Boathouse Row

Philadelphia City, Philadelphia County, PA

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Boathouse Row

Boathouse Row (1-15 East River Street), a National Historic Landmark, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document.

Boathouse Row's boat and barge clubs and skating club came into existence to serve the recreational needs of Philadelphians. The clubs and their parent organization, the Schuylkill Navy, have spread Philadelphia's name throughout the rowing world. The Schuylkill Navy's role is of particular importance. Formed in 1858, it is the oldest amateur governing body in sports in the United States. Indeed, the Navy's restriction of its contests to amateurs, beginning in 1872, contributed directly to clarifying the distinction between amateur and professional sports. [1]

Many of the Navy's premier oarsmen have become national and international champions. The Olympics have served as the setting of some of the most significant of these victories. A Vesper Boat Club eight won the gold medal in 1900. John B. Kelly, Sr., was the first American to win the singles, in 1920. American representation in 1920. 1924, 1928, and 1932 consisted solely, with the exception of the eights, of oarsmen from the Schuylkill Navy.

The growth of the sport over the years has brought Philadelphia fame as a major center for rowing, recognized not only for the Schuylkill Navy but also for the emergence and location of other governing bodies (the Philadelphia Scholastic Rowing, Middle States Regatta, and Dad Vail Rowing Associations) in Philadelphia. In addition, the Navy shares its quarters in Boat House 114 with the United States Rowing Association, the national governing body for rowing in this country (founded in 1873 as the National Association of Amateur Oarsmen).

The individual rowing clubs are of interest. They include both the oldest continuously existing club in the United States and the oldest women's club.

The architectural variety of the boathouses and the prominent individuals and firms associated with their design make them of considerably more interest than typical late 19th- and early 20th-century utilitarian buildings.


At an early stage in Philadelphia's history, residents of the area used the river to swim and fish.[2] Inns and hotels sprang up beside the riverbanks to cater to those who wished to frequent the area for hunting, fishing, sleighing, skating, or just to enjoy the inns' hospitality in a picturesque rural setting. As the city grew to the Schuylkill's banks, the river became increasingly used for recreation.

In the early 19th century the erection of the Fairmount Water Works and Fairmount Dam altered the river from a tidal stream to a very long freshwater lake that eventually drowned the cataract known as the Falls of Schuylkill. This change provided a relatively calm surface which, when frozen, was ideal for skaters and, when not frozen, became one of the finest courses available in the United States for a sport then in its infancy: rowing.

Indeed, the Schuylkill River and rowing became inextricably linked for: much of the history of the sport. The first recorded regatta on the Schuylkill occurred in 1835 between the Blue Devils and the Imps Barge Clubs.[3] Earlier contests had probably taken place: the University of Pennsylvania claims that it first raced in 1801 against the Atalanta Boat Club of New York City. The excitement generated by the 1835 race sparked the formation of many rowing clubs, most of them short-lived. The surviving Clubs, however, eventually recognized the Reed for an organization to control the aport and to prevent it from becoming a victim of shady practices and fixed races.

During much of the 19th century, professional rowers dominated the sport much as professional athletes dominate many sports today the formation of the Schuylkill Navy in 1858 resulted from the clubs' intent to promote amateurism on the river the rules of the Navy expressly prohibited the acceptance of any wagered money. Non-adherence led to expulsion. The success of the Navy and similar organizations throughout the country contributed heavily to the extinction of the professional rower.

In 1855, the City of Philadelphia declared the Lemon Hill Estate, purchased by the city in 1844, a public park to be known as "Fairmount Park." A leaseholder, who was using the Lemon Hill Estate as a beer garden, had allowed several boat clubs to erect houses along the river. The ramshackle nature of these structures prompted the city to condemn them in 1859. Pressure brought to bear upon the City by the various boat clubs and the Schuylkill Navy resulted in the passage of ordinances in 1860 that permitted the construction of three boathouses by the Pacific Boat Club and the clubs comprising the Schuylkill Navy, and allowed the Philadelphia Skating Club to erect a house.

Skating had become so popular a sport that in 1849 the Philadelphia Skating Club was formed to promote the sport and rescue skaters in danger. The lifesaving record of the club soon eclipsed that of the older Philadelphia Humane Society and the two organizations merged in 1861, as the Philadelphia Skating Club and Humane Society.

Some clubs soon erected boathouses in much the former way although brick and stone structures replaced the earlier frame buildings. The city government exercised little or no control over their construction and design. After the enlargement of Fairmount Park in 1867, however, the Park Commission in 1868, received the authority to review and approve plans for structures in the park. With this authority the Commission ordered the removal of all but the Skating Club building and those that housed the Pacific and Bachelors Barge Clubs.

The clubs then began to erect more aesthetic, rather than strictly utilitarian, buildings. By 1872, they had erected a number of stone boathouses, primarily in a Victorian Gothic style favored by park architects in the period. Again, in accordance with the accepted thought of the day, the Commission dictated the use of stone for all new construction.

Eventually, sentiment shifted. People came to feel that styles other than Victorian Gothic fitted well into park settings; the boat clubs were allowed to erect houses in a variety of styles, including Mediterranean, Picturesque Victorian (Eastlake), Shingle, and Colonial Revival. The Commission also let the clubs build with materials other than stone, including brick, shingle, and stucco. The clubs proved themselves responsible tenants, which the Commission informally recognized by allowing the construction of new buildings and enlargements that gave the clubs plenty of room to carryon social events as well as provide space for housing boats.

The Schuylkill Navy

The Schuylkill Navy began in 1858 with nine clubs and approximately 300 members. In 1983, its 125th year, it boasted a membership or ten clubs and more than 1200 participating rowers. The ten clubs (with dates of joining) are the University (1858). Undine (1858), Bachelors (1859-70, 1882-date), Malta (1865), Crescent (1868), Vesper (1870-71, 1819-date), college (1875), Fairmount (1916), Penn Athletic (1925), and Philadelphia Girls (1961). At least 23 other clubs have belonged to the Navy at various times.

The Schuylkill Navy and its member clubs still host many races. In 1953, the Navy convinced the Dad Vail Rowing Association to move its regatta to Philadelphia. It has remained since. The Dad Vail is probably the largest collegiate regatta held and usually signifies the end of the spring rowing season for most collegiate teams. The 45th Annual Dad Vail Regatta (1983) had participating teams from 67 colleges. Other major regattas held each year include the Thomas Eakins Head of the Schuylkill Regatta (sponsored by the University Barge Club) and the Frostbite Regatta. The Navy also sponsors other athletic endeavors including a basketball league and an annual cross country race. The latter has been held since 1899, with a few interruptions during World War II.

Other Boat Clubs

In addition to the clubs in the Navy, other clubs associated with the boathouses over the years have included Sedgeley, LaSalle, West Philadelphia, and lone. Many of the clubs allow scholastic and collegiate clubs to share their facilities.


College Boat Club of the University of Pennsylvania: Originally the University of Pennsylvania was represented in rowing by the University Barge Club which began as a university student club, but soon severed its ties. In 1872, students founded the "College Boat Club" to represent the University in rowing events. They erected their own house (#11) in 1874-75.

Crescent Boat Club: Members of two clubs, the Pickwick Barge Club and the (first) lone Barge Club, formed the Crescent in 1867. Although not very active today they rent their boathouse (#5) to several collegiate and scholastic teams.

Fairmount Rowing Association: Shortly after formation in 1877, the Fairmount Rowing Association procured the boathouse and equipment of the Pacific Barge Club. In addition to their own boathouse (#2). They acquired the Quaker City Club house (#3) after the latter's demise.

Malta Boat Club: The Malta Boat Club founded in 1860 is the only club which traces its existence to rowing on the Delaware River where they owned a boat and boathouse at Smith's Island. They moved to the Schuylkill in 1863. The club occupies Boat House #9.

Penn Athletic Club Rowing Association: The association traces its roots to 1871 when the West Philadelphia Boat Club was formed. The club erected Boat House #12, which it still occupies in 1978. In 1924 the club became associated with the downtown Penn Athletic Club and changed its name. John B. Kelly. Sr., helped bring prominence to the club in the 1920s and 1930s.

Pennsylvania Barge Club: The Pennsylvania Barge Club existed from 1861 to late 1955 when they turned over their boathouse (#4) to the Schuylkill Navy.

Philadelphia Barge Club: First known as the Panola Barge Club, the Philadelphia Barge Club was organized in 1862. It first occupied a small brick house along with the old Washington Barge Club and replaced it in 1870 in conjunction with the University Barge Club, erecting present Boat Houses #7 and 8. A number of prominent Philadelphia architects belonged to the Philadelphia Barge Club, including Louis C. Baker, Jr., Arthur H. Brockie (who designed Boat House #15), James P. Sims. Emlen L. Stewardson, and John Steward son. The club ceased operation at the end of 1932 and merged with the University Barge Club.

Philadelphia Girls Rowing Club: Composed primarily of wives of oarsmen who wished to participate in this mostly all-male sport, the Philadelphia Girls Rowing Club was organized in 1938. It is the oldest active such club in existence. They first rented the Philadelphia Skating Club and Humane Society building (Boathouse #14) and around 1965 obtained full title to it.

Bachelors Barge Club: Organized in 1853, the Bachelors Barge Club claims to be the oldest boat club in existence today. It presently occupies Boat House #6.

Quaker City Barge Club: Organized in 1858, the club entered many races during its 74-year existence, and held the honor of competing in the first Pour-Oared Shell with Coxswain race in 1870. It ceased active operations at the end of 1932.

Sedgeley Club: Formed in 1897 as the Bicycle, Barge and Canoe Club, this group's name was soon changed to the Sedge ley Club. They first occupied quarters in Boat House #14 and applied for permission from the Fairmount Park Commission to erect a new building in 1902. With the support of the University Barge Club, they obtained permission to build #15 Boat House Row. By World War II, the club had become largely a social organization.

Undine Barge Club: Undine Barge Club started operations In 1856, occupying a small frame house along the Schuylkill which the City condemned in 1859. Quartered in '14 Boat House Row from 1860 to 1882, the club Commissioned Furness and Evans to design Boat House #13, which they still occupy, and to which they moved in 1883.

University Barge Club: the University Barge Club dates to 1854. It originally limited membership to students and graduates of the University of Pennsylvania. The club shared the Philadelphia Skating Club and Humane Society house (#14) with Undine before constructing Boat Houses #7 and 8 with the Philadelphia Barge Club. In 193233, University absorbed the latter and took over the entire double house. Like the Philadelphia, the University Club had a number of prominent architect members, including Charles L. Borie, Jr., Clarke Wharton Churchman, James S. Hatfield, George Howe, Sydney E. Martin, George B. Page, and John P. B. Sinkler.

Vesper Boat Club: Founded in 1865, this club operated under the name Washington Barge Club until 1870. In 1872 they joined the Malta Boat Club to erect present Boat Houses #9 and 10. John B. Kelly, Jr., is generally credited with leading the Vesper Club to its greatest successes during the middle of the twentieth century.


> vThe architects of several of the boathouses were well-known figures in the profession. Others are of lesser significance, or were noted for other accomplishments. All were active in the Philadelphia area.

Frank Furness

Furness' works dominated Philadelphia's landscape during the late 19th and early 20th centuries; few still exist. He executed two commissions for the Undine Barge Club, the up-river Castle Ringstetten (1876) and Boat House #13 (1882-83).

George W. and William D. Hewitt

These two brothers joined professional forces in 1878. George had been Furness' partner until 1876. The Hewitts proved their versatility by designing industrial, commercial, ecclesiastical, and residential structures. The Bellevue-Stratford Hotel, the Bourse Building, and the Wissahickon Inn are their most notable surviving buildings. The work they performed On the Malta Boat Club house came at the end of their firm's prolific existence.

Edward Hazlehurst and Samuel Huckel, Jr.

Hazlehurst and Huckel teamed in 1881, forming a 20-year partnership that specialized in ecclesiastical and residential architecture. Their ecclesiastical work includes Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church (a National Historic Landmark) and Union Methodist Church. Examples of their residential commissions are found throughout Germantown and Chestnut Hill. They designed two clubhouses for the Bachelors Barge Club: the "Bachelor's Button" in the East Falls neighborhood in 1882-83 and Boat House #6 in 1893-94. Huckel became a member of the club shortly after the boathouse was completed.

Louis Hickman

Hickman never attained the recognition accorded to many of his peers. His work within the T-Square Club and the renovation of the Merchants Exchange Building have come down as some of his most notable accomplishments. He designed the Pennsylvania Barge Club at the beginning of his career in a Picturesque Victorian style. The addition of a second story in 1912 modified his original design.

Clarence Schermerhorn

contributed heavily to architectural literature with Architectural studies (1902), House Hints for Those Who Buy, Rent, or Sell (1902), "How to Go About Planning Your House" (1916), and Home Building Hints (1924), among others. He also became one of the first architects in the country to broadcast on the radio, with his brochure "Services of an Architect" being read over the air on thirty stations. His specialty lay in the field of domestic architecture. The Pennsylvania Barge Club hired him in 1912 to add the second story to their Hickman-designed building.

James C. Sidney

James C. Sidney, a cartographer, surveyor, and architect, designed the Philadelphia Skating Club building in 1860. He also wrote five parts of a proposed ten-part series entitled American Cottage and Village Architecture. In 1859, working with a partner, Andrew Adams, he produced an early landscape plan for Fairmount Park. During the late 1860s, he designed numerous school buildings in the city, few of which stand. Sidney has been overshadowed by his contemporaries Thomas U. Walter and John Notman.

Walter D. Smedley

Smedley specialized in residential architecture, principally in the Colonial Revival styles. He also executed some notable designs for Philadelphia-area banks (principally the Northern National Bank and the West Philadelphia Title and Trust Company) and other commercial buildings. The Fairmount Boat Club house is only one of several structures Smedley contributed to Fairmount Park.

Arthur H. Brockie

The Sedgeley Club building (1902-03) represents one of Brockie's earliest commissions. His reputation is based chiefly upon his residential designs, many of which still exist in Germantown and Chestnut Hill. His interest in Boat House Row was not limited to his role as one of its architects: his bosses, John and Emlen Stewardson, belonged to the Philadelphia Barge Club and he joined the University Barge Club in 1902.

Charles Balderston

Balderston's work consisted chiefly of alterations and additions to existing buildings. His work on the Crescent Boat Club, in 1890-91, came during his first years as an independent architect.

Howard Hagar

The alterations and additions to the Vesper Boat Club in 1898 were his major work within the central portions of the city.


  1. "Amateur Athlete," in Frank G. Menke, The Encyclopedia of Sports, (New York: A. S. Barnes & Co., 1975), pp. 11-12. 5th rev. ed.
  2. The bulk of the data contained in this statement is edited and condensed from Jefferson Moak's 1983 nomination of Boat House Row for designation as a Philadelphia City Landmark.
  3. J.T. Scharf and Thompson Westcott, History of Philadelphia, 1609-1884 (Philadelphia: 1884), II, 1870-1871.

Nearby Neighborhoods

Street Names
East River Drive • Kelly Drive


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