Boulevard until it too was demolished in 2013.

At the other end of the Boulevard, the planned Gateway Park project had yet to be implemented as of 2015. Runoff gas and oil as well as remnants of the demolished buildings required an environmental cleanup in order for the space to be suitable for public use.

Throughout the twentieth century, Admiral Wilson Boulevard played a significant role in expanding Camden’s retail center from downtown and facilitating the exodus of that center to the suburbs. Originally designed to be a “gateway to Camden,” the Boulevard became a gateway through the city to both the inner and developing outer suburbs. In the twenty-first century, the Boulevard reflects the tree-lined road imagined by Leavitt as well as a new focus on corporate office parks influenced by twentieth century suburbia. One consistency was Admiral Wilson Boulevard’s debt to the driving public. With over one thousand parking spaces, the new office park on the old Sears site would continue the auto-centric nature of the Boulevard.

Bart Everts is a reference librarian at the Paul Robeson Library at Rutgers University-Camden and teaches history at Peirce College. (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2016, Rutgers University


Leavitt's Plan for Camden

Camden County Historical Society

The designer of Admiral Wilson Boulevard, landscape architect and civil engineer Charles Wellford Leavitt, was a follower of the City Beautiful Movement. This urban planning philosophy held that green spaces, wide boulevards, and monumental architecture were important for maintaining civic virtue in urban environments. It began in the late 1890s as a reaction to crowded, dirty tenement housing and industrial neighborhoods and gained popularity throughout the early twentieth century. Leavitt, who was a native of nearby Riverton, New Jersey, created this plan for Camden's future based on these principles. Leavitt's plan included open green areas along the Cooper River, extensive public parks, and wide new boulevards lined with trees, including Admiral Wilson Boulevard. Though Admiral Wilson Boulevard was constructed as planned, most of Leavitt's ambitious ideas were abandoned.

The First Drive-In Movie Theater

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

From its earliest days, Admiral Wilson Boulevard held attractions for the area's motorists. Richard Hollingshead Jr. opened the first drive-in movie theater on Admiral Wilson Boulevard in 1933. He based his theater on tests he conducted in his own driveway in nearby Riverton. Around six hundred people attended the theater's June 6 opening to see the British comedy film Wives Beware on the theater's thirty-foot by forty-foot screen. Sound was provided by massive speakers built by Camden's RCA company. The drive-in format became a national sensation and during its peak in the 1950s and 1960s, with thousands of drive-in theaters operating throughout the United States. Hollingshead's patent, however, was largely ignored and he was denied royalty payments. His theater struggled to make a profit for three years before closing in 1936. The screen and equipment were purchased by a new owner and moved to Union, New Jersey.

Sears, Roebuck & Company Department Store, Camden

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

Landscape architect Charles Wellford Leavitt designed Admiral Wilson Boulevard based on the ideas of the City Beautiful Movement. It was designed to be visually pleasing as well as functional. Early buildings were designed according to these principles as well. The first Sears, Roebuck & Company building in Camden, the columned building shown here to the left of the six-lane Admiral Wilson Boulevard, opened in 1927. It was designed by the architecture firm Nimmons, Carr and Wright in the classical revival style.

After Sears left Camden for the suburbs in the early 1970s, a car dealership occupied its former store. In later years, various organizations used the space for offices, including the Camden Housing Authority. In 2000, the Sears building was added to the National Register of Historic Buildings, based on Charles Levitt’s influence on its design. However, the location clashed with the plans of another historic Camden business, the Campbell Soup Company. Campbell’s, which was founded in Camden in 1869, wanted to expand its corporate headquarters and its outreach to the Boulevard by developing the land on which the Sears building stood as a suburban-style office park. In 2009, Campbell’s asked the Camden Redevelopment Authority to condemn the Sears building and allow the company to acquire and demolish it by eminent domain. Preservation advocates, led by Camden community activist Frank Fulbrook (1949-2013), fought the demolition in court, but ultimately lost. In February 2011, a judge ruled in Campbell’s favor. An appeal filed by Fulbrook failed, and the Sears building was demolished in 2013 to make room for a new office park.

Liquor Store on Admiral Wilson Boulevard

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

By the 1970s, Admiral Wilson Boulevard became more known for its strip clubs, seedy motels, gas stations, and liquor stores than for the aesthetic value its original planners anticipated. Unlike Pennsylvania, where the state had a monopoly on liquor sales and dictates prices, New Jersey stores were able to be more flexible with their products. Admiral Wilson Boulevard became populated with liquor stores advertising cheaper prices than those available just over the bridge in Philadelphia. These stores, including the Four Winds liquor store shown here, shared the route with a host of businesses such as strip clubs and hourly-rate motels that gave Admiral Wilson Boulevard a reputation as a hotbed for sex work and crime.

In the late 1990s, the Gateway Project, a redevelopment plan for the Admiral Wilson Boulevard area, called for the demolition of most of the businesses lining the street. The movement gained power when it was endorsed by New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman, who sought to improve the neighborhood before the Republican National Convention was held in Philadelphia in summer 2000, and $45 million was pledged to the project. By the time the convention opened in July, most of the businesses on the south side of Admiral Wilson Boulevard were demolished and replaced by the trees and green spaces intended by designer Charles Wellford Leavitt.

Related Topics


Time Periods



Related Reading

Andariese, Walter. History of the Ben Franklin Bridge. Camden, N.J.: Delaware River Port Authority, 1981.

Cammarota, Ann Marie T. Pavements in the Garden: The Suburbanization of Southern New Jersey, Adjacent to Philadelphia 1769 to the Present. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2001.

Dorwart, Jeffery M. Camden County New Jersey: The Making of a Metropolitan Community 1626-2000. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2001.

Gillette, Howard Jr. Camden After the Fall: Decline and Renewal in a Post-Industrial City. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005.

McShane, Clay. Down the Asphalt Path: The Automobile and the American City. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Segrave, Kerry. Drive-In Theaters: A History from their Inception in 1933. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, 1992.

Wilson, William H. The City Beautiful Movement. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.


12 Monkeys (1995) features a scene at the Oasis Motel on Admiral Wilson Boulevard

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