Web Exclusives:Features

April 10, 2002:

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 agreed.

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 rowing;
2) The boathouse would be returned to its former splendor; and
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 added.

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 rowing.

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 a balcony.

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 its banks.

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 and function."

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."

On of the primary factors in the design of the Shea Rowing Center was the view of the facility from the Washington Road bridge. As a gateway to the university, the Class of 1887 Boathouse offered a picturesque sight with its tower, porch, and launch house.
The ground floor includes two new boat bays and the impressive new Ohrstrom /
Firestone rowing tank. In the tank, the large arched windows frame the 16 rowers, creating a symbolic connection between rowers, lake, and bridge.
To achieve coherence with the existing boathouse, the new addition replicates the bay spacing of the original building, while the clusters of tall windows echo the triple windows of the original building. The addition also features modernized version of the old boathouse's buttresses. The dramatic arch of the rowing tank recalls the form of the Washington Road bridge.
The addition contains generous workout spaces. The Frantz training room is framed with exposed timber trusses reminiscent of those found in the old Club Room. On the south side, a new porch faces both the launchhouse and a new lawn space.
On the second floor, the tower became a sky-lit, two-story space, with mahogany flooring and wainscoting and glass donor-recognition panels. North of the tower is a two-bedroom apartment for freshmen coaches.
Irene C. Shea w’16 cuts the ribbon at the dedication with the assistance of President Shapiro and PURA president Dick Prentke ’67.