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People Preserving Places: The Camden Shipyard and Maritime Museum

September 30, 2011

This guest blog was written by PNJ volunteer Lauren Lembo. Lauren is an advocate for the preservation of New Jersey’s historic sites. She holds degrees in Art and Education, and plans to pursue a PhD in History.

The Church of Our Saviour is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as “an excellent example of small-scale Gothic architecture designed by noted Philadelphia architect George W. Hewitt in 1880.”  The church buildings are comprised of an 1892 parish hall and 1912 rectory.  The church historically served a congregation linked to the nearby shipbuilding and maritime industries.  The magnificent sanctuary building was constructed using ballast stones brought from Greenland on the return voyage of Admiral Peary’s famous voyage attempting to be the first to reach the North Pole.

The buildings fell into a deteriorated condition after the Episcopal Diocese abandoned the property in 1995.  Prior to that time, the diocese had rented space in the buildings for use as a daycare and after school program, but was not able to keep up with

Camden's Church of Our Saviour is being rehabilitated into a community-centered museum celebrating Camden's rich legacy of maritime industry. Read on to see how the Museum is engaging diverse cultures and age group's in Camden's heritage.

maintenance and repair costs.

The concept of the Camden Shipyard and Maritime Museum began in 2003 with the involvement of individuals from diverse backgrounds.  Much emphasis was placed on the interest of revitalizing the maritime oriented neighborhoods of Yorkship Village (now Fairview) and Waterfront South, and preserving the area’s historic integrity.  The BOBS Plan (Boulevard of Boats and Ships), enacted in 2002 by Alley Friends Architects of Philadelphia, was a key catalyst for the museum project.  The BOBS Plan calls for the preservation of the Camden-Philadelphia waterfronts and views them as vital links to America’s maritime history.

In 2006, Heart of Camden Inc. (a community development corporation) partnered with the newly formed museum board to develop a maritime museum plan.  Later in the year, Heart of Camden was able to purchase the former Church of Our Saviour.  At the time of purchase, the roof was leaking, serious water damage was present in the chapel, and the building suffered from general neglect.  The museum board immediately began to develop a strategic plan for the development of the museum while pursuing funding to improve the buildings.  Temporary repairs to the rectory allowed offices and meeting rooms to be established there.

Partnerships were simultaneously developed with a diverse array of local and state governments as well as local community-based organizations.  These partnerships have assisted project staff in raising over $600,000 from a wide variety of public and private sources. These funds were designated to repair the roof, purchase heating and security systems, hire a professional planning firm to design the new museum, and commission a statue of the Arctic Explorer Mathew Henson.  According to Dr. Michael Lang, the museum’s Director, additional grant applications totaling over $400,000 are pending to cover further renovations and museum programs. In addition, the generosity of volunteer labor by AmeriCorps/NCCC and many college groups has resulted in significant clean up and painting sessions at the buildings, which are currently open to the public by appointment.  The museum’s ambition is to have the church buildings ready for daily public attendance between 2012 and 2013.

The Camden Shipyard and Maritime Museum will present a variety of educational programs and exhibitions related to local and regional maritime history, as well as host a selection of family-oriented recreational boating programs. The museum will be an interactive, cultural and educational facility.  It will have several focal themes, including exhibits related to West Jersey Shipbuilding and Shipbuilder Communities, to Arctic Exploration, and Recreational Boating.

The museum will also collect, conserve, exhibit, and interpret artifacts related to Camden’s maritime heritage, and celebrate the diverse array of maritime industries and communities that contributed to the fame of Camden, once known as “The Greatest Little City.” A particular focus will be on the giant New York Shipbuilding Company located adjacent to the museum and once the world’s largest shipbuilder. The Camden Shipyard and Maritime Museum will act as a center for “Camden Gateway Project,” a program supporting the rehabilitation of South Camden’s historic waterfront buildings, part of a major neighborhood redevelopment effort that has resulted in a new theatre for the South Camden Theatre Company, the Star Theatre Gymnasium and the Fire House Art Center.

The Museum has made leaps and bounds in terms of the revitalization of the former church, but more construction needs to be completed before all sections are functioning and open to the public.  Sherwin Williams donated paint and supplies to aid in the interior repair of the church building.  Donations are being welcomed for restoration and operation purposes. The Museum was recently offered a major grant of $750,000, however this is a matching grant so the Museum needs to raise another $750,000.

The ultimate mission is to restore the historic Church of Our Savior and transform it into a small, first class, maritime museum that will educate, inspire and engage with children and other visitors.  Upon completion, the Camden Shipyard and Maritime Museum will serve as a reminder of the Port of Camden’s golden age and provide visitors with a beautiful, new perspective of the historic waterfront and this diverse New Jersey city.

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