The First Women on Boathouse Row
In contrast to the very muscular houses of Boathouse Row where, upon entering, one can almost smell the sweat of returning rowers, at Sedgeley the décor is velvet settees and Royal Doulton china tea cups. For this is a women’s social club and one which cherishes its deep history.
Sedgeley, at Number 15, is actually where women first got a toehold on Boathouse Row.
According to its booklet, “The Light on Turtle Rock, “ Sedgeley was started in 1897 by a group of women who belonged to the downtown all-women’s Acorn Club. They enjoyed canoeing, biking or driving horses in Fairmount Park and wanted a place on the Row so that they could “seek shelter from a thunder storm or have something to eat or drink before returning to town.” Or, to quote Anna Estes Strawbridge (wife of Francis R. Strawbridge of clothing store fame) “a small oasis for friendship, where world burdens can temporarily be laid aside and happiness and pleasure enjoyed.” I toured the club recently with its president, Deborah Firth, who was disappointed that my book Boathouse Row did not mention the dynamic woman who drove the founding of Sedgeley – Margaret Longstreth Corlies. By 1898, within a year of Miss Corlies’ posting of a notice at the downtown women’s Acorn Club, asking for interest in forming a riverside club, Sedgeley had grown to 200 members. Initially, the women rented the old Skating Club building. But wanting their own larger, more elegant quarters, the club in 1902 petitioned Fairmount Park for a location on the Row. The Fairmount Park commissioners turned them down.
Writing about the experience, Miss Corlies (as she was called) later said: “I was informed by a most prominent citizen that ‘there was no influence or power in the city that could give us the site.’ This nettled me sorely and I determined that the site should be ours.
“We’re talking 18 years before women had the right to vote!” explained Deborah Firth. “This woman was on the cutting edge of ‘let’s be athletic.’” Miss Corlies would not be denied. She and the other well-connected women, with surnames such as Biddle and Lippincott, brought their influence to bear. By 1903, their new home, designed by architect Arthur H. Brockie, was completed – the first women’s club in Fairmount Park and one of the first women’s boating clubs in the country. (ZLAC, a recreational women’s rowing club, started in San Diego in 1892. The nation’s first women’s competitive rowing club, Philadelphia Girls Rowing Club, was launched in 1938.)
Socializing, too, was important from the start. After excursions in the park, there were refreshments to be had. A pot of tea for one person cost 10 cents; a plate of crackers, five cents. Group luncheons and dinners were often served.
Like the rest of Boathouse Row, Sedgeley has its interesting quirks and preservation challenges. Its enclosed porch, which extends out from the building toward the river, is difficult to heat. And the porch’s new – and historically compatible – windows and frames cost the club more than $12,000. The porch overlooks the spot where a dock once stood.
“The dock has been challenge,” Deborah said. “We’re on a really hard bend. The dock kept getting undermined and finally was swept away.” Never a sculling club, by the 1940s, Sedgeley did away with its last canoe.
The 19th century lighthouse, built before the club and now contained within its building, rises up through the living room. It, too, has needed conservation – among the issues to which the club’s foundation is dedicated. Want to take a look inside? Each year, on national Lighthouse Day in August, Sedgeley opens the lighthouse to visitors.
But it is the “members room,” with its delicate furnishings that are either original to the house or donated by members, that most captures the heart and charm of Sedgeley. Said Deborah, “We use it lovingly.”
Sedgeley is open Aug 5 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. for free tours on National Lighthouse Day: http://www.sedgeleyclub.org/lighthouse-day.html
To learn more about the Lighthouse on Turtle Rock, built in 1887
(blog first published March 29, 2017)