Historic Detroit

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Detroit Boat Club (current)

The Detroit Boat Club is the last surviving historic rowing boathouse on the Detroit River out of the nearly 70 rowing clubs that have dotted the Detroit River’s shoreline over the last 190 years.

It has counted among its membership the likes of automotive pioneers Henry and Edsel Ford and Ransom E. Olds, no fewer than eight mayors - including Hazen S. Pingree - as well as five senators, a congressman, presidential cabinet members, and many other figures in Detroit and U.S. history.

Until recently, the building was occupied continuously for the last 121 years by the Detroit Boat Club Crew, the second oldest rowing program in the United States and the fourth oldest club in the world. The building is no longer affiliated with the Detroit Boat Club and is now operated under the sponsorship of Friends of Detroit Rowing. The Detroit Boat Club Crew has produced more than 500 U.S. and Canadian national champions, 19 Olympians, and 35 National Team members who have represented the United States at the world championships. All of whom have rowed from this boathouse.

Because the club’s two previous wood-framed clubhouses were destroyed by fire, this one was made from brick and concrete, and it's one of the oldest surviving concrete structures in the country. It is the seventh home the Detroit Boat Club built for itself in Detroit.

Borne from flame

Around 8:40 in the evening of Oct. 17, 1901, the Detroit Boat Club’s sixth home was destroyed by fire. It was 8 years and three days after a blaze had destroyed its fifth.

A small crowd gathered to watch helplessly as a brisk westerly wind fanned “the furious flames which roared and jumped and defied the element which surrounds it - the clear water of the Detroit River,” the Detroit Free Press wrote the following day. “Once started, the flames knew no bounds. Up they crept, and quickly the whole structure formed a skeleton for a body of fire. Then, the boats, anchored around the boathouse, were conquered and they, also, began to burn and add to the volume of the flames … around the fire the water foamed, and boiled and steamed.”

Horses dragging their fire engines thundered through the streets to the Belle Isle Bridge. The fireboat Detroiter - which also responded to the 1893 blaze that consumed the previous Boat Club - hurried over. However, after passing through the bridge’s swinging gate, the Detroiter turned too sharply as it made a beeline to the fire, running aground 50 yards from the burning clubhouse. Battalion Chief Daniel W. Carrol called for a group of small boats “which appeared as if by magic out of the darkness” to form a line from the fireboat to the shore in order to get hoses to the fire.

As “the flames mounted high into the heavens,” it attracted the attention of Detroiters as far as Campus Martius who crammed the Jefferson Avenue street cars and traveled to the Belle Isle Bridge as soon as they heard. Soon, the entire length of the eastern walkway of the bridge was lined with “countless scores of curious persons” who had gathered to watch the spectacular show. Many “expressions of regret were heard that the club should lose its handsome quarters.” Though it was brisk out that evening, the temperature being in the low 30s, the heat from the blaze warmed the onlookers.

The Detroit Free Press wrote the following morning: “Standing on the Campus Martius and looking into the skies toward the east about 9 o’clock last evening, a scene of splendor not unlike the beauty of a setting sun met the gaze and made the minds of thousands wonder. The hour, direction and, last of all, the sparkling stars, belied the illusion that Nature was responsible for the panorama of the heavens. …”

“Suddenly, without an instant’s warning,” the gas tank of the club’s 6-week-old, $2,000 (nearly $72,000 today) power launch boat exploded, taking with it the southwest corner of “the building, tower, and all,” which went tumbling into the water sending sparks high in the air. The burning wood hissed and sputtered as the structure hit the water with a muffled roar, the charred timbers sinking into the river, sending clouds of steam into the air. By the time the firemen made it to Belle Isle, the building was already largely a lost cause. Despite all of the firefighters, the building’s location proved to further cause its demise. All of this destruction took place within 30 to 45 minutes.

Constructed on pilings over the river, the building was too far from shore for water from fire engines to reach the boathouse, especially when the causeway leading to the building became charred. At the same time, the building was also located too close to shore for the fireboat to be of much service, as the water was too shallow.

The fire was believed to have been caused by defective insulation on wiring located on the first floor of the boathouse.

As the fire ran out of fuel to burn and began to die out, “the island had once again taken on its gloomy, wintry appearance,” the Free Press would write. “The trees no longer stood out as a background of a picture of fiery grandeur. The great masses of onlookers were no longer comforted by the heat which had accompanied the destruction of $38,000 worth of property. The members of the boat club owned nothing but a pile of ashes and charred timbers. A scene of desolation and darkness had replaced the structure that had been the pleasure seat on numerous occasions. Without exaggeration there were men who wept as they viewed the ruins and stood there amid the trees thinking of the past.”

Wasting no time, the DBC’s board of directors agreed that night to meet the following evening to discuss what the club should do next. Many members were already in agreement that the next building needed to be fireproof, with one member quoted as saying, “We will rebuild as soon as possible, and rebuild of stone, as you may be sure we have had enough of frame clubhouses” after losing two in a row to flame.

Along with the building were lost 102 boats, trophies, a collection of old photos and daguerreotypes of early DBC members and crews dating back to the 1850s, boathouse furnishings, and oil and watercolor paintings that adorned the walls.

What now?

At 9:30 the following evening, the board met at the residence of the club’s treasurer, Walter Brooks, at 583 Woodward Ave. (3445 Woodward today) to discuss the plans for the future of the club. They invited John Donaldson, the architect of the previous two boathouses and a member of the club since 1893, to the meeting so that he could inform them on what it would take to get a new structure built. Donaldson explained that a new wood-framed clubhouse, similar to the old one, would cost around $25,000-30,000 (nearly $900,000-$1.08 million today, when adjusted for inflation). Furnishings would cost an additional $10,000 (nearly $360,000 today). If they wanted to build a fireproof building, however, the costs would nearly double, to around $60,000 (over $2.1 million in 2023 dollars). Upon hearing that estimate, and “after considerable discussion,” the directors feared that the cost of a fireproof building would be more than what the club could afford.

A general meeting with the club’s membership was planned to be held at the Russell House on Oct. 22, 1901, at 8 p.m. More than 200 DBC members attended the meeting, and one after another, the oarsmen rose to their feet “and declared themselves in favor of nothing but a splendid fire-proof structure,” the Detroit Free Press wrote the next day.

“The proposition is this,” Brooks told his fellow members, “do we want a fire-trap like the old one, or a modern fire-proof structure that will last for generations?” When the proposition was made to erect a fire-proof structure, “it went through with a rush” and “amid much applause, it was unanimously voted to erect such a building.”

Offers to donate money, building supplies and labor poured in from the crowd at the meeting. With so many offers by members toward the fireproof building, the directors, who went into the meeting fearing that the cost of building such a structure was beyond the means of the club, now “felt authorized to make such a proposition.” Brooks declared, “It is more than we had dared to hope for. We will go ahead now on ‘fireproof’ lines and will rush things. … We will have the boat clubhouse ready for occupancy with a complete equipment of boats, when the summer comes.”

The directors decided that a competition would be held in order to solicit the best design for the new building. Donaldson, the architect, was selected as the professional adviser for the group, and he, along with the board of directors, would choose the winning firm. By Nov. 10, submittals to the competition included plans from the architectural firms of Alpheus W. Chittenden, Joy & Barcroft, Rogers & Macfarlane, Stratton & Baldwin and Edward C. Van Leyen.

“From the high character of the competitors, and ability of the umpire,” the Free Press wrote, “a building that will be entirely satisfactory may safely be predicted.”

The club hosted their annual meeting on Dec. 3, 1901, in the Turkish Room of the Cadillac Hotel to discuss where the club currently stood and where the organization was heading for the future. Brooks announced that, after insurance, the club was out $4,993.71 as a result of the fire (nearly $160,000 today). After subtracting what the club owed from the $18,319.30 in receipts that they brought in, the club was left with $63.30 in the bank, the equivalent of about $2,300 in 2022. Brooks reminded the club that the construction of the new boathouse would bring the need for heavier expenses in the coming year, and with the club’s income largely consisting of initiation fees, dues and locker rentals, prices would need to go up.

“With practically no discussion and with a gratifying unanimity,” it was voted to increase the dues for active membership to $20 a year ($640 today), and initiation fees for honorary and life members to $200 and $250, respectively ($6,393-$7,991 today). The club now had a total membership of 975, of which 444 were active members.

President Tenny McGraw then gave his address to the club - which provided the moment the gathered members were all waiting for. McGraw held up a drawing that showed the riverside elevation of the selected proposal for the new boathouse and announced Alpheus W. Chittenden the winner. McGraw stated that work on the cofferdam around the site of the new boathouse would begin the following morning and that construction would be pushed so the new building would be finished by the upcoming 1902 racing season. Chittenden had been practicing architecture in Detroit since the mid-1890s. Prior to the DBC commission, he designed a handful of homes in the area, with most of his commissions being interior renovations. The DBC project was his fifth-known commission to design an entire building, and has become his best known work. It is interesting to note that not only had Chittenden been a member of the DBC since 1894, but he was also the grandson of one of the club’s original founding members, Gen. Alpheus Starkey Williams, who is honored with a statue in the middle of Central Avenue on Belle Isle. Chittenden also designed the base for that monument.

Said to have been patterned after a Venetian palace, plans were approved by the insurance inspector for a structure that would be 3 stories tall and as fireproof as possible. They called for the building to be 50 feet further out into the river from the Belle Isle shoreline than the previous boathouse, with the island-facing wall of the new building being around 10 feet away from where the river-facing wall of the old building had stood. To this day, the tops of several pilings of the former boat house can still be seen in the canal that separates the DBC island from its parking lot.

The building included many things that the old building did not, and the rooms that were the same were planned to be larger. This included private dining rooms, a large ballroom, larger training quarters, a roof garden, and a spacious dining room that would have sweeping views of the Detroit River. Other spaces included an icehouse with the capacity to hold 150 tons. A larger plunge bath and new steel lockers would be located in the first floor locker room. At the building’s entrance, an island would be constructed on some of the pilings of the old boathouse, utilizing fill taken from dredging Belle Isle’s canals. With the impressive set of plans presented, many members seemed to believe that the fire, originally thought to be a setback, was turning out to be a blessing in disguise.

The launch

Preparation for construction of the new building started the morning of Dec. 4, 1901, with workers appearing on site to begin making way for the cofferdam that would surround the construction site, just 48 days after the fire that claimed the last boathouse. The Vinton Co. was awarded the contract for the erection of the new building, and the building permit for the structure was filed Dec. 20, 1901. The specifics of the permit stated that the new building would be 112-by-60 feet, three stories high, constructed of stone, and was estimated to cost $50,000, just under $1.8 million in 2023. Two days later, the Free Press announced that a group of 30 men were already gathered on the site of the future boathouse, driving pilings for the cofferdam so that the river water could be pumped out and work on the foundations could begin. Over the cofferdam, the workmen constructed a framework to cover and shield them from the elements so that they could work through the winter. With temperatures reaching as low as -6 degrees in these first few weeks of construction, a shelter was greatly needed. They predicted that the whole building would be completed by July 1, with the completion of the first floor being of top priority so that it could be used by the rowers in time for the 1902 racing season.

On Dec. 29, the public got its first peek, when the Free Press published the rendering of the river-facing facade of the new building and declared, “Boathouse to be best built. Magnificent the term to apply to Detroit B.C. home. Plans of the building assure elegant structure.” The paper also wrote that, despite the club’s money woes but perhaps because of members’ overflowing eagerness to donate, the DBC’s officers gave Chittenden “carte blanche,” a blank check, in order to build the most beautiful boathouse possible. In January, the plans were put on display in the Wright, Kay & Co.’s downtown store.

The pilings for the boathouse were wood logs, driven 28 feet into the clay that forms the riverbed. On top of this, a concrete footing was poured followed by the construction of the concrete and brick columns and walls that support the overall building structure. There is approximately 4 feet of space between the bottom of the building and the riverbed below, a space that has always been filled with river water. The walls of the building are constructed of solid brick with cinder slab floors, an early form of reinforced concrete, which are supported on steel beams and columns. The only portion of the building’s structural system that was not “fireproof” is the roof, which is mostly of wood construction.

A women’s committee met in the home of a Miss Pittman at 551 Congress St. (2179 Congress today) on March 15, 1902, to raise money to help pay for the furnishings of the women’s sitting room in the new boathouse. Although women were not official members of the DBC, the club’s previous boathouses dating back to 1873 all had private sitting rooms for female guests of the members. Some 130 women worked to raise money towards their goal of $500, nearly $18,000 today, to fund the purchase of rugs, curtains, decorations, and other furnishings that were to decorate the sitting room. “In order that the decorations and furnishings may be in harmony with the general tone of the building,” their selections were supervised by Chittenden.

By April 4, 1902, construction on the boathouse was “progressing most encouragingly,” the Free Press wrote, with construction now reaching the second floor. By July, the interiors of the boathouse were being finished by carpenters, and the electrical was going in. There was an incident during construction on July 22, when Edward Parmenter, an employee of the Michigan Electric Co., came to work on the boathouse. Another worker, Walter B. Smith, asked Parmenter whether he was a member of the union. When Parmenter said that he was not, he was told he could not work there, and another electrical worker suggested he be thrown in the river. Three or four men then picked him up, carried him downstairs, and did just that.

On July 30, the Free Press announced that the boathouse was inspected the previous evening by DBC members, with the kitchen operating for the first time, and grand openings were planned to take place the following week.

The opening soiree

From the start of construction on Dec. 4, 1901, to the grand opening on Aug. 4, 1902, the clubhouse was completed in exactly eight months. The Vinton Co., the builders, said that work on the building itself took just over five months to complete. This impressive feat is made even more impressive given the technology available at the time and when the matter of building in and over the water, during the winter, are taken into account.

On the evening of Aug. 4, 1902, a ferry departed the foot of Woodward Avenue at 8 o’clock with several hundred DBC members and a full band on board, heading to the new boathouse. The first night of the grand opening was a stag opening party, or “smoker,” with only members of the DBC present. “There was no set programme,” the Free Press wrote the following morning, “just punch and sandwiches and a band to liven up occasionally, but nothing else was needed, the beauties of the clubhouse itself being sufficient to keep every visitor occupied. … That most of them were amazed goes without saying, as they passed from one room to another and took mental measure of the exquisite color schemes and decorations. But the artistic was not allowed to altogether crowd out the practical, and the boatmen who love comfort saw plenty to delight them.” Lockers were raffled off that evening “and they went like hot cakes. …

“All told, there is no boat club in the country that can lay claim to such a home,” the Free Press declared. In anticipation of the new boathouse, the club’s membership swelled to capacity with 995 members and a waiting list of 50. “If it had been possible, a hundred new members could have been added to the list. ... One of the surest indications of interest and prosperity in the club.” DBC President McGraw refused to give a speech, “declaring that the clubhouse spoke for itself, and everyone was forced to agree with him,” according to the Free Press.

The following evening, Aug. 5, an informal reception and dance was held “in order that the ladies might view the new clubhouse, as they are a very component part of the organization.” “Present in goodly numbers … expressions of delight were heard on all sides as the young ladies contemplated the beautiful surroundings and began discounting the good times in store for them before the season closes.”

The ballroom was dedicated with the inaugural dance when the orchestra struck up a two-step, and dancing continued until nearly midnight, “as there were several hundred who were anxious to step the light fantastic in the pretty ballroom,” the Free Press noted. “The new home of the Detroit Boat Club at Belle Isle is a model of architectural beauty, convenient arrangement and adequate equipment, and is without a doubt one of the best rowing clubhouses in the world.”


All three floors of the building featured verandas and porches. The island side of the building features two pergolas spanning either side of the main, three-arched, brick entrance. The brick arches are continued on the western and northern walls of the building, spanning long verandas that encircle almost the whole building. French doors lined the porches, which along with the large windows let both light and cool breezes through the building. A tower on the riverside of the building contained a staircase, accessible through an arched opening on the third floor veranda, which led visitors to an open-air observation room located within the tower and a large roof garden. This allowed visitors to catch the cool breezes off the river or get some sun while having an unobstructed view of the surrounding area.

Members and guests would access the boathouse over a long, wooden Venetian causeway, leading from the mainland to the small 12-sided island built on the pilings of the old boathouse. Built as a canoe landing, the island was intended to eventually have a shelter built over it. Members would then cross a smaller wooden bridge that would lead up to the front steps of the building. Both bridges were considered temporary and were intended to eventually be replaced by steel-and-concrete versions. Members would then enter the building by one of two ways; a doorway to the right of the staircase would bring them onto the “water floor,” where the boat and locker rooms were located, or they could ascend the grand double staircase to the formal floors.

The men’s locker room (there was no women’s locker room for at least 10 more years) consisted of several rooms. There was a restroom, washroom, the main locker area with 250 metal lockers that featured an open expansion grate front that allowed for the rapid drying of clothes; a plunge bath; and shower bath. “The plunge” in this house was a much larger pool than the one in the old building, at 40 feet long and 3 to 6 feet deep with sea salt boxes and towel racks. A room adjacent to the locker room was left empty so that more lockers could be added if the need arose. Also located on the first floor was a boiler room that allowed for winter use of the boathouse, something not previously possible.

Though the first floor was spartan, the upper floors were “where the social side of the club will find expression, and here everything is eminently fitted to complete entertainment,” and featured “an interior of more than ordinary beauty and finish for such buildings.”

Because it was a boat club, the theme for the interior decoration was largely nautical, featuring brass lanterns with red, green and white glass; porthole windows; and images of seahorses, fish, and sea shells. The hall was divided into three sections by six large arches supported by oak columns. Each wall of the room featured deep, reddish brown oak paneling that was laid on brick and cement backing. Paintings, photographs, mirrors, and rowing memorabilia decorated the room. Large oak beams supported the ceiling with ship lanterns illuminating the space. All the furniture in the building was designed by Chittenden specifically for the club.

Passing through the triple-arched opening into the middle of the hall, a light shaft cuts through the third floor of the building to a window-lined cupola with an oak ceiling. The third-floor balustrade was lined by six arches supported by twisting Venetian columns of oak with the railing being supported by carved seahorse balusters. The far section of the room contained the staircases to go to the first and third floors, with the landing featuring a window bench, as well as a large, arched stained-glass window. The upper panel of the window was patterned after a seashell, with the lower panel featuring the building’s year of construction, 1902, as well as the overlapping AWC, initials for architect Alpheus W. Chittenden. Next to the staircase was a set of French doors leading out to the veranda. A fireplace mantel of terra cotta and decorated with grotesques and twisting columns was installed across from the staircase. It was donated during construction by F. Ward Thomas and W.G. Thomas, owners of the terra cotta and brick supply company Thomas Bros. & Co. The Thomas brothers would later be the terracotta suppliers for the Aquarium and Conservatory on Belle Isle, which opened two years after the DBC boat house, in 1904. A bay window in the middle of the eastern wall of the room held a cigar counter, where a cigar roller was said to have been employed full time. A set of French doors to the left of the counter led to the dining room, and a door to the right led to club offices and restrooms. Along the western wall of the hall was yet another set of French doors, framed by windows that led into the ballroom.

With “perhaps one of the best dancing floors ever laid,” according to the Free Press at the time, the two-and-a-half-story ballroom far exceeded that of the old boathouse. At 88-by-66 feet, it had a 2,300-square-foot maple dance floor and flooded by natural light through a number of windows. Adding to the nautical theme, nine porthole, or oculus, windows lined the room below a frieze of dolphins and urns on plaster. The ceiling exposed the wood rafters of the roof, supported by two heavy timber trusses. A balcony from the third floor allowed the room to be viewed from above.

The cafe, or main dining room, on the opposite side of the reception hall featured tables and chairs of mahogany and an oak floor with seating for 120. There were seven large arched windows that provided ample natural light and gave relatively unobstructed views of the river to diners to the north and east. A large iron balcony jutted out over the river in front of the dining room windows to connect the northeast porch to the northwest porch. Later, this balcony would be used for outdoor dining. Adjacent to the cafe were the serving rooms, club offices, restrooms and the women’s sitting room.

A fireplace was added along the western wall with bookcases lining other walls of the room. This room opened directly into the main reception hall through two doorways. A diamond-pattern stained glass window in the southern wall let light in from the reception hall.

Ascending the staircase to the third floor, guests could circle the entire atrium and look down on the floor below. This floor had a den, or smoking room, “for whiling away idle hours,” two private dining rooms, a kitchen with pantry space and cold storage, and employee sleeping apartments. It also had a training room, or oarsman's dining room, that opened off the kitchen with the capacity for 50 oarsmen to have their meals after evening workouts. When the eastern portion of the third floor was renovated in the 1930s, the ceilings were lowered several feet. Above these drop ceilings, the original – or near original – finishes remain.

As soon as the new building opened, more people wanted to have access to the club’s facilities, leading to a long wait-list and a new issue: the rowing team could no longer recruit young men to row. Not all of the club’s members were interested in rowing, and many people who were interested either couldn’t pay the $50 a year to be an active member (over $800 today, when adjusted for inflation) or they were stuck on the waiting list. In 1907, it was reported that there were just over eight regular rowers at the club. To get around this issue, in 1908, the DBC followed the lead of several eastern rowing clubs and instituted a junior membership where men between the ages of 16 and 25 could row for the club team. These members had access to the building only between March and September and were restricted to the first floor and the training dining room on the third floor. They were not considered full DBC members and did not have voting rights or any stake in the club. They were simply there to row. Now that they were able to keep the numbers up for their rowing program, the former canoe bay was converted into a boat building shop, where two boatmen were employed from the 1910s to the 1950s to build rowing shells from scratch, with some orders coming from the rival Downriver rowing clubs of Wyandotte and Ecorse.

"Men became canoeists just to get the privileges of the organization," Leonidas Hubbard Jr. wrote in 1904, in an essay about the Detroit Boat Club in Outing.

The addition

The first major addition to the boathouse was made only 11 years after it opened, in the fall of 1913. The DBC asked permission from City park commissioners to build a $30,000, two-story addition that would extend 100 feet out from the east side of the original building. The firm Chittenden & Kotting, with Chittenden being the architect of the original building, was hired to design the addition. The building contracts were assigned to F. H. Goddard Inc. for masonry. Iron and steel contracts went to the American Bridge Co. Painting was done by Brede & Schroeder. Cut stone was provided by the Batchelder-Wasmund Co. Roofing and sheet metal was installed by the American Roofing Co. The carpenters were Tonn & Schrieber. Electrical work was done by Trombley-Haeckler Electric Co. The addition was to have wells for club launch boats built at the water line on the first floor. The second floor would have an extension to the dining room with a new kitchen, and the third would have dormitories for the rowers for use during the training seasons. Dormitories were added so rowers would be able to practice twice a day, as well as a way for the coaches to keep a more careful watch of their athletes to ensure they were in top racing condition. Membership in December of 1913 was reported to be at more than 1,150. Once the club’s season ended that fall, construction soon began, being completed in time for the opening of the 1914 season.

The pools

As the 1910s went on, swimming continued to grow in popularity, however the boathouse had no locker facilities for women. In the early years after the boathouse opened, women were not allowed on the first floor, which was basically just men’s locker room space and boat storage. As the women did not have a locker room of their own in the building, they simply began changing in their restroom on the second floor. When the ladies began walking through the formal social floors in their bathing suits, the club’s board of directors were said to have quickly sprung into action, and the first women’s locker room was constructed on the first floor.

When the Detroit Yacht Club constructed its massive 90,000 square foot clubhouse on the island in 1923, the DBC began to worry about losing membership to the rival club. It was decided to embark on a costly addition to the club’s facilities with an outdoor swimming pool, children’s wading pool, and a garden. This idea was presented to the club members at a special meeting and was immediately adopted. Board member Charles H. Brennan assumed most of the work of figuring out what kind of pool the club should construct. He traveled the country, visiting many pools at his own expense, to make sure that the boat club’s pool would be among the best in the nation. Brennan would go on to assist in designing several pools in the United States, including the Olympic pools at Rouge Park in 1929, which were later named in his honor. The DBC decided to build an Olympic distance pool, 50 meters long and six lanes wide. It was said to have been the first Olympic length pool built by a private organization in the United States. The pool is unique in that it is a separate body of water within the Detroit River. To accomplish this, they needed to build it in a way that the pool could be drained, and when drained it wouldn’t become buoyant and attempt to float, which would crack the walls. After constructing a cofferdam and draining the construction site of water, 52 foot pilings, 24 feet deeper than the ones that support the boathouse, were driven into the riverbed. The reinforced concrete pool bottom was originally poured 9 inches thick, however when they pumped out silt from the river bottom to construct the island, the silt was heavier than an equal volume of water and the amount of pressure exerted by the silt forced the pool bottom up, cracking the pool walls. They decided that the pool bottom would need to be tripled in thickness to 27 inches thick in order to weigh the pool down.

The pool was formally dedicated on Aug. 14, 1926, during a 3 o’clock ceremony. The championship meet of the Women’s Swimming Association – sponsored jointly by the DBC, Detroit Yacht Club and the Detroit Athletic Club – was the first event that used the pool. Bleachers erected for the day’s events were crowded with spectators, who also filled the porches and balconies of the boathouse. National champion swimmers from New York to California came out to compete. Two world records and two junior records were set in the pool that day. Agnes Geraghty broke the 200 meter breaststroke record and Mathilda Scheurich broke the 100-meter breaststroke record. Ethel McGary of New York set a new record for the 500-meter freestyle. The Library Club of Homestead, Pa.’s relay team composed of Ethel Hvizdovich, Betty Thompson, Mae Cutnell and Sue Laird set the junior 880-yard relay record.

When originally built, the entire pool was a single depth of about 13.5 feet and was filled with 500,000 gallons of water that was to be “constantly purified by a very scientific process so that it will be purer than the drinking water hereabouts,” the Free Press wrote. Around 1960, the club made the western half of the pool shallower, at 3 feet, decreasing the water capacity to 275,000 gallons. The children’s wading pool was constructed to the west of the main pool and the gardens were constructed to the east. The land that the gardens were planted on was created from the dirt that was excavated to build the pool. A new staircase was built at the building’s middle so that members could access the pool from the second-floor porch. Other projects that the club took on at this time included filling in most of the bay that separated the boathouse from the Belle Isle shore to create a large parking lot. A new footbridge was built of concrete to connect Belle Isle to the boat club’s island, finally replacing the aging original wooden bridges originally intended to be only temporary and thus had become in poor shape. As an island now surrounded the boathouse, the coach boat slips in the addition were no longer accessible for boats so a floor was constructed and the space was converted for use as the club’s grill, where members could pick up food poolside.

On June 22-23, 1928, the DBC pool hosted the U.S. Olympic Team Trials. Among the competitors were future Hollywood stars Johnny Weissmuller and Buster Crabb. Weissmuller is best-known for being the original Tarzan and originator of the iconic Tarzan yell. Crabb would go on to act in roles such as Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon and also Tarzan. Weissmuller would go on to win a gold medal in both the 100-meter freestyle and the 200-meter relay at the Olympic games later that year. Many people believe that Weissmuller set the 100-meter freestyle world record in the DBC pool, however, he actually set it 15 days prior in San Francisco.

On April 11, 1929, Amelia Earhart visited the boathouse at the invitation of the Women’s Aeronautical Association of Detroit, along with pioneering female aviators Phoebe Fairgrave Omlie, the first woman to receive an airplane mechanic’s license and the first female transport pilot, and Lady Mary Heath, the first woman to hold a commercial flying license in Britain and the first person to fly from Cape Town to London. At the luncheon held in their honor, Earhart gave a presentation entitled “A Woman Flies” as part of her 1928-29 lecture tour following her 1928 flight across the Atlantic and after becoming the first woman to fly solo across North America and back. As part of her presentation, Earhart wished that girls would be given equality with boys in model airplane contests so that women may become as “air-minded” as men.

Fighting to stay alive

Following the pool, many more improvements and “modernizations” were made in order to keep up with the improvements at the city’s other clubs and retain DBC membership. With the Great Depression in full swing during the 1930s, the DBC was scrambling as its membership numbers were cut in half. This led to several updates to the boathouse. Previously, the DBC never allowed alcohol to be served in any of its boathouses, including the 1902 building (despite rumors that the building was built over the water to get around the rule that alcohol cannot be served in the park). Attitudes at the club changed after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, and a space to serve drinks was soon needed. The solution was combining several third-floor rooms into the current president’s bar and dance floor, then known as the cocktail lounge. The club also expanded the women’s locker room, walling off a portion of the northern boat storage space to allow for it. Other renovations were done in anticipation of the club’s 100th birthday in 1939, including expanding the boat club’s island to its present size and the construction of a band shell and outdoor dance floor at the island’s northeast corner. The band shell would be entirely rebuilt in 1954 and again in 2014 for the club’s 175th anniversary. The ballroom ceiling is also believed to have been repainted in its current scheme at this time.

Losing some of its luster

As early as the 1940s, the club began exploring options of new sites as far away as St. Clair Shores, however these plans were abandoned by the 1950s when the club began spending more money updating and renovating the building. As the building was approaching 50 years old, major projects began taking place in order to not only revamp rooms in the building but also update plumbing and electrical and repair the exterior stucco. It was decided to create a master plan for the building, hiring club member and architect Cornelius L.T. Gabler. The first issue was that no original plans to the building could be located, so Gabler had to measure the entire building to create new ones. Most renovation projects into the 1970s and 1980s continued to use these base drawings by Gabler. The updates to the building in the 1950s were following the styles of the times, however they caused significant changes to the historic character of certain portions of the building. The first major renovation since the 1930s was the addition of the river lounge, or river room. This space opened in 1955 at the northeast corner of the building. The space’s original windows were replaced by picture windows flanked by a casement window on either side.

A few months after the space opened, a major fire in the attic put the building’s “fireproof” claims to the test, causing an estimated $100,000 in damage (over $1.07 million in 2022, when adjusted for inflation). On July 2, 1955, during a dinner with 200 guests decked out in formal wear, a fire broke out in the building’s attic over the 1914 addition around 10:15 pm. The fire was detected by guests when smoke came billowing out from the air-conditioning outlets in the newly opened River Room in the club. Caused by a grease chute that led from the second-floor kitchen, the fire forced all the guests out into the rain while more than 50 firemen and the fireboat John Kendall fighting the flames. The firemen had difficulty reaching the fire due to the building’s tiled roof, however they were able to get it under control 45 minutes after the call. Fortunately due to a firewall, which was the 1902 building’s original exterior wall, the fire was confined to the eastern addition. Two firefighters had to be treated at the scene for injuries. While the fire was being put out, guests walked around outside, with most of them remaining on the terrace while a small band continued to play. Unlike several other DBC homes, the fire curse would not take down the boathouse. The following morning, the club opened for business as usual while the reconstruction began in the addition.

The next major renovation was the creation of the island room in 1957. This project created probably the most glaring change to the building’s southern facade, replacing four double hung windows with two large windows of a similar style to those found in the River Room. The ceiling was dropped 5 feet with an acoustic tile drop ceiling. Previously, this room was known as the mural room and each wall featured murals that were installed in the 1920s of beautiful rowing and sailing scenes. Unfortunately, the murals were damaged during the renovations and were disposed of. By the 1960s, the club began feeling its membership numbers slip as people fled the city for the suburbs and the DBC quickly began construction on further attempts to modernize and update the building. Most of these projects were of cheap construction, including additions to the building’s exterior that were clad in painted plywood. New rooms were shoehorned into existing spaces and the maze-like system of odd corridors and rooms that exists today began to take shape.

The battle for desegregation

From 1967-1974, the DBC and Detroit Yacht Club were involved in a lengthy lawsuit with the City of Detroit over discrimination practices. Up to that time, the membership of both clubs had been 100% white. In 1967, Mayor Jerome Cavanagh’s administration began investigating charges that Black people faced “booby traps” when trying to join the DBC and DYC. As both clubs were located in a public park and leased their properties from the city for $1 a year on 99-year leases, they needed to follow city ordinances regarding integration. If the clubs refused to take steps to allow Black members by March 1969, their leases could be terminated without compensation for their buildings as the clubs were located on public land. In the background of all of this was the racial unrest of 1967, which saw Black Detroiters’ anger over discrimination and harassment boil over into a riot. And like all fights for equality, the battle would not be a quick one.

Both clubs claimed that the discrimination charges were untrue, stating that nowhere in the club’s membership applications or bylaws were there any references to race, color, religion, or “anything else that might be considered discriminatory,” compared to some clubs that did feature specifically discriminate in their bylaws. Instead, the DBC and DYC had committees that were in charge of approving applicants on a basis of “sociability and compatibility” with current club members. The clubs also required that prospective members be sponsored by current club members, with the DBC requiring the sponsorship of two existing members, and the DYC requiring the sponsorship of five. Applicants’ financial backgrounds were also taken into consideration to see if they could pay the pricey initiation fee and annual dues. They also stated that no Black people had ever applied for membership at either club. The clubs also countered that the rule that the city was proposing, evicting the clubs if they did not diversify their memberships, would “destroy private clubs,” as they claimed that the clubs had a right to choose prospective members at their discretion. The DBC, saying the butting of heads over getting Black members into the club had become “uncomfortable,” offered to sell the clubhouse to the City so the DBC could leave for the suburbs. The City decided to pass and continue fighting for integration.

In October 1969, the DBC voted, 168-35, to begin looking into purchasing a new site in St. Clair Shores to move the club. There were 27 possible locations under consideration, with members voting to give the board authority to make a tentative offer on a 5.8-acre site adjacent to the Shore Club apartment complex in the Nine Mile-Jefferson Avenue area. The club claimed that the lawsuit was not the reason why they were looking into moving, but the high maintenance costs on the then-67-year-old building, stating that it was “just too expensive. We have to dredge out the canals every year. Last year, we had to rebuild all our docks because of ice damage.” The proposed new building was designed to look like a modern version of the present structure, costing an estimated $2 million (over $15.6 million in 2022 when adjusted for inflation). This was not the first time that the DBC had looked into moving elsewhere, previously discussing moving to a site along Lake St. Clair in 1948. Not all members were interested in moving, however, and a group of 12 members were able to get enough people that agreed with them to attend the club’s annual meeting and vote to keep the club on Belle Isle. Meanwhile, the club was forced to cancel several events due to there being a lack of members to pay for it, giving the “let’s move” faction of the club more leverage for their cause, arguing that the DBC needed “more well-heeled suburbanites as members.”

After the mayoral administration changed in 1970 and Roman Gribbs took office, little was done by the city on moving the lawsuit forward, with the case being placed on the back-burner by city attorneys. In 1971, the DBC again looked at moving, debating on purchasing Anna Dodge’s Rose Terrace estate in Grosse Pointe Farms. They also considered at one point attempting to purchase the Edsel and Eleanor Ford Estate in Grosse Pointe Shores. By 1972, the DBC announced it had changed its mind about relocating the club to the suburbs, noting recent court decisions regarding the integration of private clubs would “support the club’s position on membership policies.” One such decision, Moose Lodge No. 107 v. Irvis, upheld the right of a Pennsylvania fraternal club to a state liquor license, despite club bylaws that prohibited Black members and guests. By 1971, the DYC had admitted only one Black member, however he was an “interim member,” where he was allowed to use the club facilities but was not allowed voting privileges. The DYC claimed that he was the only Black person to have ever applied for membership. The administration of Mayor Coleman A. Young, Detroit’s first Black mayor, would later state “that may be because of the clubs’ reputation for discrimination,” stating that “there are plenty of Blacks who would like to take advantage of the clubs’ boat docks, swimming pools, tennis courts and other facilities.”

By 1973, the Detroit Boat Club’s membership had dropped to 776 members, nearly half of what it was just over a decade before. Just seven years earlier, the club had approximately 1,200 members. When Young was elected to office later that year, he was “not pleased that some of the choicest park land in his half-Black city exists only for the enjoyment of two clubs with virtually all-white memberships,” the Detroit Free Press wrote. Young wanted the DBC and DYC to take quick action to integrate their membership rosters or to leave Belle Isle. “I don’t believe they ought to be allowed to have their clubs on public property for $1 a year when they discriminate as they do,” Young said. “They discriminate not only against Blacks … but also against poor people. Belle Isle should be for all citizens.” Young directed the city to hire an outside attorney to “aggressively pursue a discrimination action against the clubs,” pushing the club case back to the forefront after laying relatively dormant for most of the Gribbs administration, and taking the case out of the hands of the apparently overburdened city attorneys.

The Young administration stated that they did not want the clubs to leave the island, they just wanted them to be more accessible to everyone. “The mayor believes very strongly that any organization that discriminates in its membership is bad for the growth of Detroit,” Young spokesperson Nansi Rowe said. The case finally went to court on July 24, 1974, with a settlement being signed on Oct. 25 in U.S. District Court by representatives of both clubs and the City of Detroit, where the clubs agreed to take steps to integrate their facilities. Under the settlement, the organizations had 90 days to meet the following conditions:

“The Yacht Club must add three more Black members, bringing the total to five, the number of club members needed to recommend a new member. Thus, presumably, more Blacks could be sponsored and added to the club in the future. The Boat Club must add two Black members, the number required to recommend new members. Both clubs agreed that all membership denials must be in writing and, in the event of a denial, the federal court will act as arbiter. The City agreed to recognize the two clubs as private clubs with the rights of private clubs to choose their own members. In addition, both clubs were given four months to appoint Black members to the membership committees, and appoint at least one other non-Black minority member in one year following the settlement.”

If both of the clubs and the City followed this agreement for 90 days, Judge Freeman would sign a consent judgment ending the action in federal court. By July 1975, the DBC had elected two Black members and the DYC had elected five, the minimums to be in compliance with the 1974 ruling. The DBC’s first African-American member was Dr. Peter Strong, a well regarded Detroit dentist and Civil Rights activist who was the first Black dentist with visiting privileges at the Detroit Medical Center.

It should be noted that the DBC and DYC were not the only clubs holding out on integration. However, because they leased City land, they were the only ones the City could force to integrate. As of July 1975, the Detroit Athletic Club, Women’s City Club, Yondotega Club, University Club, the Players, Bayview Yacht Club, the Scarab Club and the Great Lakes Club, still did not have a single African-American among their memberships. Two clubs that integrated before the DBC and DYC were the Indian Village Tennis Club, admitting their first African-American member a year earlier, in 1974, and the Detroit Club, which admitted its first Black member in June 1975.

Jeanne Whittaker wrote in the Detroit Free Press in 1975 that “every once in a while someone tries to write the obituary of club life in Detroit. The commentary is often the same: Younger people are not interested, old fogey clubmen are dying off, expenses have skyrocketed, and a growing number of businessmen say that it is an embarrassment to belong to a club with racial and ethnic barriers.”

The DBC continued to experience a drop in membership as many former members did not want to drive from their suburban homes to a club in Detroit, or perhaps others were opposed to allowing Black people in.

New roommates

Struggling to cover costs, in 1972 the DBC informed the club’s rowers that they could no longer support rowing. In order to save the second oldest rowing program in the United States, 8 former DBC rowers came together to form Friends of Detroit Rowing in order to raise funds to support rowing in the Detroit area. Through their efforts, they were able to not only save the DBC’s rowing program, but in their first few years they also were able to help form the first official women’s rowing program at the DBC in 1975, bring back varsity rowing at Wayne State University, and host the Women’s National Rowing Championships in 1979, and the Men’s National Championships in 1982, as well as launch several athletes to the World Championships and Olympics.

In an attempt to build membership, in 1975, the Women’s City Club (WCC) of Detroit - which had announced that it was selling its longtime home on Park Avenue because of declining membership - was invited to rent space in the boathouse.

The DBC offer called for a merger between the two organizations, giving WCC members memberships that ranged from $300 a year for resident members and $75 a year for non-residents. They would receive full privileges of the clubhouse, however they could not vote on DBC matters. The Women’s City Club moved into the third floor of the DBC boathouse, a move that was meant to be a temporary one, as WCC hoped to land space in the new Renaissance Center. The women brought with them a crystal chandelier from their old building, which was hung in the ballroom of the boathouse. The addition of the Women’s City Club briefly provided a false sense of security for the DBC, as there were more people in the building again, however, membership continued to dwindle.

More money woes

In April 1992, the State House voted that they would reduce Detroit’s state aid by $4.7 million if the City did not increase fees at the Belle Isle Golf Course and “squeeze revenue out of two private boat clubs that use the island virtually for free.” The lawmakers claimed that state money was being used to subsidize the wealthy. State Rep. David Jaye, R-Shelby Township, who was one of the sponsors, denied that the measures amounted to a “Detroit bashing,” responding, “I’m bashing rich golfers and yachters to stop these obscene subsidies. Why should the taxpayers of this state subsidize the lifestyles of the rich and famous?”

Daniel Kirchbaum, then director of the Detroit Recreation Department, responded saying that none of the City’s state aid goes to the clubs and that the rest of the Belle Isle facilities were widely used by people throughout the region. The DBC and DYC at the time were paying $1-a-year leases, which were negotiated under Mayor Roman Gribbs in the early 1970s. Under contract, the City was powerless to gain more revenue from them until the leases expired in the late 1990s. House Bill 5522 was passed with a 59-36 vote, calling for the club leases to be raised to levels that were comparable to the ones being paid by other marinas in southeastern Michigan. The Detroit Boat Club argued that the land that the building sits on, which was built over the Detroit River, was first leased to them by the Army Corp of Engineers in 1889, however, the City took the position that they owned the parking lot and, therefore, access to the building. By that point, the Detroit Boat Club was deeply in debt, which included $176,000 in City property taxes.

On Aug. 28, 1992, the Detroit Boat Club filed for bankruptcy. The club needed to reorganize before a court-ordered deadline of Feb. 28, 1993. On Jan. 24, 1993, a tense meeting was held where around 150 of the DBC’s 200 members debated for two hours on what path the club should take in order to pull out of bankruptcy. Members were torn over a proposal from the City, which would pay off its debts, including immediately paying $375,000 to creditors and paying another $500,000 to other creditors over four years. The city, however, would assume control of the building, lease back to the club the first and third floors, parking lot and docks, and the club would share space with a public restaurant located on the second floor. The DBC would still be responsible for building maintenance and pay taxes. The other two alternatives would be to keep the club privately owned by gaining equity financing from existing members and private investors; or to get a bank to loan the money.

“Rescue-the-Club” committee member Harry Gibson was quoted in the Free Press as saying, “I think until today, the club’s membership never understood how close we are to the brink of the cliff. … We do not know what the hell the City plans to do with (the building). We do know the City can’t run the city. There are certain board members who may prefer to give it to the City. We can only surmise they have an agenda they haven’t brought forward.” Some members speculated that the City might take over the structure and use it as a gambling casino.

In June 1993, the Free Press announced that the DBC had accepted the City’s offer, stating, the “200-member club plans to pay off its $1 million in debts in full over several years, and will remain on Belle Isle under a lease from the City of Detroit.” The DBC was allowed to find a restaurateur who was willing to open a restaurant in the boathouse. Despite the DBC bringing several interested parties forward to the City, no proposals were reviewed. With a low source of income, the club was unable to pay the bills that they were supposed to be paying, as stated in the bankruptcy agreement.

The club remained in the building until February 1996, when the City evicted the club for nonpayment of rent and more than $400,000 in taxes. At the same time, the City was close to approving an investor's proposal for a $41 million recreation and entertainment complex on the island, which included interest in operating the marina at the boat club. The complex “would include a restaurant, 80 boat slips for restaurant patrons, indoor arena, more than 200 horses, a veterinary center, an outdoor arena and a therapeutic riding center for disabled youth,” according to the Free Press.

William Merriweather, chairman and CEO of the organization Made in Detroit, which was proposing the recreation complex, stated that the company pitched to operate the DBC marina would be willing to if they could tear down the boathouse, which he called a “maintenance nightmare,” and build a new building to go with the renovated boat slips. Ernest Burkeen, director of Parks and Recreation for Detroit, said the City hoped to operate a public marina, the outdoor swimming pool and snack bar at the DBC that summer, but plans for the rest of the building were still uncertain.

DBC members voted in February 1996 to relocate the organization to St. Clair Shores. The club planned to move to the marina at the Shore Club Apartments at 9 Mile and Jefferson, where they planned to build a new boathouse. Larry Breskin, then-DBC president, told the Free Press that the club, still suffering from declining membership and rising maintenance costs, had to choose “between dissolving the club or allowing it to continue in a more viable location.” At the time, the club had around 150 members, down from 200 at the time the club declared bankruptcy in 1992, and down from more than 1,000 in the 1970s.

Though the sailing and social aspect of the club planned to move to St. Clair Shores, the rowing team still needed a place to stay. Although there are many marinas in the Detroit area for power and sailing boats, there were few areas where a rowing program could move. In order to preserve the DBC rowing program, Friends of Detroit Rowing formally separated from the main Detroit Boat Club organization. Operating under Friends of Detroit Rowing (FODR), the rowers continue to compete as the “Detroit Boat Club Crew.” While the city worked to figure out what they wanted to do with the boathouse, FODR obtained a handshake agreement with the City for the rowers to be able to lease the first floor of the building to use the locker rooms and boat storage spaces while the City used the rest of the building. By spring 1996, the club had vacated the building, leaving the rowing team behind to care for the large, aging boathouse itself.

The Free Press wrote of the DBC in 1999 that the club “by all logic should be defunct” and that it was “still around because the remaining members simply refuse to allow it to die.” The main Detroit Boat Club organization remains active today as a “paper club” with no clubhouse of its own. Instead, they host social events, dinners and sailing regattas out of various local clubs and museums throughout the Metro Detroit Area. Along with the Detroit Boat Club’s Annual Sailing Regatta, considered to be the oldest sailing regatta on the Great Lakes, the DBC still sponsors various sailing programs. Among these are their adult learn-to-sail programs, which they began hosting at the Edison Boat Club (EBC) marina in 2004. They remained at the EBC until its owner, DTE Energy, closed and demolished the facility in 2019. Since then, they have been working with the Detroit Community Sailing Center to provide adult sailing classes from the former Detroit Boat Club marina at Belle Isle.

Big plans, no action

The City’s plans for an entertainment and equestrian complex on Belle Isle that would supposedly utilize, or demolish, the boathouse ended up falling through. For several years the City attempted to use the boathouse as office space for island employees, something that proved difficult due to the layout of the club’s social rooms. Later, the City declared that the boathouse was “sinking into the river,” and moved its offices into the White House on the island. Once the City vacated the building, the rowers were allowed to use the whole building and were not just restricted to the first floor. The City then continued to work out just what to do with the building.

In August 1997, the City hired Hamilton Anderson Architects for $65,000 to do a study on the building and see how much it would cost to renovate the structure, which put the tab at an estimated $13 million (over $22.9 million in 2022 dollars). Over a year later, in October 1998, Mayor Dennis Archer handed a “to-do” list to the City Council with the top projects he’d like completed. Among them was to try to find someone willing to spend the large sum needed to renovate the DBC boathouse or demolish it if no one comes forward. The following year, the City began looking at the building as a potential source of income after proposals to charge a vehicle toll to enter the island drew criticism. It began soliciting bids to renovate the building and operate it under a proposed 39-year lease. By now, the estimated cost to redo the building had grown to $20 million (over $35.2 million in 2022). The city predicted that, if programmed correctly, the facility could bring the park nearly $200,000 (over $345,000 in 2022) a year in revenue, and proposed that it could host a boathouse, health club, restaurant, banquet facility, and swimming and boat lessons for children. Another proposal included a coffee shop, juice bar and sports apparel store. Friends of Detroit Rowing would be able to partner with the developer to use the boat bays and locker rooms. However, nothing came out of this proposal.

In 2005, a proposed $26-million project (over $38.2 million in 2022) from Central Place Planning Professionals LLC called for turning the DBC building and the Brodhead Armory across the river into restaurants, stores and music venues under a project called Entertainment Bay, with water taxis connecting the two sites. Akinya Khalfani, CEO of the company, hoped to create a vibrant waterfront environment like what was happening in Baltimore, Boston and Chicago. This proposal also went nowhere.

During then-Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s seventh State of the City address in March 2008, he announced plans to renovate the boathouse as part of a $30 million to $45-million ($40 million to $60-million in 2022) residential maritime academy complex that would be constructed along Belle Isle’s shore between the Douglas McArthur Bridge and Inselruhe Avenue on Belle Isle, that would attract at-risk high school students. The proposal was pitched to Kilpatrick by former state Sen. John F. Kelly. The 500-student Admiral J. Paul Reason Michigan Maritime Academy, named for the first African-American four-star admiral in the U.S. Navy, was planned to open in 2010. The school would focus on aquatic, maritime, and nautical sciences and include dormitories, a restaurant and a diesel engine repair shop. Besides renovating the boathouse, which would have a restaurant and a marina, the project would have consisted of a multi-acre complex of several new buildings with additional classrooms, dormitories, a gymnasium, pool and other facilities. The City worked with Detroit-based Gunn Levine Architects, as one partner at the time was a leader in school design and another was nationally recognized for restoring historic buildings. The project would cost the students and City nothing, with funds being raised by a foundation. Bonds financing the project were to be issued by the Detroit/Wayne County Port Authority, and ownership of the boathouse would be transferred to the port. By May 2008, the project already received a $160,000 grant.

Though some supported the idea, many questioned the project, asking why this foundation would be raising money for a new school when the Detroit Public Schools district was closing buildings left and right and losing money. The foundation’s board was also in question, with two of its seven members being related to the mayor, who was then just being charged with felony perjury and obstruction charges. Others supported the project, but questioned locating a development of this size and scale on Belle Isle, as the complex of buildings would privatize nearly a half-mile of Belle Isle’s shore, as well as pave over public green space for new parking lots. Some felt that there were numerous undeveloped areas along Detroit’s mainland shoreline that would be more appropriate for such a project. An unidentified member of the nonprofit Friends of Belle Isle agreed that the island was an inappropriate site, saying, “This is a park. This is not a college campus. It’s ridiculous.” The project’s foundation stated that the school wouldn’t be in session during the summer when the island had its highest usage and the gymnasium, pool and other facilities could be used by the public. The dormitories were also proposed to be used by visitors during the Detroit Grand Prix, an Indy Car racing event that was held on the island from 1992-2001, 2007-08, and 2012-22, or other events. At the time, the Grand Prix had recently poured a 10-acre concrete pad near the western end of the island to service the races, which sat unused for 51 weeks of the year. The academy proposal brought forward other questions of how much development should take place on the island. If this project were approved, what was stopping private development, such as condo towers or a corporate headquarters? After being convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice, Kilpatrick resigned as mayor effective Sept. 18, 2008, and the maritime academy never moved forward.

Another development proposal for the boathouse came in January 2014 when Vintage Hotels Group, owned by Hong Kong billionaire Jimmy Lai, announced a $40 million proposal to renovate the boathouse into a 100- to 120-room boutique hotel with a restaurant and marina facilities. Initially, Vintage said that the building would be restored to its original appearance, preserving original details. Friends of Detroit Rowing would have been allowed to remain in the building, as well. Soon, a project rendering told another story, bringing into question whether the building would be saved or not, as the rendering showed a new building, or largely altered existing building, that was four-and-a-half stories tall and clad in white stucco with a clay tile roof. It is unknown how far this project went, as, at the time, the City was negotiating with the State about the Department of Natural Resources leasing Belle Isle as a state park.

Through all of these proposals, Friends of Detroit Rowing continued to rent the building month-to-month. Under that lease, only rowing was permitted in the building, and the organization was forbidden to rent out the structure for private events. From the point that the City left the building in the late 1990s to 2014, the FODR rowers were the only ones to use it. Friends of Detroit Rowing made several attempts at an extended lease with the City, but these all fell through, as the City continued to hope that a large developer would come in and renovate the place. In the meantime, the City allowed any money FODR spent on improvements or work done to the boathouse to be considered as “prepaid rent.” During that period, the rowers put more than $350,000 worth of work into the structure, doing what they could to keep the building together and functioning. These projects included replacing the boiler, plumbing and electrical, roof repairs and whatever else they could afford. Despite the issues of gaining an extended lease, the rowing team was still producing athletes that were competing at national and international levels, placing athletes on the U.S. national team at the Junior, U23 and Elite Levels who represented the United States at several World Championships, including a gold medalist at the 2023 Junior World Championships, as well as at the Olympics in 2004. They also began hosting junior and adult learn-to-row classes and recreational rowing programs for people living in Metro Detroit.

Despite the daily activity, many visitors to the park likely believed that the building to be abandoned due to its crumbling stucco exterior.

Meanwhile, as the City’s financial woes culminated in its filing for bankruptcy, funding cuts led to further deterioration on facilities on Belle Isle. And the FODR, despite its best efforts and significant repairs, has not been able to undo decades of dilapidation at the historic clubhouse. Though the energy and work ethic of the rowers is there, the money and structural stability of the long-neglected clubhouse put its future at risk.

Sea changes

With the Detroit Boat Club’s 175th Anniversary celebrations being planned for 2014, it was decided that the building should be spruced up as much as FODR could. This included repainting the main reception hall, patching holes in ceilings, hanging historic rowing plaques in the trophy cases, restoring historic light fixtures, replacing carpeting, rebuilding the band shell, clearing an overgrown section of the east side of the property to create a new lawn, among other improvements. During the 175th celebrations, the building hosted two weddings for the families of former rowers, marking the first weddings held in the building since 1992. These initial projects began to spark some hope of what the building could look like if it were restored.

In 2014, Belle Isle became a state park in 2014, placing it under DNR management through a 30-year lease. Key for the fate of the Detroit Boat Club building was that the State would be responsible for repairs and improvements on the island, and in exchange, the City relinquished any right to veto or stop those changes, including demolition.

FODR worked with the DNR to sign a 30-year lease on the building in 2015. Under this lease, the state required that the western porch wall be restored or removed as it was a safety hazard, that the pools be fenced off, and that FODR work to make the building more publicly accessible. Among the items the state agreed to on their part was a plan and funding to fill in the pools. Under the DNR’s lease, the building could be rented for private events, bringing a source of income for maintenance and restoration of the boathouse. Over the last nine years, major projects have taken place, including rebuilding a section of roof, restoring the building’s elevator to operating condition, restoring several rooms in the building, replacing windows, upgrading plumbing and electrical, and removing asbestos, among other projects, resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars on the structure. Items that the Detroit Boat Club had taken for safe-keeping when they were told the building would be demolished in 1996 began to be returned, including rowing trophies, stained glass windows and other historic pieces. In 2018, the seahorse staircase spindles were restored with the help of a local Eagle Scout troop.

The fireproof building erected to stop another loss to another fire may lose this one because of water.


The boathouse suffered a major setback in early 2022, when a 15-foot section of a deteriorating porch slab collapsed, leading the State DNR to condemn the building. Water damage was cited as the cause.

“The building's history, beauty and incredible location should make it a treasured amenity, but its current condition is a common example of the way much of Detroit's history has been neglected and ill-maintained over the years,” Amy Elliott Bragg wrote in Crain’s Detroit Business at the time.

Since then, access inside has been largely off-limits to all, including Friends of Detroit Rowing, who were forced to move equipment outside. Since the building has been closed off, its future is now in danger as the DNR is moving towards demolition as their solution to the property.

On Oct. 17, 2023, HistoricDetroit.org reported on its social media channels that the Belle Isle Advisory Committee ― a seven-member group charged with advising the state on implementation of improvements, master planning and public safety for Belle Isle Park — was to vote on a resolution to support demolition of the boathouse, based on an agenda for the meeting posted online. The agenda’s line item specifically said, “Resolution 10-2023-02 in support of the Belle Isle Boathouse Demolition.” The agenda was quietly taken down, and the Michigan DNR said the agenda item, despite the specific wording, was posted in error. Nevertheless, it became public that the DNR has been discussing demolition of the structure for a while, and the news caught the news media’s attention.

“Taking it down would be significantly less expensive than the $54 million to restore it,” Thomas Bissett, the urban district supervisor for the parks and recreation division of the State DNR, told The Detroit News for an Oct. 18 story. Bissett back-tracked a bit on the $54 million figure, saying there wasn't an actual estimate of what the work could cost — “just an educated guess based on construction experts in the department,” The News said.

But the $54 million figure “would represent more than a quarter of the total needs for the island itself,” Bissett told the Detroit Free Press for an Oct. 18 article.

A 2019 study by Detroit-based SmithGroup put the cost estimate for a total restoration of the building and grounds at $42 million. FODR says studies and assessments show about $16 million would be needed to get the building safe and usable again, though not fully restored, as the other cost estimates account for.

Bissett told The News that the DNR had three options: demolition; to "mop wallet" to prevent further decay; or finding a way to partially open the building while fixing other parts over time. He told the Free Press: “A lot of people have fond memories of it but we also have to consider the amount of money we have and what we're able to restore. Personally, I feel that if something’s not done with the boathouse in short order in the next couple of years, we will be looking at a possible structural collapse anyways.”

Stay tuned as the fate of this historic Detroit building continues to play out.

Last updated 22/10/2023