In 1843, a group of Yale students decided to form a boat club in the New Haven harbor — creating the first collegiate crew organization in the United States.
Competitive rowing quickly became an integral part of New Haven’s culture. Nine years later, in 1852, the Harvard-Yale Regatta became the nation’s first intercollegiate athletic competition. Yale’s varsity crew team attracted thousands of spectators for high-profile races and garnered front-page coverage in national newspapers.
Until 1923, Yale rowers used the George Adee Boathouse, built for the varsity crew team in 1911. That year, the team began to practice at Derby — where they practice today — because the waves there are less rough.
The Adee building was ultimately sold and converted into office space before being demolished in 2007 for the construction of Interstate 95. Once a bustling area, the Long Wharf side of New Haven harbor — about a 20-minute walk from campus — is now a blank patch of beachfront.
But on Wednesday, the city will begin evaluating construction bids for the platform of a new boathouse in the harbor, dubbed the Canal Dock Boathouse. The boathouse aims to reconnect New Haven residents with the waterfront, and its construction is scheduled to begin this November. The boathouse will serve both to commemorate the history of collegiate rowing with a museum and the incorporation of original structures from the George Adee boathouse, as well provide a place to kayak, canoe, sail and row. It will be a destination on the Farmington Canal trail and may serve as home to the University of New Haven’s marine science program.
City planners hope the combination of the boathouse’s nod to history and use by the community will make it a focal point of a currently underused waterfront.
“We’re such a lucky community to have this kind of a facility,” said Donna Hall, the project manager employed by the city. “We’ve been trying to have some kind of a destination at our waterfront for years and years and years.”
The $30 million project will be funded primarily by the federal government because the interstate construction hindered access to the waterfront and required the demolition of the George Adee boathouse. Federal stipulations require the city to preserve the historical significance of the Adee boathouse, and the city is eager to cooperate.
“From the standpoint of the history of collegiate sports, it all starts from one place, right there in the harbor,” said David Vogel, a boathouse consultant and former Yale varsity heavyweight crew coach.
No varsity races were held at the Adee boathouse, but intramural boats raced out of it, and city residents came out to watch heated collegiate contests.
“There wasn’t TV, there wasn’t radio, there wasn’t movies, there was a lot less entertainment, so the IM spring races were a big deal,” said Thomas Weil ’70, the director of the Yale crew association.
Members of the eight-man boat that won the 1924 Olympic gold medal in their event were all Yale men who practiced out of the George Adee Boathouse. Dean Acheson 1915, who served as secretary of state for President Harry Truman, rowed out of the Adee boathouse, as did William Averell Harriman 1913, who became the governor of New York.
Plans for the new boathouse have been more than 15 years in the making, but Hall said the city’s commitment to building it hasn’t flagged. Platform plans will be finalized after the city chooses a bidder this week.
The Canal Dock Boathouse will physically incorporate the history of the George Adee Boathouse: the front will be a glass entryway surrounding part of the original front wall from the Adee boathouse, which has an intricate terracotta design and a long row of windows. Original staircases and fireplaces will also be a part of the boathouse’s decor.
On the second floor of the new boathouse, the original Adee common room will be recreated, in addition to a museum exhibit about collegiate rowing.
“The architects who did the deconstruction of the Adee were charged with saving everything that could be saved,” Vogel said, “The idea was saving as much of the character of the old boathouse as could be saved.”
OLD TRADITIONS, NEW GENERATION
If the city has its way, the Canal Dock Boathouse will also bring a new generation of New Haveners to the waterfront.
City youngsters will not only be able to gaze at the photographs of past crew teams but will also have the chance to participate in the sport through an initiative modeled after a successful Boston program.
The Community Rowing Program in Boston provides an opportunity for military veterans, physically disabled people and students of diverse socioeconomic backgrounds to row. Through grants and fundraising, the program ensures that rowing is free or inexpensive for those who may not otherwise be able to afford a membership at a traditional rowing club.
High school-aged students who participate in the program attend practice five days a week and have access to academic tutoring services. When a rower begins the program, he or she often knows very few college graduates, said Bruce Smith, the executive director of Boston’s program, who worked closely with New Haven officials to develop the program that will launch in New Haven. But students are taken on college trips and introduced to mentors, he explained.
“I know the relationship between the city and University is productive,” Smith said. “Former Yale coaches and alumni have been super supportive of the project.”
New Haven plans to recreate the Boston model through a company called Canal Dock Incorporated. Vogel hopes the new boathouse will not only benefit New Haven children tangibly but also help them to understand “the mystery of Yale and the illusion of Yale and the walled-in city that is Yale.”
Vogel continued: “The alumni will be able to stop in and shake hands and share their gold medals,” ideally meeting a new generation of New Haven harbor rowers.