A Home on the Schuylkill River
The story of the Philadelphia Girls’ Rowing Club and its historic boathouse is intertwined with the development of Fairmount Park. Both rowing and skating became popular on the Schuylkill River early in the 19th century. The building of the Waterworks in 1812 and the Fairmount Dam in 1819 altered the nature of the river from a rushing stream to a relatively calm lake. Thus, the river became ideal for rowing and sculling, and, when frozen, for skating.
The first recorded regatta on the Schuylkill River took place in 1833. Rowing was an increasingly popular pastime in those days, and professionals began to dominate the competitions. In 1858, the Schuylkill Navy, comprised of nine Philadelphia boat clubs, was formed in order to promote amateur rowing on the river. The Schuylkill Navy is the oldest sport’s governing body in the country.
The Philadelphia Skating Club was founded in 1849 to promote the sport of skating but also to secure proper safety procedures for rescuing people who broke through the ice. In 1861, the Humane Society merged with the skating club. The Philadelphia Skating Club and Humane Society first petitioned the city for the use of public land on the east shore of the Schuylkill River to build a clubhouse. In 1859 the city had condemned several flimsy wooden boathouses that had been built along the river, and in 1860, passed an ordinance allowing the member clubs of the Schuylkill Navy and the Philadelphia Skating Club and Humane Society to construct durable clubhouses.
Architecture & Tenants
The newly formed Philadelphia Skating Club and Humane Society was granted a tract of land along the river to build their clubhouse. British-born Philadelphia cartographer and architect James C. Sidney was chosen to design the building. He planned it along the lines of the Italianate style, popular at that time. He seems to have been influenced by the ideas of another leading contemporary architect, Samuel Sloan, who stressed the importance of adapting a building's style to its geographical setting.
Other architects also had some hand in the design of the building, including William S. Andrews, who had prepared an earlier plan for the building. Sidney, however, revised these early ideas when the Skating Club and Humane Society decided on a larger building with basement space to rent out to boating clubs who had lost their own earlier wooden clubhouses.
Upon completion of the building by the construction firm of E. Bender & Co. in the spring of 1861 for a cost of $4,990 (well over the original budget of $3,300), the Skating Club immediately began to rent out space in the basement to rowing clubs. The structure had been designed to provide ample storage room for boats and equipment in the basement. The earliest tenants were the University Barge Club and the Undine Barge Club. Both stayed until they received permission from the newly established Fairmount Park Commission to construct their own clubhouses. University Barge moved into its new headquarters at Boathouses 7 and 8 completed in conjunction with the Philadelphia Barge Club in 1870. Undine remained as a tenant at 14 Kelly Drive on Boathouse Row until 1883 when its new, Furness-designed clubhouse was completed next door at 13 Boathouse Row. In 1884, the basement area was rented to the Iona Boat Club who used the entire house during the summer months when there was no skating. The last tenant, from 1897-1902, was the Sedgeley Club, the first women's boating club on the Schuylkill. In 1902, they had completed and moved into their own club at 15 Boathouse Row.
In the early 20th century, with the first construction of artificially frozen skating rinks in the area, the popularity and membership of the Philadelphia Skating Club and Humane Society declined. By 1937, they had moved from this site on the Schuylkill River to their new home with artificial rink in Ardmore.
On the exterior, the Philadelphia Girls’ Rowing Club boathouse stands, for the most part, unchanged from the days it was built. In the early 1930s, the back porch was enclosed to extend the basement storage area. In the 1994, the original tin roofs were replaced with bitumen. A red coating was added to protect and simulate the look of the original tin roofing. Also completed in the 1990s, the Club repaired the wood brackets under the eaves, and replaced the front door. All the alterations were completed in concert with the Philadelphia Historic Commission to mirror the original structure as closely as possible.
As home to the Philadelphia Girls' Rowing Club, the house has the distinction of symbolizing both the history of the sport of rowing as well as the place of women in a predominantly male sport. Due to its prominent location just downstream from the bend in the river and as the earliest of the surviving Boathouse Row structures, it serves to anchor the other houses strung along the banks. Through their rowing prowess and acclaim both nationally and internationally, these clubs have made Philadelphia an important name in the world of rowing; these elegant and picturesque houses are a well-known and much cherished symbol of Philadelphia.
Boathouse Row was declared a National Historic Landmark and was added to the National Register in February of 1984. The Philadelphia Girls’ Rowing Club boathouse itself was listed in the Philadelphia Register of Historic Sites in January of 1984. Today, the two-and-half-story clubhouse with its distinctive cupola appears very closely as originally built. The integrity of the building is endangered due to structural problems as a result of age, settling and foundation weaknesses. Proper maintenance and management will guarantee that the building will stand in use well into the future.
The aim of the Philadelphia Girls’ Rowing Club is to preserve the building in its original exterior appearance through careful maintenance and approved preservation techniques.
A complete report on the building, The Philadelphia Girls’ Rowing Club: An Incremental Historic Structure Report, was written by Anna Stillner for her Master's thesis. See also Submission to the Philadelphia Historical Commission, by Susan Anderson, 1980.