In Camden, new museum to enshrine city's maritime history

A statue of North Pole explorer Matthew Henson stands outside of the Camden Shipyard & Maritime Museum. The museum, in a former church called the Church of Our Savior, will open in September.

It took them 13 years, but an eclectic crew of volunteers and visionaries has transformed a vacant 19th-century church into the Camden Shipyard & Maritime Museum.

Opening Sept. 11 in the resilient rowhouse neighborhood/emerging arts district known as Waterfront South, the architecturally impressive and thematically ambitious museum will showcase the history of the city's shipbuilding and related industries, where tens of thousands of people once worked.

Camden's maritime might spurred development of entire city neighborhoods such as Fairview, as well as nearby suburban communities such as Audubon Park and Brooklawn.

"It's been a long, strange, and wonderful" journey creating the museum, says retired Rutgers-Camden professor of public policy Michael Lang.

"We had pigeons flying around inside and stray cats in the belfry of the church," Lang, the museum's vice president, recalls. "A lot of people thought the building was on its last legs. I heard 'You're crazy, Mike' a thousand times."

Other key figures who helped realize the $1.5 million dream include the late Joseph A. Balzano, longtime head of the South Jersey Port Corp.; the Rev. Michael Doyle, pastor of Sacred Heart Church; Helene Pierson, former executive director of Heart of Camden Inc.; and Jim Cummings, director of experiential learning for the Urban Promise youth development program.

"They had kind of a crazy conversation about starting a museum," says Pierson, the museum's treasurer. What followed, she adds, were years of hard work "and the divine intervention that happens a lot" in the neighborhood.

The core group attracted support from the city, the state - a $750,000 matching grant from the New Jersey Historic Trust was crucial - and the private sector.

Ordinary folks simply showed up to drop off a couple of dollars, or to donate memorabilia, such as the fellow who declined to say how he came by the "City of Camden" lettering from a municipal pier that had collapsed into the Delaware decades ago.

And in 2008, Cummings knocked on the door while searching for a place to launch what has since become an anchor tenant in the museum complex.

The Urban Promise student boatbuilding program so far has produced 42 handcrafted kayaks, skiffs, and longboats, and will continue to be a museum tenant.

"This will be the Matthew Henson Community Room," executive director Jack O'Byrne says, as I step inside the renovated parish hall of the former Church of Our Savior at 1912 Broadway.

Standing in the churchyard is a 12-foot bronze of Henson, an African American explorer whose history-making role in Richard Peary's 1909 North Pole expedition went unheralded for decades.

Haddonfield sculptor John Giannotti created the powerful piece; Henson was not from Camden, but ballast rocks from the Kite, the ship that carried the expedition into the Arctic, are built into the parish hall's foundation walls.

"The church was directly tied to the maritime community here," says O'Byrne, noting that some of the stained-glass windows have seafaring themes.

Dominating the room, at least for now, is a massive wheel salvaged from the HMCS Niobe in the early 1920s.

The 7-foot wheel had adorned a wall at the Merchantville Country Club for decades until Balzano - a colorful collector of maritime memorabilia - obtained it for the museum about a decade ago.

It will soon be sold to a Canadian museum for $5,000, with proceeds helping to pay for video and other technology for Maritime Hall, the main exhibit room in the restored sanctuary of the church.

Interactive devices, large-scale ship models, and repurposed materials from a fine Camden County Historical Society exhibit about the nearby New York Shipbuilding Corp., which closed in 1967, also will be displayed in Maritime Hall.

Although smaller shipbuilding firms operated near Cooper's Poynt in North Camden in the World War I years, for most of the 20th century, shipbuilding in Camden was synonymous with the massive New York Shipbuilding Corp., which loomed over the Delaware River in the neighborhood now commonly called Waterfront South.

"According to a book published by the company for its 50th anniversary in 1949, daily employment peaked at 34,000" during the World War II years, says museum board member Paul W. Schopp, a historian who serves as assistant director of the South Jersey Culture & History Center, at Stockton University.

"Joe Balzano would be ecstatic," says Kevin Castagnola, who succeeded his boss at the port corporation and is president of the museum's board of trustees.

Says Lang: "This is a neighborhood that at one point was totally written off. But it just wouldn't roll over and die. And this project could be a case study on how to do urban revitalization."

It's also the sort of classic, can-do Camden story that doesn't often make headlines, but deserves to.

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