Canal Dock Boathouse Proves Worth the Wait
Written and photographed by Donna Caruso Bowden
Two terracotta bulldog heads, crafted more than a century ago, have settled into their new home. The clay canines used to look out from the western façade of Yale University’s Tudor-style Adee Memorial Boathouse at the foot of the Quinnipiac River. Today, they stare from the second floor of the new Canal Dock Boathouse in the Long Wharf District.
The bulldogs are among the intriguing historic pieces, both original and recreated, that are woven into the new community facility, which was meant as compensation for the Adee’s destruction when the old Pearl Harbor Memorial Bridge was replaced. Politicians, city officials, academics and organizers have been lauding the 32,000-square-foot boathouse since its long-awaited opening late in 2018. The project’s $40 million price tag included the structure and one-acre pier.
“I supported it with my heart and soul because it’s an opportunity. It’s a beautiful opportunity to incorporate our waterfront for all of the people of the city of New Haven,” Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro told a crowd gathered for the ribbon cutting. DeLauro was one of those who worked for years to protect the original mitigation funds from the federal government.
The Adee Memorial Boathouse, named after 1867 Yale alum George Augustus Adee, was being used as an office building when it came down in 2007 to allow for construction of the new bridge. It had only been used by Yale crew for five years after its 1911 construction; the university’s rowing program preferred quieter waters on the Housatonic River. The building was sold in the 1950s, the same decade that highway traffic began whisking by the bulldogs’ ears.
Its latest incarnation, as the Canal Dock Boathouse, was a long time coming.
The last tenant in the building was Gregg Wies & Gardner Architects. Rick Wies, lead architect for the Canal Dock Boathouse, worked beneath a rowing shell he had stored high in the rafters. He likes to use the term “dogged perseverance” when talking about the close to 20 years it took to plan and bring about a new boathouse in New Haven.
“Through it all, the program had the elements of historic preservation remaining largely intact,” he says. “It’s a telling success story of dogged perseverance.”
That perseverance had many fronts. There were the preservationists who wanted to save the Adee boathouse. When that didn’t happen, there were the city and state officials and politicians who needed to retain the federal compensation money – not to mention finding additional funds. There were the architects, designers and contractors working to save parts of the Adee and put together its waterfront successor. There was the organization created to develop programs and usage for a new community boathouse, whenever that might come to be.
The nonprofit Canal Dock Boathouse, Inc., was put in place to run the new boathouse. For years, its purpose lagged without a boathouse in sight. John Pescatore, an Olympic rower and former head coach of the Yale Heavyweight Men’s Crew, joined the board of directors and became president in 2013. Pescatore was inspired by a comment made at a board meeting by former City Planner Karyn Gilvarg, one of the most consistent driving forces behind the new facility.
“You can imagine when there was nothing and somebody’s telling you we’re going to have a boathouse,” says Pescatore. “I remember when she [Gilvarg] said something like, ‘Let’s just get some programs going.’ She realized this is how you get things started. … I remember I learned a lot from when she said that, and I was like, ‘Okay, I get it. Let’s get some programs going.’”
Pescatore did just that. He put in place a rowing program for high school students on the Quinnipiac River. Laura Rosado, a competitive swimmer from Wilbur Cross High School, decided to give it a try.
“I started out really slowly,” says Rosado, who attended weekly rowing lessons. “It probably was a month or so of weekly sessions when I remember the feeling of being in total control of that boat. It was really cool.”
Before long, Pescatore asked Rosado to help organize a team for a fledgling Dragon Boat Regatta. She embraced the task with gusto, pulling together a full boat crew for the competition. The event blossomed, and heads into its fourth annual run this year. Meanwhile, a collaboration with the Metropolitan Business Academy (MBA), a New Haven magnet school, became the signature program of the Canal Dock Boathouse. The after-school program includes fitness, paddling and rowing.
Talks that had been under way with the University of New Haven yielded the creation of a Marine Science Center in the new boathouse, which will serve as an integral part of the university’s marine biology program. An events coordinator was put in place to plan for rentals of the second-floor rooms with panoramic views of New Haven Harbor. At the same time, even without a boathouse, a membership program grew. It includes paddling outings, rowing lessons, fitness classes and social events to accompany public access at the waterfront.
The actual boathouse appeared slowly and with its share of challenges. The pieces of the Adee Memorial Boathouse had been carefully disassembled in 2007. Multi-paned windows, finials, tapestries of brick, a Yale crest, a fireplace mantel, trusses, copings, the bulldogs and more had been stored in an unused city building. Over time, leaks in the building damaged some of the pieces. Some survived intact while others had to be recreated. In the end, the Canal Dock Boathouse turned out to be well-studded with memories of its predecessor.
“Sometimes you lose the building, but it’s not always as black and white as that,” says Wies. “You can save pieces of things or do alternative strategies that keep the history alive.”
Named after the old Canal Dock shipping pier at the site, the new boathouse – a tasteful melding of old and new – heads into its first full season of operation. Inside, there are interpretive plaques with museum images that tell the story of the two boathouses. Outside plaques detail New Haven’s waterfront.
Behind a towering glass entrance, visitors are greeted by a 35-by-20-foot intricate portal from the Adee. It is bedecked with the Yale crest, multi-paned windows, terracotta ornamentation and recreated wood doors. The second floor showcases the historic fireplace mantel, finials from Adee’s roof and the Yale bulldogs. Their chiseled faces, still furrowed in the brow, look out toward the fast-moving transit of I-95.