Welcome to Secret Philly, an occasional series in which Billy Penn will visit hidden or exclusive places in Philadelphia and write about them.
Take a step into 10 Boathouse Row, walk up the wooden stairs, past a sign outlining history of the house, past a training room, past the space where some of the greatest athletes in the region relax together. Hanging on the wall is a collage of old photos.
Standing in the images are members of the Kelly family — think “Kelly Drive.” There’s John B. Kelly Sr., a three-time Olympic gold medalist in rowing. There’s his son, John B. Kelly Jr., who won the national singles championship eight times and was once president of the United States Olympic Committee. Then there’s his sister Grace Kelly. Maybe you’ve heard of her.
These are some of Paul Horvat’s favorite photos in the house. They adorn a wall on the second floor of the boathouse that belongs to the Vesper Boat Club, the private rowing group that’s produced more Olympians and world champions than any other club in America. Horvat, now the Commodore of the Schuylkill Navy of Philadelphia, has been a member of Vesper since 1973, before he went on to become a national champion.
The 11 structures that line Boathouse Row are an iconic Philly sight, the backs of which can be seen clearly from the Schuylkill Expressway, their lights outlining the homes year round. The 150-year old houses hold histories of their own, and each is owned by a different, private rowing club that uses it to store boats, hold events and prepare for races.
Boathouse Row, identified as a National Historic Landmark, is unique — there isn’t anywhere else in the world where the majority of a region’s rowing clubs are centrally based in one area like this. It’s one of Philadelphia’s most noticeable landmarks. Men’s clothier Brooks Brothers brings its models here for photo shoots. Peco installed lighting here in the 1970s, and Comcast installed Wifi this year.
Each rowing club that owns a house is established as nonprofit corporate organizations and governed by the Schuylkill Navy of Philadelphia, the oldest amateur rowing company in America. No one permanently lives in the houses, but over the years, some young rowers have taken up residence for temporary periods and have served as caretakers of the structures.
These old houses take a lot of upkeep. They were designed by prominent architects of the late 1800s and are set on soggy ground. Club members are expected to volunteer a few dozen hours a year to make sure the houses are kept up with, and some of the dues members of the clubs pay (about $400 to $500 a year per person) are used for maintenance of the houses.
“We welcome all kinds of people, and we invite them here and teach them to row,” Horvat said. “The reason the houses have survived is people are interested in taking care of them. It’s a testament to the love of the membership.”
What’s inside the houses
Each boathouse has a character of its own that reflects the accomplishments of the clubs that use it. Each one is outfitted with a dock along the river, and the bottom levels of the homes are where the clubs keep their boats — ranging from old, wooden single-person boats to long, eight-person racing boats made of fiberglass that can run $40,000 apiece.
Margaret Meigs, vice commodore of the Schuylkill Navy, has been a member of the University Barge Club since the early 1990s when the group went co-ed. An eight-person boat is named after Margaret and her husband and sits in the first floor of the boathouse.
The University Barge Club owns boathouse No. 7, a house that was originally divided in half down the middle — it now has two staircases — to accommodate both the University Barge Club and the Philadelphia Barge Club. Once the Philadelphia Barge Club went under, the house became solely the University Barge Club’s property.
On the other side of the first floor level of Boathouse No. 7 is an old wooden boat that’s no longer in use. It’s called a Lady Boat, and well-off men in the 1900s used it to row the women in their lives to social events up the river.
Around the corner are the dual staircases that lead upstairs to a large open room that’s used for social gatherings and relaxing for the 200-odd members of the club. A massive moose head hangs on the wall — only the antlers are real — and the oar belonging to an Olympic rower that was a club member hangs above a table. Memorabilia adorns the room.
Outside the main gathering room are men’s and women’s changing rooms. The mens room — which smells exactly how you would expect — has dozens of assigned lockers, a shared shower area and reminders all over the walls of the rowers they can become. Each year, plaques are placed on the walls that list the top rowers and how many miles they rowed that year. Some have climbed over 3,000 miles a year.
In the Vesper Boat Club, the second floor looks quite different. At the top of the first set of stairs is a large training room with stationary bikes, rowing devices and other cardio equipment. The walls are covered with images of the Olympians and world champions that came before the people sweating in the training room twice a day.
Renovations of the Vesper house took 10 years and were completed in 2000. At the time, everything was gutted. Now, the boat once rowed by John B. Kelly is mounted on top of the ceiling, and memories from Olympics and championships past — both men’s and women’s — sit in glass cases. Awards from the annual Schuylkill Navy Regatta, the race that’s taking place this weekend, sit on the shelves.
Naturally, this rowing club is difficult to get into. Horvat said the club hosts many young athletes rowing during college, and there’s “a certain level of physical fitness that’s necessary to be a member.” The group currently has five members on a team who will compete at the Pan American games, an international tournament that pits the best of North and South America against each other before they go to the Olympics.
A clock on the outside deck of the Vesper house reads “All Together,” the club’s motto. Each group has a flag and special colors that it’s characterized by.
And with the history and iconic nature these houses hold, Horvat and Meigs said tourists often come by thinking the structures are open to the public. While some tours are granted to reporters or auctioned off for charity, seeing the inside of the houses is still relatively rare.
“These are boat clubs. These aren’t museums,” Horvat said. “We have a lot of amazing memorabilia. But these are really used every day, all year around.”
The rise of rowing
The construction of the Fairmount Dam in the 1830s made the Schuylkill River ideal for rowing. The river used to have rapids around the East Falls area, but the dam calmed it significantly to the point where it has little current. The dam also raised the water level, creating the area around Boathouse Row known in the rowing community as “the Fairmount pool.”
The Schuylkill was, at one point, easy transportation for Philadelphia. Mills in East Falls and Manayunk would use the river to ship materials into the city for processing and distribution, and there was easy access to the Delaware River. Once rowing started in the area, the boathouses were preceded by “basically shacks,” Horvat said.
But by the 1850s and in the years leading up to the Civil War, the city was interested in beautifying the area and essentially said to clubs, “You have to upgrade. Get a plan together and we’ll approve it.” From there, the boathouses were born.
The Schuylkill is really where the sport became popular in America. Rowing at a high level spread from here to Boston, New York, Washington and across the country. The awareness and the popularity has never been higher, Horvat says, especially among high school students where the level of competition has raised significantly. Because of that, colleges are beginning to offer more scholarships and opportunities.
The introduction of women and youth in great numbers started in the 1980s and 90s. These days, half of the rowers who are club members and who use the river for rowing are women. The largest age group of rowers is high schoolers, with nearly 3,500 competing out of clubs on Boathouse Row. The Schuylkill Navy puts on four major regattas a year that fall between May and July, beginning with the Stotesbury Cup Regatta that draws more than 6,000 high school-aged participants from 17 states.
Now, rowers are trying to fight the image of elitism — rowing has for many years been perceived as a sport for rich, white people. But Meigs says the clubs on Boathouse Row are slowly shedding that, increasing diversity over the years and reaching out to underserved populations. A few years ago, Philadelphia City Rowing was created, and the vision is to have an open community boathouse at some point for better access.
“We’re not here because of money or because of a job,” Meigs said. “We’re here because we love to row, and it’s about the love of the sport. Younger people will say, ‘it’s not about status at all.’ People are competing, yes, and they compare mileage rowed. But the rest falls away here.”