The East Park Canoe House moved one step closer to becoming a symbol of recognition for Temple athletics Thursday afternoon with a ground breaking ceremony on Boathouse Row.
Mayor Michael Nutter, Deputy Mayor for Environmental and Community Resources Michael DiBerardinis, First Deputy Commissioner of Parks and Facilities Mark Focht, trustee H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest, President Theobald and members of the crew and rowing team took part in the ceremony in front of the canoe house.
Full restoration of the canoe house isn’t expected until summer 2016, but by the 2016 spring racing season the teams will be able to use part of the building. The Owls will share the building with the Philadelphia Police Department’s marine unit.
“I am very excited for the future,” senior rower Emilie Mehler said. “I never actually had a boathouse because I started rowing in college, so this will be my first time having a secure place to row out of. I think it will just change the level of competition and change the level that we are racing out of to a much larger degree.”
The event comes 17 months after Lenfest teamed with the city of Philadelphia to donate $5.5 million to renovate the canoe house building and save the Owls’ rowing and crew teams.
“Temple University is the city’s university and for it not to be represented on the Schuylkill seemed real unkind to me,” Lenfest said. “So when this opportunity came up with the canoe house here to have it renovated with the city and with Temple, I couldn’t resist. It seemed like a wonderful opportunity.”
The century-old building was built in 1914 and is recognized by the National Register of Historic Places in the Fairmount Park historic district. In 2008, the 9,260 square-foot facility was condemned after years of wear and tear.
The denounced boathouse forced Temple rowing and crew to use a pair of tents to store their boats and oars for five preceding years. Snow and flooding hampered those efforts and made for less than ideal conditions.
“When I walked on in 2013, we were rowing out of tents that we are still using now and this building was gated,” Mehler said. “No one went in or out. It was just in shambles. There wasn’t even a thought in our mind for it being fixed up.”
Despite both teams’ willingness to tough out the lackluster conditions, the underfunded supplies and facilities came to a climax in winter 2013.
In December 2013, the university announced it would be trimming its athletics’ programs from 24 to 17. Temple crew and rowing were among those affected – along with men’s gymnastics, men’s indoor and outdoor track & field, baseball and softball.
New life came back to crew and rowing in the last week of January 2014 when Theobald announced the programs could be saved if the university completed a process to house the teams in a boathouse.
Theobald was prompted by a 15-minute discussion by the rowing teams that the canoe house could be resurrected for only $5 million instead of the athletic board’s $14 million estimate.
Theobald met with Mayor Michael Nutter in an attempt to generate the funds to restore the canoe house, but despite the city offering $2.5 million, there still had to be a partner.
“It’s our building, so we have a responsibility to the building,” Nutter said. “It’s been deteriorating for a long period of time and we’ve had other attempts to try and restore it, but the costs were very significant.”
Lenfest turned out to be that other partner. On Feb. 24 of last year Theobald announced that the rowing and crew programs were reinstated.
“About two years ago when we were cut we were just distraught,” Mehler said. “But thanks to Gerry Lenfest we were brought back and this boathouse was the key to make our program more competitive, so they started work almost immediately or pretty quickly for a huge project like this.”
The new additions will include lockers, public bathrooms, boat bays for the team’s boats and coaches’ offices. The overall structure will remain the same, however, and maintain its original Spanish Mission Revival form.
“It’s exciting,” rowing coach Rebecca Grzybowski said. “I just told someone I don’t think I wiped the smile off my face for the last hour since we got here. But it’s just really fun to share.”
Grzybowski, who said the new accommodations will be far superior to her college days at the College of Holy Cross and coaching days at Bucknell University, is looking forward to the facility’s impact on the program.
“It’s a game changer for the program and that’s no exaggeration from where we were,” Grzybowski said. “Even when we were previously running the canoe house it was not exactly in the best of conditions. So to have a safer boathouse and to really give both programs momentum for where they need to be really successful, it’s huge.”
There is only one thing Lenfest asks the programs for in return for his contribution – some wins.
“One thing I want is for you to win next year,” Lenfest said to the athletes in attendance. “So get to work.”
Stephen Godwin Jr. can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @StephenGodwinJr.