Boathouse history complicates process

City officials ask Temple to explore rehabilitating the East Park Canoe House.

After the Philadelphia Commission on Parks and Recreation requested that Temple develop plans to renovate the East Park Canoe House as an alternative to building a new boathouse, the university’s next step is to consider the feasibility of such an option, considering the building’s historic stature.

In a March 8 letter to Mayor Michael Nutter and City Council President Darrell Clarke, the commission extended the deadline for when it would make its recommendation to City Council on Temple’s proposal to build a new boathouse in Fairmount Park. The East Park Canoe House, the Owls’ old home, was condemned in 2008, but the commission wants Temple to see if the building can be restored to suit the rowing programs’ needs before the commission makes its final determination.

However, the limited size of the East Park Canoe House and the building’s historical significance could make that process more complicated.

The East Park Canoe House, which opened in 1914 and was used for years as an Olympic training site, is on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. The designation protects a building’s exterior from being altered without approval from the Philadelphia Historical Commission.

Temple has made previous claims that it couldn’t restore the East Park Canoe House to suit its needs without jeopardizing its historic character, but preservation experts said restoration is a plausible, even laudable, plan for the building’s future.

“The goal of the Historical Commission is not to prevent change, but manage change so that it is appropriate,” Johnathan Farnham, executive director of the Philadelphia Historical Commission, said in an email. “Managing adaptive reuse is the Historical Commission’s primary job.”

Temple considered the alternative of using the East Park Canoe House in its proposal to the city in October 2012. In that document, Temple said the building was too small for the use of the rowing teams. The university claimed it needs at least 17,000 square feet to effectively operate its rowing programs, and wants to build a boathouse that would be 23,000 square feet. The East Park Canoe House is a total of 9,000 square feet, according to 2008 records.

The alternatives analysis states that restoring the canoe house for Temple’s use would require “substantial renovations” that would impact the structure’s historic appearance. Ken Lawrence, senior vice president for government, community and public affairs, said Temple is still working out the specifics of what it would take to make the canoe house suitable. The university has pledged to have that process completed by April 30.

“It’s still to be determined – that’s why we need time,” Lawrence said. “It’s not something you can just walk around and see.”

If Temple were to put an addition on the East Park Canoe House, the alteration would likely have to be minimal and would have to be approved by the Historical Commission. It’s unclear if the changes Temple needs would be too great to be accepted by the commission, which aims to preserve a historic building’s structure.

University Architect Margaret Carney, who has been working with Lawrence on the project, denied an interview request for this story.

The university will now be consumed during the next month with work that isn’t consistent with its initial boathouse proposal to the city.

Temple’s original proposal included a plan to build its own boathouse in addition to a pledge to donate $1.5 million to renovate the East Park Canoe House. The donation was Temple’s way of satisfying a clause in a city ordinance passed in April 2011 that requires entities seeking to transfer ownership of public parkland to give back an equal plot of land to the city.

Since Temple does not have land to give back, it offered to help renovate the old boathouse, which was owned by the city before it was condemned. But now, the commission wants the university to explore the option of restoring the boathouse for the use of the rowing programs.

Temple is trying to acquire a half-acre plot of land to build on the east bank of the Schuylkill south of the Strawberry Mansion Bridge and north of the East Park Canoe House. The men’s crew team and women’s rowing team have been housed in tents for the past five years since the canoe house was condemned.

Though the Parks and Recreation Commission’s request is not compatible with Temple’s boathouse vision, Lawrence said Temple is putting the student-athletes first.

“We’re looking to work with the city on this,” Lawrence said. “Our goal is to get our teams out of the tents and into a boathouse. We proposed building a new one, and that’s still on the table. The goal is to get them out of the tents as quickly as possible.”

Joey Cranney can be reached at or on Twitter @joey_cranney.

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