A Peek Inside the Renovated Penn Boathouse

Penn’s newly rechristened rowing facility is a beacon on Boathouse Row.

penn boathouse row

The renovated Penn boathouse, center, on Boathouse Row / Photography by Halkin/Mason Photography LLC

Boathouse Row on the Schuylkill River is a local icon, lit or unlit. And the Penn boathouse, one of the 15 charming 19th-century buildings aligned there, recently underwent a renovation by EwingCole that modernized it and preserved its heritage as the university’s rowing facility since the 1870s. A goal: to bolster recruitment. Unlike other Ivy League schools with newer digs, the Burk-Bergman Boathouse (formerly the Madeira Shell House) hadn’t seen major upgrades since the early 1980s. “It was almost a place you didn’t want to take recruits,” says Noah Gustkey, Penn’s associate athletic director of facilities. “Now, it’s the closing moment that coaches bring prospective students.” The facade is included in the row’s National Historic Landmark designation, so external changes sought to honor the existing structure. But because the interior doesn’t have historic classification, EwingCole “opened up and peeled back layers,” says Andrew Donaldson-Evans, the principal designer, exposing the roof framing that runs from a new two-story entryway through the upstairs great hall. (Former head coach and American championship winner Joe Burk’s 1938 Pocock single hangs within the framing.) The reconfiguration provides equal room for the men’s and women’s programs. And the expanded erg room boasts glass doors that open to one of three new balconies — with prime river views.

It’s somewhere student athletes want to be. It’s a warm, welcoming place that they enjoy, whether for doing homework or socializing. Now, people want to stay there after practice or get there earlier. It’s a huge improvement.”
—Noah Gustkey

Erg room

penn boathouse row
The gym doubles as an event space and is daylit with skylights and a wall of glass doors. “It brings the outside in during workouts,” says Gustkey. “Athletes and coaches love that element.” On the back wall, a custom river graphic by EwingCole depicts start and finish points of races.

Great hall

penn boathouse row
Walnut Road Collection constructed the red-oak table from a tree that was removed during the renovation. (The tree’s root system was diseased; trees were planted to replace it.) The racing stripes lining the room serve as picture rails.


penn boathouse row

The renovation included updating a section of the red-trimmed building that had been added in the 1920s; this allowed for 2,400 square feet of new space for the larger erg room. Except for the three new balconies, the changes are essentially invisible from the river, though they did alter the Kelly Drive facade.


EwingCole transformed the former cramped one-story lobby into a soaring two-level welcome area. The original brick chimney was revealed, and a new elevator for accessibility was tucked behind that.

Published as “Habitat: River of Dreams” in the May 2023 issue of Philadelphia magazine.