by Chris Clemens
Frank Lloyd Wright first drew up the plans in 1905 for the University of Wisconsin Boathouse and it became one of his most treasured designs. The plans were commissioned by a rower for the college named Cudworth Beye and what was originally expected to be the Yahara Boathouse would sit right on the Yahara River that connects Lakes Mendota and Monona. The clean, straight horizontal lines that he used would continue to be executed in numerous other structures and were part of his signature Prairie Style of architecture. Despite his love for the would-be building, the design would never become a reality due to lack of funding, and the blueprints lay within his portfolio merely as a beloved concept.
Now, skip ahead to 2007 when it was built right in Buffalo, New York on the Black Rock Channel, nearly 50 years after Wright’s death. What is today known as the Frank Lloyd Wright Fontana Boathouse is the realized vision of Wright’s work designed over 100 years prior to the groundbreaking. As part of a tour offered by Explore Buffalo, I recently got an opportunity to see all the glory of the only boathouse Wright ever designed.
From the outside, it’s easy to recognize some of Wright’s key design concepts like the use of horizontal lines that are intended to be complementary to a sweeping landscape. The cement and wood contrast incorporates Earth-born colors and materials that accentuate the naturalism of the overall concept. While the boathouse feels like a commanding stronghold, at the same time it lends a Zen-like austerity the waterside.
The idea to bring the boathouse to Buffalo was a collaborative effort between the Executive Director of the nearby Darwin Martin House (another Frank Lloyd Wright design) and the West Side Rowing Club, which is located just a few steps from the Fontana Boathouse. Friend of the WSRC and well known television producer Tom Fontana helped kick off the fundraising efforts that secured the land, plans and talent to oversee the project. While Tom’s name is now associated with the property, the boathouse is actually named in honor of Tom’s father Charlie, who was a beloved rowing coach at the WSRC and Tom’s mother Marie.
With the capital in place to purchase the boathouse plans, the team set out to discover an architect that would be able to accomplish as close to the vision that Wright originally had as possible. They hired Tony Putnam because of his experience working with Wright on his famed Guggenheim project. Putnam worked under the tutelage of Wright enough to understand how the boathouse most likely would’ve been built had Wright been overseeing the construction himself. Putnam’s understanding of Wright’s vision allowed the Buffalo project to be constructed as close to the original design as possible.
Today, the Fontana Boathouse is used by a number of different rowing groups who utilize the museum-like bottom floor to store their boats and equipment. The second floor features bathrooms, and a multi-purpose room looking out over the water and into nearby Canada. If that view isn’t enough, an outside second floor balcony allows visitors to move effortlessly from indoors to outdoors–which is a concept that was integral to Wright’s designs.
I could spend time writing about FLW’s inventions like drainage instead of gutters, the flat roof of the boathouse or why the doors are the size they are, but you would do much better to learn the same way I did and take a tour in person with one of Explore Buffalo’s knowledgeable docents. To check out the schedule and register for your tour, take a look at their calendar.
If you haven’t had enough Frank Lloyd Wright yet, take a short time hop back to the time I was given a tour of the Frank Lloyd Wright Boynton House in Rochester. It’s a private residence so gaining access to the easternmost Prairie design that he built could be tough. Luckily, this post gives one of the most in depth visual tours you’ll find online!
Resources and Additional Reading
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fontana Boathouse on VisitBuffaloNiagara.com
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Darwin Martin House Complex website
Fontana Boathouse website
Fontana Boathouse on Instagram
Explore Buffalo website
Chris Clemens is the Founder/Publisher of Exploring Upstate. From his hometown in Rochester, he spends as much time as possible connecting with the history, culture, and places that make Upstate New York a land of discovery. Follow him on Twitter at @cpclemens