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The Secret Life of Buildings: Boathouse Row

The most iconic view of Philadelphia is not Independence Hall, the “Rocky” steps, or even the skyline — It’s Boathouse Row, the National Historic Landmark of mid-19th century buildings nestled along the banks of the Schuylkill River behind the Art Museum. 

History

Philly has an abundance of firsts. It’s home to the first university, hospital, library, and bank. However, few people are aware that our city is acknowledged as the birthplace of rowing for the nation. The building of the Fairmount Waterworks in 1812 and the Fairmount Dam in 1819 altered the nature of the Schuylkill River from a rushing stream to a relatively calm lake that gave way to more recreational use. By the 1850s, Philadelphia had developed a robust middle class seeking a form of leisure. Their solution? Rowing on the Schuylkill River which, at the time, was used to transport coal from the mountains of Pennsylvania. 

The first of the thirteen rowing clubs currently in existence on boathouse row was Bachelors Barge Club, established in 1853. The Bachelor’s boathouse is the fourth structure in the row and it currently houses the rowing programs for Drexel University and Wharton School of Business Crew.

The next rowing club to form was University Barge Club founded by Penn students in 1854. They are the organizers of the annual Thomas Eakins Head of the Schuylkill Regatta. An acclaimed Philadelphia artist, Eakins painted fourteen sculling scenes, the most famous of which, Max Schmidt in a Single Sculling, hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Undine Barge Club opened in 1856. One thing that makes their building, #13 on the row, worthy of a second look is that it was designed by famed Philadelphia architect Frank Furness in 1882. Made of stone and wood, the boathouse’s exterior features a tower referencing the Undine myth and exhibits bold hues of red and green. In Boathouse Row The Book, the author mentions that Furness “loved using reds and greens in his buildings, the “colors of nature,” he called them. “Nature,” he wrote,  “never makes a mistake in taste.”

Boathouse #13, Photo: Undine Barge Club

Boathouse #14 is of particular note, being the oldest surviving structure built on the row after the city condemned the original flimsy wooden boathouses built along the river. The two and a half story boathouse was designed by cartographer and architect James C. Sidney and was originally home to the Philadelphia Skating Club and Humane Society building. The boathouse with its distinctive cupola retains a lot of its original architectural integrity and now houses the Philadelphia Girls Rowing Club, the oldest active rowing club for women established in 1938. The Undine Barge Club also rented the structure prior to building their own.

Boathouse #14. Photo: Philadelphia Girls Rowing Club
Stella Sokolowska Peters and Betty McManus Wilkins, 1938. Photo: Philadelphia Girls Rowing Club)

Each club on Boathouse Row is a member of the Schuylkill Navy of Philadelphia, the oldest amateur athletic governing body in America. As a governing body, the Schuylkill Navy still hosts many races, including bringing the Dad Vail Rowing Regatta, the largest intercollegiate rowing competition in the United States, to Philly.

Olympic Dreams

Vesper Boat Club, founded in 1865, was a club focused on developing champions.  They produced the first Olympic men’s rowing gold medal in 1900, winning gold again in 1904 and 1964, the only club in the U.S. to produce eight Olympic champions.

Renowned Vesper champions include John B. Kelly, Sr. (father of Princess Grace) and later his son, John B. Kelly, Jr.  Kelly, Sr. won the Olympic single scull in 1920 and 1924.  At the time of his death, Kelly, Jr. was the president of the U.S. Olympic Committee.

In 1970, after a century of accomplishments, Vesper became the first men’s club to organize a women’s team.  Six Vesper women participated in the 1976 Olympics.

Sustainability

Remember when the Schuylkill was dark brown sludge, unsafe for swimming or even boating? Once again, there is a renewed effort to dredge the river. Big Dig Depth Restoration of the Schuylkill is a $4.5 million campaign sponsored by the Schuylkill Navy. 

The objective is to ensure continuing safe access to the river. Silt build-up threatens the ability to launch from rowing club docks along the row and safe conduct by river users. Whether you are a rower, biking enthusiast, or simply enjoy walking along Kelly Drive, the River’s health is crucial to Philadelphia’s environmental goals.

Save the date

This year, the Thomas Eakins Head of the Schuylkill Regatta will be held Oct 30-31st, 8 am-6 pm.  Kelly Drive will be closed so hop on your bike and bring a picnic lunch and blanket to watch from anywhere along either side of the drive. Or bring a sketch pad and discover what inspired painter Thomas Eakins.

Boathouse Rentals

Since boathouses started as social clubs, it’s natural that many of them are available today for private parties, weddings, and business meetings. Several of them have beautifully paneled bars, dining areas, and stunning river views. boathouserow.org has an inquiry form you can use to get in touch about planning an event. 

This article is part of a series titled “The Secret Life of Buildings” where we write about the history and architecture behind Philadelphia’s buildings. We’ve covered row house stylescommon Philadelphia brick stylestrinity homes,and star bolts, among other topics. What else would you like to learn about? Follow us and DM us on Facebook or Instagram to let us know!