The Floating Church

Late last week, a smallish abandoned church at the corner of Cricklin Avenue and Potts Lane in South Buxton burned to the ground. It had been in that particular spot for almost 103 years. Before that, it’s location had been on a barge in the Ostahanoc River.

In 1881, Myrna Heichman, beloved wife of shipping magnate J. Peter Heichman died of pneumonia. Her final wish was for her husband to “Save those poor men’s souls.” The men to whom she referred were the city’s waterfront laborers. J. Peter had loved the rough and tumble attitudes of the dockworkers, but his wife had always found them to be coarse and distasteful, looking down upon them with a certain amount of pity, sure that they could be reformed, if only they had a bit of spirituality in their lives.

Duty-bound to honor her wishes, he immediately set his engineers and a prominent local architect, Lackson Dowling (he of the Watson College Administration Building, Pelham Tower and many others) to designing what he thought to be the perfect tribute to her memory- a floating church.

No one is sure quite why he thought this to be the best course of action. There was never a biography of J. Peter Heichman, nor did he leave behind any memoirs.

By April of 1883, the structure was completed, looking as though someone had miniaturized a Gothic cathedral in the finest wood available and set it on a barge, docked at Pier 85, then at the end of Main Avenue. An article in the Morning Examiner hailed it as “one of the four best floating houses of worship on the Eastern Sea-Board.”

The non-denominational Myrna Heichman Memorial Chapel did well for many years- both with its intended audience and curiosity-seekers, both of whom eventually coalesced into something of a regular congregation. There were difficulties, though- in any sort of heat, the stench on the polluted river was unbearable, cutting down on attendance and bookings of such events as weddings. The Ostanahoc’s condition at the time also precluded any sort of baptisms in the river, yet it did not eliminate the problem of countless kids having to be shooed off in the summers, as the church proved to be a popular diving platform. Many people just could not get over a bit of seasickness during services in especially choppy waters, with pieces of furniture that had not been nailed to the floor tending to slide around.

J. Peter Heichman died in 1900 and the floating church was turned over to the Seamen’s Beneficence Society, which did not have the funding or resources for the upkeep of such a peculiar structure. This, steadily declining attendance and severe damage from a couple of harsh winters forced the group, in 1903, to turn the structure over to the city, who planned its demolition.

However, in August of that year, during the tragic disaster involving the ferry “Genevive,” the structure served as a gathering place/makeshift hospital/place of worship for the city over those three awful days. The public outcry against demolishing the chapel was great and a newish Lutheran congregation in South Buxton stepped forward to claim the building, assuming that moving an existing building would be easier than building a new structure. In the end, this turned out to not be entirely correct, but money was raised and the building was partially disassembled and moved to the lot near the corner of High (now Cricklin) Avenue and Potts Lane.

Over the years, it housed several religious and secular groups without anything of note happening to it. Most recently, it served three years as the home of an accounting temp staffing firm, before being abandoned in 2002.
– RJ White

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