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Penn’s Boathouse: Something Old, A Lot That’s New

Starting in 1860, stone boathouses, both substantial and increasingly picturesque, began rising along the Schuylkill River. But in 1875, when rowers at the University of Pennsylvania finally stepped into their newly built boathouse, it set a higher bar for the neophyte Boathouse Row.

 “The house is all that could be desired by the most exacting, containing all the conveniences and appliances necessary for a complete boat house, and for the comfort of the members,” the University Magazine reported. “It has the largest boat room on the river and surpasses in its conveniences many of the houses, while in beauty of finish and symmetry of form it is unsurpassed.”

College Boathouse, built 1874-75

That was then. Today, the College Boathouse at 11 Boathouse Row is in the process of again breaking new ground as shabby, outdated additions are demolished to create a state-of-the-art space for Penn’s athletes. At the same time, it will preserve and restore some historical features so critical to maintaining the character of Boathouse Row.

“The building was in a terrible state of disrepair, with foundations cracking in the 1920 addition,” said architect Andrew Donaldson-Evans, regional director of design for the EwingCole architectural firm and designer of the College rebuild. It had also fallen woefully behind both its collegiate rivals and other Boathouse Row clubs in terms of functional spaces for its crews and coaches, he said. “It needed a lot of love.”

Sketch of new Penn boathouse as it will be seen from Schuylkill. Courtesy Ewing Cole

Penn’s crews are rowing out of a tent on the river’s west side until the project’s completion next August. The cost is estimated at $13.5 million.

A look at Penn’s original boathouse, subsequent additions and its current ambitions tell a story bigger than that of one structure. It tells a story of the ways that Boathouse Row evolved as it tried to keep pace with the technological changes that made crew shells ever sleeker and faster as well as the societal changes that brought women into what was once called a “manly sport” where they sat as passengers in “ladies boats,” rowed upstream by their beaus.

The original College Boathouse structure was a narrow two-story brownstone building with just a single boat bay and a tiny wooden balcony above it facing the river. A signature element was an arched tripartite window, one on each side of the building. For the Row at that time, the second story offered an innovation– an elegant upstairs reception room with carved wooden beams in the era’s popular Eastlake style. The room addressed members’ growing desire to be more than a sporting club but also a social club – a place where they could enjoy their cigars and whisky and even bring dates (during certain hours on Sundays, anyway).

But almost as soon as it was built, the College Boathouse was becoming out of date.

Through the late 19th century, the clubs competed architecturally with each other even as they competed on the water. The Undine Barge Club – two houses upriver from Penn and designed by Frank Furness in 1882 – was the first to build a balcony facing what is now Kelly Drive. This feature allowed its prestigious members to look out on passersby and be seen by them as well. Undine also outdid Penn with a much larger boat bay that spanned the length and width of its building, using a modern tied truss system that supported its second floor without columns cluttering its boat room.

The Bachelors Barge Club built an even bigger balcony facing the drive on its 1893 boathouse.  And the imposing Fairmount Rowing Association’s boathouse of 1904 – the last to be built on the Row–boasted sprawling balconies and three boat bays.

Penn waited until 1920 to make its first major change, adding a one-story addition on its south, down-river side with two boat bays to accommodate its burgeoning crew program and the longer eight-oared shells that had come into widespread use. A decade later, it topped part of that addition with a second story, which created space for an erg room. Its stuccoed walls produced a new look for Boathouse Row’s brick and stone structures.

Boathouse Row was then enjoying a particularly exciting era. In 1920, John B. Kelly Sr. won two gold Olympic medals – in the single scull and the double – and was hailed the greatest rower in the world. He won another gold in 1924 and then embarked on a mission to recruit high school kids to his club at that time, the Pennsylvania Athletic Club Rowing Association, to assure its continuing prowess. By 1930, PennAC’s “Big Eight” was the fastest eight in the world. And while the University of Washington’s eight represented the United States at the 1936 “Hitler Olympics,”  the rest of the oarsmen that sailed to Germany all hailed from Philadelphia.

Design of new entry hall, Penn Boathouse. Courtesy Ewing Cole

In 1938, a new era began on the all-male Boathouse Row* that would shake its traditions and eventually its architecture. That year, a group of secretaries and clerks took hold of the Philadelphia Skating Club at 14 Boathouse Row and started the Philadelphia Girls Rowing Club, the first competitive women’s rowing organization in the country.  

Nonetheless, it would take 30 years before any other clubs on the Row would begin to crack open their doors to women. In the late 1960s, recognizing that women’s rowing would finally become an Olympic sport, John B. Kelly Jr. (brother of Grace Kelly) began recruiting and training women. He wanted his club, Vesper, to be in the vanguard.

After the 1973 passage of Title IX, which barred gender discrimination in educational programs, and the debut of women’s rowing at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, the clubs of Boathouse Row began tackling the challenge of carving out space for women in their crowded 19th century buildings.  All but two of the 11 clubs on the Row eventually went co-ed (the exceptions being the all-male Malta and PGRC.).  Most cut off a chunk of their men’s locker room to do so.

Demolition of 1920 addition College Boathouse, prior to rebuild

For its women, Penn in 1980 added a second stuccoed wing – this time on its northern, upriver side, giving women a locker room and one boat bay while the men had two. The men also largely occupied the historical part of the building. The women’s side was “institutional, aluminum windows, concrete block, with less charm,” said Donaldson-Evans. “It didn’t feel balanced.” Central to the current renovations,  he said, was to correct the gender discrepancies. The interior of the 1980 addition will be gutted and totally revamped with new wood-clad windows, new showers, tiles, lighting and more.

The demolition and total reconstruction of the 1920 wing might leave some with the impression that Penn is doing a land-grab on the tightly packed Row, but the footprint of the building is not changing. However, its total interior square-footage will grow from 10,552 to 13,034 square feet through the second-floor infill addition that will house a large erg room that can be used for social events as well as the men’s locker rooms. Other improvements will be a more welcoming entry into the 1875 part of the boathouse with a lofty “grand hall” on its second floor with space for a conference table, an updated AV system for team debriefs and a lounge area. With ADA accessibility a huge problem for the Row, Penn will be installing an elevator. 

As for its profile on the Row, said Donaldson-Evans, “it’s a historically sensitive addition and renovation” that won the approval of Fairmount Park and the Philadelphia Historical Commission.  He thinks that the changes will  “not be noticeable,” though people on Kelly Drive may notice the loss of a large red oak tree that he said could not be saved.  From the river, some may notice two new minimalist balconies and a wooden historical restoration in the center, echoing the long-gone 1875 original. Unlike the other houses, Penn has not had a riverside balcony for more than a century.

To see a video and photos showcasing plans of Penn’s renovated boathouse, go to:

*Sedgeley, a women’s social club, in 1903 was the first toehold for women on the Row but it was a women’s social club, not a dedicated rowing club.

Note: I wrote this article for the Head of the Schuylkill Regatta’s 2021 program book.