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The State of Wright: The Boathouse

By Barry A. Muskat

Buffalo Spree, July 2012

Status: Open for tours

Location: At the foot of Porter, Buffalo

History:  Cudworth Beye, a student on the University of Wisconsin crew team, asked family friend Frank Lloyd Wright to design a boathouse for a site on the Yahara River.

Wright crafted plans in the height of his Prairie period, concurrent with construction of the Martin House and Larkin administration building. The University didn’t fund the project, so Wright’s only boathouse design was never actually built.

The plans sat collecting dust for a full century, until they were built by the Frank Lloyd Wright Rowing Boathouse Corporation for the West Side Rowing Club. One reason this was possible is that the sport has not really changed over 100 years: boats are racked exactly as they would have been a century ago. Racing shells of exactly the same length are stored on racks spaced exactly as they would have been in 1905; oars of the exactly the same lengths are stored in traditional oar racks, just as Wright planned. The century old boathouse plans were a perfect fit for today’s crews.

Significance: Though some might question whether building one of Wright’s unexecuted designs betrays the architect’s original artistic intent, the building of this particular design seems right for many reasons. One is that the building is a true working boathouse; unlike the house museums, it is being used for its original purpose.

Another is that this is the sole example of a type: Wright designed only one rowing boat house. There was also no specific site planned: the architect merely specified that the design was intended for a site on water’s edge “on rowable water.”

The boathouse plan was important enough to include in the Wasmuth Portfolio, a 1910 European publication of Wright’s early works. The Wasmuth papers are known to have greatly influenced young European architects in their search for a modern vocabulary. Wright would later redraw the plan and select the boathouse as one of eight projects for a major traveling exhibition of his work in the 1930s.

The design predates what are now famous icons of Modernism such as Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion, Rietvelld’s Schroeder House, and Le Corbusier’s Domino Housing. Its narrow shape and bold construction principles also predate Wright’s own Robie House (Chicago, 1910).

What to look for: The structure’s exterior is concrete. The east and west (land and water) elevations are identical to each other, as are the north and south elevations. The interior floors are natural pine, as specified by Wright, who also detailed diamond-pane leaded glass for the boathouse windows and drew skylights over the boat bays to bring in additional natural light. Be sure to try to see this structure from the water, if only from the Peace Bridge.

Page by Chuck LaChiusa  in 2016
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