Behind the Venue: A history of Gilder Boathouse and the protest behind its concept
Dedicated in Oct. 2000, Gilder Boathouse is home to the men’s heavyweight, men’s lightweight and women’s crew teams. According to architect Turner Brooks ’65 ARC ’70, the boathouse is meant to mimic the shape of a ship, wedged onto the bank.
Anasthasia Shilov, Illustrations Editor and Zully Arias, Production and Design Editor
“Behind the Venue” is a series of feature-form articles that dives into the history, character and most memorable moments of Yale’s various athletic forums — from stadiums and fields to pools and boathouses. While not all articles in the series will resemble one another, all attempt to take a deeper look into how these places came to be and how they have fared over time. This article is the ninth in the series.
Situated at the finish line of Yale’s 2000-meter race course, Yale oarsmen and women have called Gilder Boathouse home for over 20 years. While Yale crews have graced the waters of Lake Housatonic since 1918, Gilder Boathouse speaks to the progress Yale has made toward gender equality in sports since 1969.
Dedicated on Oct. 21, 2000, the boathouse bears the name of its pair of benefactors, Virginia Gilder ’79 and her father, Richard Gilder Jr. ’54, who donated $4 million for the construction. For Virginia Gilder, former Yale women’s rower and 1984 Olympic silver medalist, the origins of the boathouse and the concept of the facility predate its construction by nearly 30 years.
During the early days of women’s varsity athletics at Yale in the 1970s, the old boathouse, called the Robert Cooke Boathouse, did not provide the women’s crew team with the same facilities as the men’s teams — the women rented a trailer with a few cold showers to use after practice. In protest, 19 members of the women’s team entered then-athletic director Joni Barnett’s office on March 3, 1976, stripped of clothing, with the words “Title IX” painted across their chests and backs. There, the women demanded that Yale make the necessary changes to provide them with equal facilities.
The University responded with a renovation — completed a year later, in time for the 1977 spring rowing season — which gave the women’s team a boatbay to themselves as well as a locker room and showers, according to women’s crew alum and Yale Medal award winner Anne Boucher ’80. Yet Yale’s initial reaction to the demonstration — a fundraiser — was not enough, Gilder noted.
A new facility for the new century
Encouraged by a close friend and Yale teammate, Gilder asked her father, a successful investor, to support the construction of a new boathouse. Gilder said she was initially hesitant to do so, not wanting to stand out among her peers. However, once she recognized the potential impact this new boathouse could have on the Yale community, Gilder understood that her father’s financial support was a necessary means.
With the Gilder donation, the actions of the women’s crew team in 1976 would finally receive a response up to Gilder’s standards. The project began to materialize.
“In terms of what it did for the Yale crews, and what it did specifically for the women’s crew, it put a stake in the ground,” Gilder said. “We belong here as much as anybody else. Women pull their weight in all ways.”
According to Gilder, the family donated to Yale with three conditions in mind: a design competition between architects who graduated from Yale, an endowment to maintain the boathouse and a program for community rowing in Derby. Richard Gilder was as focused on giving back to the community as he was on providing the student-athletes with improved facilities.
The Cooke Boathouse, built in 1923 and renovated in 1977, had been home base for Yale rowers for 76 years. In 1999, after the new plans had been finalized, the building was razed to make way for its modern successor.
“The Cooke boathouse … was crumbling,” Boucher said. “They wanted to just get a whole new facility. Other boathouses at other places were upping their game in terms of getting new facilities and all that. And the crews were growing, there were a lot of people rowing.”
‘Space connecting land and water’
At the design competition in 1998, architect and current Yale professor Turner Brooks ’65 ARC ’70 caught the attention of the selection committee when displaying his miniature model of the boathouse. Using the original wooden model, Brooks demonstrated to the committee that the structure of the building mimicked the shape of a boat, a demonstration which he was able to replicate with the same model during an office tour with the News. Situated on the bank of Lake Housatonic in Derby, Gilder Boathouse is meant to appear as if it floated into position, perched on the bank so spectators can cheer the athletes on as they approach the finish line.
“I really thought of it as a ship, a ship that had floated down the river and then beached itself on the bank, wedged onto the bank, mediating between the land and the water,” Brooks said.
His vision for the boathouse focused on striking a balance between aesthetics and functionality. To the typical visitor’s eye, Gilder Boathouse is simply a beautiful building. For Brooks, the inner workings of the building allow for maximum efficiency and ease, providing athletes and spectators with a memorable experience.
Brooks incorporated many technical and architectural details into his work. For example, when he and his team realized the threat of high tide, they put grates on the boat doors, allowing the water to flow through the bottom of the boathouse to minimize the risk of water damage.
The boathouse has an open and free-flowing layout, which Brooks highlighted during his interview with the News. The main walkway and staircase cut straight through the heart of the building, with long wooden beams hanging overhead. At the foot of the stairs is an expansive deck where the crews prepare the boats before practice.
In addition to the notable architectural features of Gilder boathouse, the design reinforces what Gilder and her peers fought for in 1976: providing Yale’s female and male athletes with equal facilities.
“They made history not just at Yale but across the nation in Title IX enforcement,” Yale women’s crew head coach William Porter said. “The Gilder Boathouse is a physical representation of that effort; everything is split 50-50 women and men. There are exactly the same number of lockers in each locker room, same number of shower heads, toilets and square feet. It is clear to recruits when they visit the boathouse that Yale women’s crew is about empowering women to become advocates for equity.”
Gilder Boathouse is Yale’s fourth boathouse over the course of its 178 years of collegiate rowing.
Rehan Melwani | email@example.com
Correction, April 15: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the women’s crew team in front of the Robert Cooke Boathouse was the 1989-99 team. The photo is of the 1998-99 team, and the story has been updated.