A Boathouse Rehabilitation Underscores the University of Pennsylvania’s Values while Showcasing Its Legacy

University of Pennsylvania, Boathouse, rowing team, EwingCole

1st Place, Historic

Boathouse Row, located along a scenic stretch of the Schuylkill River, is one of Philadelphia’s most cherished landmarks and includes the Burk-Bergman Boathouse, home to the University of Pennsylvania’s three varsity rowing programs. Constructed in 1874, it is one of the oldest boathouses in the country. However, the facility has not been able to keep pace with the program’s demands and needed a comprehensive renovation to help Penn Rowing meet its full potential.

The rehabilitation and reuse of the boathouse represents the most significant individual investment by the university in preserving and augmenting a key cultural structure. At the start of the project, EwingCole’s design team, working with the university’s leadership in Facilities and Athletics, recognized the outsize importance of its success. It would bolster Penn athletics and recruiting, but—just as importantly—it would also help protect Boathouse Row’s legacy and affirm Penn’s past, present and future contribution to the sport of rowing in Philadelphia.

  • The shed dormers facing the river, on the 1930 and 1980 additions, were modified to create discrete, inset balconies, thereby giving occupants a chance to step outside and survey the dock and waterway from the second floor—an amenity that each of the other 15 historic boathouses along Boathouse Row has.
  • Reconfigured program spaces include a soaring entrance lobby, featuring
trophies and memorabilia.
  • BEFORE: The entry hall. PHOTO: EwingCole
  • Several elements of the renovation are given new purpose and become focal points of the design. For example, the grand hall features the historic vaulted ceiling and a massive team table made from a stout oak tree that had been in front of the boathouse on Kelly Drive but couldn’t be saved.
  • The new ERG room (bottom left) has been expanded to accommodate larger workouts and host special events.
  • HISTORIC: Burk-Bergman Boathouse, circa 1930. PHOTO: EwingCole

Maintaining the Spirit of Rowing

In many ways, the historical significance of the project site along Boathouse Row in Philadelphia needs little explanation. Boathouse Row provides an indelible experience for visitors and residents alike as part of a continuum of scenic points of interest along the river. Not only are the image and experience of the place remarkable, but it also is the spiritual heart of the sport of rowing in America. 

Beginning with a feasibility study in 2018, EwingCole explored myriad planning and design options that met Penn’s programmatic needs for a modern rowing facility within the site’s constraints and historic fabric. Penn’s boathouse was built in 1874, with additions constructed in 1920, circa 1930 and 1980. The study and subsequent project design were based on the university’s wide array of goals: increase functionality and usable space, bolster recruiting and showcase Penn Rowing, balance the amenities allocated for men’s and women’s rowing programs, improve accessibility for all occupants, provide space for socializing and special events, remediate deterioration of the structure and create a resilient facility for future use, and preserve and rehabilitate a historic landmark.

The boathouse design itself visibly demonstrates Penn’s commitment to equity and inclusivity in several ways. The owner’s desire to create an equitable facility was not window-dressing; it is deeply reflected in the design, impacting the plan configuration and the technical resolution of the reimagined boathouse interior. The message this creates is a refreshing update within the historical context of the building.


The design takes care to respect the historic exterior of the structure while completely renovating and modernizing the interior. Various features were replaced or reconstructed with interpretations based on historic photographs and drawings yet designed to meet modern requirements. The shed dormers facing the river, for example, on the 1930 and 1980 additions were modified to create discrete, inset balconies, thereby giving occupants a chance to step outside and survey the dock and waterway from the second floor—an amenity that each of the other 15 historic boathouses along Boathouse Row has. The boat bay garage doors facing the river were replaced with new overhead doors made of fiberglass, which will protect against weather and flooding. They were designed to reference the three-panel wood doors evident in early photographs.

The balconies facing Kelly Drive on the original structure were lost or replaced several times from 1874 to 1930 and had long since been absent. The balcony element was reconstructed because the façade was being upgraded with wood windows to replace aluminum inserts from the 1980s and the masonry was being repaired and repointed.

The design team leveraged scant photographic evidence and some rudimen- tary digital forensics to design a new balcony in a manner sympathetic to the style of the earliest balcony. Reconstructed balconies on both sides of the 1874 building were fashioned out of mahogany and steel for longevity but designed to meet modern code requirements for life-safety and structural performance.

While much of the interior renovation involved significant reconfiguration of partitions, finishes and even structural framing, little was original to the boathouse and its additions. The design team recognized the importance of preserving historical elements wherever possible, adapting the design to incorporate them. Several elements of the renovation are given new purpose and become focal points of the design. Reconfigured program spaces include a soaring entrance lobby and grand hall, featuring trophies and memorabilia, lounge and meeting area with integrated AV, historic vaulted ceiling and a restored balcony overlooking the river. Expanded to accommodate larger workouts and host special events, a panoramic view of the river enhances the new ERG room and skylights provide ambient daylight. An exposed structural system reinterprets the building’s historic king post trusses.

Improved boat storage, a maintenance room and modernized locker rooms, coaches’ rooms and additional support space create a true home for Penn Rowing. Equal space for men and women athletes and a new elevator providing ADA access to the second floor make the building a reflection of Penn’s values and mission of inclusion and opportunity and a showcase for its legacy. The design team replanned access to the ERG room, restored and transformed the damaged exterior façade into a dynamic remnant of the old boathouse, and turned the windows into a two-sided display case for trophies and awards.


Other examples of adaptive reuse of historic fabric, while unconventional, include three natural-edge oak benches and a substantial natural-edge oak slab conference table. Prominently occupying the entry hall and grand hall, these furniture pieces are made from swamp oak, a subspecies of red oak. The source of this wood was a stout oak tree in front of the boathouse on Kelly Drive, which was intended to be saved during early iterations of the design process. After an examination of the root system by arborists, it was determined that disease and soil conditions put the tree at risk of falling. The tree’s caliper width, following rules of the Fairmount Park Commission, was replaced with an equivalent dimension of new trees planted elsewhere in the park. Still, a large section of the oak’s trunk was able to be salvaged, kiln-dried and cut into large slabs suitable for use as furniture. Thus, the stately oak tree, which once provided shade and a place to rest outside the entrance to the boathouse, finds new life as a massive team table, a centerpiece within the boathouse and a hub for activity and community.

PHOTOS: Halkin/Mason Photography unless otherwise noted

“Love the simplicity and elegance of this one. An emphasis was given to keeping the
existing structure and form and working with these materials. The effect is similar to what one imagines would be like inside the hull of one of the boats themselves!”

— Anthony Vivirito, Assoc. AIA, LEED AP, associate, The Architectural Team Inc., Metamorphosis Awards judge

Retrofit Team

Metamorphosis Award Winner and Architect: EwingCole

Structural Engineer: Keast & Hood

Historic Preservation Consultant: SBK + Partners LLC

Consulting Engineer: Pennoni

General Contractor: Target Building Construction


Windows, Doors: Marvin

Garage Doors: Fimbel Garage Doors

Roofing: GAF

Wood Ceiling: Certainteed

Flooring: Urbba and Mannington

Lockers: Hollman

Boat Racks: Focus Rack Systems

Tile: Garden State Tile

Interior Doors: VT Industries

Countertops: Wilsonart

Decorative Lighting: Restoration Hardware and Louis Poulsen

Stair: Crescent Iron Works

Live Edge Table, Benches: Walnut Road Hardwoods, (833) 492-5688

About the Author

Andrew Donaldson-Evans, AIA, LEED AP
Andrew Donaldson-Evans, AIA, LEED AP, is a principal and regional director of design at EwingCole.

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