The making of a boathouse:
The C. Bernard Shea '16 Rowing Center
Photographs by Nick Wheeler
On a cold Saturday morning in February 1996,
a loud crash interrupted the meeting of the Princeton University
Rowing Association (PURA) trustees. After nearly 85 years,
a large, multipaned window of the venerable Class of 1887
Boathouse had separated from its decayed hinges and smashed
to the ground.
That crash marked the beginning of an unprecedented
effort that reached its fruition with the magnificent renovation
of the boathouse and its expansion into the C. Bernard Shea
'16 Rowing Center, now considered the best rowing facility
in the world.
Rowing alumnus and architect Jeff Peterson
'84 was enlisted for a preliminary evaluation. With rudimentary
plans and a rough cost estimate, the PURA trustees unanimously
resolved at their next meeting to proceed with an effort to
generate support in order to address the needs of a flourishing
Princeton rowing program. Nearly 200 men and women members
of four varsity and four freshman teams participate in a year-round
sport (some say religion) that has yielded numerous eastern
and national championships in the last decade. Princeton's
Lake Carnegie is so ideal a location for rowing that it hosts
the U.S. national men's rowing team.
During visits with then-President Harold
T. Shapiro *64, Athletic Director Gary Walters ë67, Director
of Physical Planning Jon Hlafter '61, and then-Vice President
for Development Van Williams '65, the PURA described a different
kind of campaign for support a broad and participatory
effort with many donors. After due consideration, the university
In April 1997, hundreds of rowing alumni
filled Jadwin Gymnasium to celebrate Princeton's 125 years
of rowing, 75 years of lightweight rowing, 25 years of women's
rowing, and the birth of women's lightweight rowing, and the
PURA announced the effort to renew Princeton's rowing facilities
as a part of the university's anniversary campaign.
The PURA made three commitments that evening:
1) The project would be done right, for the future of Princeton
2) The boathouse would be returned to its former splendor;
3) Equitable facilities would be built for all the men's and
women's crews that comprise Princeton rowing.
(They also added that they intended to surpass
the sputtering attempts of their friends in New Haven who
had been pursuing a new boathouse for more than a decade.)
To design the project, the university called
upon two Princeton alumni at the 60-person architectural firm
of Architectural Resources Cambridge, Inc. Founded in 1969,
ARC had done work for some of the nation's most highly respected
educational institutions, both at the collegiate and preparatory
level. Henry S. (Dusty) Reeder '61 served as principal-in-charge,
and Jeff Peterson '84 became the project architect. (He has
since started his own firm, Peterson Architects, also in Cambridge,
specializing in projects for private schools, colleges and
universities.) Jeff has an extensive background in rowing
including rowing on the national team and coaching
and he has worked on the design of several rowing facilities.
Of particular interest for this project, he lived in the tower
of the boathouse while coaching Princeton's freshman lightweight
crew in 1985.
The boathouse is the first part of Princeton
one sees upon arrival, and the last upon departure. Reeder
and Peterson elected to maintain the well-recognized exterior
but refocused the entrance, especially, to the tower. The
20,000 square-foot interior was demolished. Racing shells
continue to be stored on the first level along with the new
Class of '68 shop, and a grand stairway was added in the tower
leading to a main gallery constructed along the water side
on the second floor. Two spacious locker rooms, one for men
and one for women (the gift of Mary and Lon Israel '45), are
entered from the photo-covered hallway. The huge Club Room
and the Sikes Room were restored, and a two-bedroom apartment
The matching locker rooms symbolize the strength
of the unified and thus uncommon Princeton rowing
program. Men and women, heavyweights, openweights and lightweights,
are equal and mutually supportive components of Princeton
The new 13,500 square-foot addition, the
Prentke Training Center, is modern yet resonates comfortably
with the old boathouse. It contains state-of-the-art facilities
and equipment: the new 16-person Ohrstrom/Firestone rowing
tank, two additional boat bays, coaches' offices, and four
training rooms, including the spectacular Frantz Training
Room accentuated by tall windows, exposed timber trusses and
On a typical winter day, the new training
center is filled with scores of men and women, lightweights,
openweights, and heavyweights, who comprise what Heather Smith,
coach of the three-time national champion women's lightweights,
describes as the "Princeton rowing family." The
result is a refreshing, modern facility that not only unifies
the old and the new boathouse, but also restores the picturesque
view from the bridge, welcoming visitors, faculty, students
and alumni to the Princeton Campus.
From its beginnings in the 19th century,
the abiding tradition of Princeton rowing has been the breadth
and depth of support from its alumni and friends.
The very first Princeton crew "united their purses as
well as their purposes" to purchase their first two boats
from Yale. (One of them promptly sank to the bottom of the
canal on its first outing, which may have been the root cause
of the continuing rivalry with our friends in New Haven.)
Lake Carnegie and hundreds of acres around
it were given to the university for rowing in 1906 through
the efforts of rowing alumnus William A. Butler 1876.
The Class of 1887 was inspired by rowing
alumni to build the boathouse. In April 1913, the Alumni Weekly
noted that "this healthful and interesting form of athletics
has now won for itself a well recognized place. Unlike other
leading sports, however, rowing cannot pay for itself, but,
on the other hand, the policy of our rowing authorities requires
a very modest expense in comparison with the large sums for
the support of crews at other universities." Throughout
the ensuing years, every boat and every piece of equipment
in the boathouse has been provided by rowing alumni and friends.
The PURA once again went into action
to support the boathouse renewal effort. Mac Lewis '68 chaired
an unprecedented appeal to raise the necessary funds.
Three generations of Princeton rowing enthusiasts
gathered on the shore of Lake Carnegie in October 2000 for
the dedication of the Shea Rowing Center. Brilliant sunshine
enhanced a colorful scene: approximately 500 current and former
rowers, families and friends, many wearing the orange-and-black
T-shirts designed for the occasion; clusters of orange and
black balloons decorating the ceremonial platform; lustrous
orange-and-black banners flying from the boathouse tower;
and Lake Carnegie itself, reflecting the autumn foliage along
Speakers included President Shapiro, architect
Peterson, Director of Athletics Walters, and PURA president
Dick Prentke '67. Prentke noted the "stunning generosity"
of Irene C. Shea w'16, whose $4-million gift, along with the
gifts of 1,200 other donors totaling another $4 million, made
possible the new facility. Plaques in the second floor tower
list donors representing classes from 1916 to 2003.
Mrs. Shea herself received a standing ovation
and sustained cheers when she rose to speak of "my dear
husband" and her desire "to do something to recognize
his love for Princeton and his dedication to rowing."
Commenting on the "joy in this place," she said,
"I owe you a debt of gratitude for the joy you have given
me." There wasn't a dry eye in the house.
The Shea Rowing Center was recently awarded
a 2001 Facility of Merit Award by Athletic Business Magazine.
Director of Athletics Walters observed that "The award
is a tremendous compliment to those of us at the university
who worked in concert with the Princeton University Rowing
Association and with Architectural Resources Cambridge. Our
boathouse is recognized as being perhaps the finest rowing
center in the world, and it was honored for its overall design
Encompassing the most technologically advanced
training facilities, an elegantly designed new edifice and
the completely refurbished Class of 1887 Boathouse, the C.
Bernard Shea '16 Rowing Center marks the start of a new era
for Princeton crew. In addition to Princeton's crews, the
rowing center is also used for receptions and events, including
the annual Princeton Varsity Club senior awards banquet and
the Princeton athletic department holiday party.
The new rowing center has become a must-see
stop for many prospective Princeton students not limited
to rowers. Curtis Jordan, head heavyweight men's rowing coach
and Princeton rowing icon for 22 years, reflected in his understated
but intense manner that "our rowers will do the job,
whatever it takes, [but] the difference is, now we have a
facility that matches the caliber and intensity of our athletes."