Newell and Weld Boat Houses Scheduled for Major Renovation
The historic Newell and Weld boat houses, homes to the storied Harvard and Radcliffe rowing teams, are about to undergo the most comprehensive renovation and updating since they were constructed in 1900 and 1907, respectively. Although some hints about the work have circulated among members of the athletic and recreational rowing communities, formal disclosure of the plans, oddly, comes not from Harvard Athletics or the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, but rather through the University’s annual “Town Gown Report” to the city of Cambridge. The 2021 edition, presented in early February, lists among capital “projects in planning” the renovation of Weld (home to women’s crew and recreational and House rowing). Among the elements detailed are:
•interior renovations including new training facilities, locker and toilet rooms, and accessibility improvements; and
•exterior renovations including accessibility improvements, repair and restoration of the building envelope, and compete replacement of the riverside docks and ramps, which are described as having reached the end of their useful life.
Also detailed in the report, the building-envelope restoration will include replacing terra cotta roof tiles, cleaning and repairing masonry, repairing terra cotta sculptural elements over the entrance, and window repairs and replacement.
Similar work is planned at Newell, where the men’s crew teams are based—across the Charles in Allston (and therefore outside the scope of the Cambridge town-gown document). Further details about both projects are covered in filings with the state government, discussed below.
As if the work described were not demanding enough—involving careful renovation of historic structures, on sites hemmed in by the river and Memorial Drive (Weld) and Soldiers Field Road (Newell), with significant waterfront and over-water demolition and rebuilding—the report notes further that the projects will be scheduled to “ensure that Harvard’s rowing programs have uninterrupted water access and can continue operation during construction.” The Weld project is scheduled to begin this June, just after the women’s competitive rowing season ends, and to conclude in January 2023, with water access being maintained at Newell in the interim, according to Tim Troville, senior associate director of athletics. On that timeline, he said, the Newell renovation would begin in early 2023 and is scheduled to be completed in January 2024.
The Long Path to Renewal
Troville, who is responsible for athletic facilities, events, and operations, and therefore is the point person for the complex project, noted that Harvard Athletics has a broad portfolio of aging buildings. Among them, “We felt those two boat houses were critical for renovation and restoration.”
Harvard University Planning and Design’s property information resource center lists a 2018 feasibility study for Newell and Weld renovations, including a new rowing practice tank and Newell addition to accommodate it. The initial work thus began well before the arrival of Erin McDermott as the new Nichols Family Athletic Director, effective July 2020. She has indicated that a comprehensive assessment of athletic facilities and space planning is a high priority in the near future.
Some of the many issues no doubt identified in 2018 by Bruner/Cott Architects, which has had many Harvard renovation assignments, and subsequently by VHB, the engineering and planning/design firm working the projects, emerge into public view in the regulatory and permitting process. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts’s environmental review of the proposals, released last August, found both exempt from the need to file environmental impact reports, but detailed many other requirements they must satisfy.
The certificate issued for the Weld project notes that the work entails reconstruction of nearly 8,500 square feet of pile-supported and floating docks and ramps (including the structural frame, piles, and deck), and improvements in stormwater management from the site—plus reroofing, new mechanical systems, and more. The separate filing for the Newell work—a different procedure, involving a “project commencement notice” covered under Harvard’s institutional master plan for Allston—described an even larger program, which has grown to include interior renovation like that at Weld, plus “construction of two new boat storage sheds [each 20 by 77 feet, on a concrete structural slab] west of the existing boathouse and removal of the 1960s addition” and exterior refurbishment involving “replacement of the slate roof and walls, copper peaks, windows, doors, sloped desk and dock structure; restoration of finials at corner towers; addition of walkway access to dock structures; movement of south exterior wall to accommodate a new accessible lift; construction of a new ramp to create accessible entrance; landscaping; storm drainage improvements; and site parking lot improvements and paving.”
The buildings’ ornate details aside, both are listed in the State Register of Historic Places as contributing properties in the Charles River Basin Historic District, which in turn was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. So atop the Commonwealth’s many construction and environmental regulations and permitting requirements, the highly visible landmarks are subject to historic standards and oversight—and obviously fall within regulated tideland, wetland, and riverfront areas, and are possibly subject to flooding.
The application and review processes turned up some anomalies of the sort one might expect with such historic structures sited in what are now highly regulated areas. The Newell review, for example, flagged the fact that the existing and proposed replacement docks extend past the state harbor line for navigation channels, and that the 1960s building addition was not licensed. For work to proceed (beginning this spring and concluding by the summer of 2024), the harbor line issue would have to be resolved either by exception or relocation of the line itself.
The Weld review pointed out that the original pier and floating dock were licensed in the late 1800s to cover about 2,000 square feet of surface over tidelands—about 6,600 square feet less than the current structures. In fact, the review revealed that the boat house itself appears to be unlicensed—a detail that has to be cleared up. No one is concerned that either facility’s dock structures pose a risk to navigation; the uses of the Charles River have changed dramatically since the late 1800s, and the river itself is now dammed in Boston. But Harvard and the state have had to work to secure an acceptable “retroactive license” where required, as the Department of Environmental Protection put it.
Troville indicated that Harvard planners have been working with Boston, Cambridge, and Massachusetts officials on all these issues, and that he is confident that progress is being made on “doing what’s right both for Harvard and for the community.” He said the project schedule had not been put at risk by any such matters.
Furthermore, the Charles River Watershed Association noted in comments on both applications that Weld and Newell are private facilities, but public rights to tidelands exist, and Harvard must comply with those rights. In subsequent comments, VBH noted that users of the bike path and the general public can access and walk along the waterfront to the west and east of Weld, and to the northwest and southeast of Newell—and that Harvard is “committed to ensuring that the project complies” with regulatory standards for public access, including providing “appropriate mitigation” for such access to and along the waterfront.
Newell and Weld were both designed by Peabody & Stearns (Robert Peabody, A.B. 1866, captained the College crew as an undergraduate.) In his standard reference, Harvard: An Architectural History (1985), Bainbridge Bunting wrote that Newell, Harvard’s first permanent boat house structure, was designed with a “complex profile…closely resembling that of Carey Cage reflected in the Charles early in the morning,” making it “a landmark on the river.” (Carey was razed in 1995.) Describing Weld, built seven years later at the Cambridge end of the Anderson Memorial Bridge, Bunting wrote, “Of concrete with brick dressings, the boathouse carried to the northern bank of the Charles a design similar to that of the Soldiers Field fence and gate. Its simple forms…have a functional quality which differentiates these athletic structures from other buildings.”
In the newer Harvard University: An Architectural Tour (2001), Douglass Shand-Tucci ’72 observed, “Both buildings in their dignity and elegance seem to evoke the early spirit of those days [the sports-dominated, post-Civil War decades] when competitiveness was somewhat tempered by the old gentlemanly code of sportsmanship, which an Oxford rowing coach recruited by Harvard defined rather nicely as ‘strength without aggression, confidence without self-assertion, cheerfulness without ostentation, and endurance to the end.’” In the early athletic structures and the bridge (1912), he observed, a “distinctive architectural mode” was applied, characterized by “concrete-wall fields dressed with red brick decorative trim, also evident in the architecture of Weld.” That boat house, he continued, has “extraordinarily robust detail, including a flamboyantly modeled ship’s prow at the cornice over the main door.”
Although the final renovation plans are still in preparation, the team that will do the work is in place. Consigli Construction has been appointed the contractor, Troville said. The firm’s extensive Harvard and renovation experience—working within Cambridge’s narrow streets, on historic structures—includes Lowell House renewal; the Gore Hall portion of Winthrop House renewal and Beren Hall addition; Smith Campus Center renovation and façade restoration—and the renovation and expansion of Lavietes Basketball Pavilion (the latter project designed by Bruner/Cott).
Bruner/Cott’s project page for the boat house work assures, “Both Newell and Weld will be carefully renewed in a way that balances the power of tradition with the needs of the modern rower.” It summarizes the program as encompassing “extended service lines, building system upgrades, and accessibility improvements, as well as new workout spaces for ergometric and circuit training, improved and reconfigured shower, locker room spaces, and boat storage, as well as social spaces for teams to build and strengthen camaraderie off the water.”
Intriguingly, Bruner/Cott has partnered with Peterson Architects, which specializes in rowing facilities. Its principal, Jeffrey D. Peterson, rowed in high school, in Connecticut, and for Princeton and on the U.S. National Team, and coached at Princeton and the University of Virginia, where he earned his master of architecture degree. He has worked on boat houses for Bates College, Mount Holyoke, Tufts, Wellesley (renovation), several public universities, and several elite private schools. Now, from his offices at 156 Mount Auburn Street, within easy walking distance of the two nearest boat houses, Peterson has a significant hand in bringing into the future the creations of his rower/architect predecessor Robert Peabody.
“We feel great about the project team,” Troville said of two architectural firms and Consigli, given past experiences working together, the results of earlier projects, and Peterson’s rowing expertise. During the design and planning, he said, “Introducing accessibility and bringing the buildings up to twenty-first-century code compliance” have posed the greatest challenges to date. Elevators will be installed in both boat houses to assure access, but they are being incorporated while “maintaining the charm and character of the buildings,” he continued. He also noted that the buildings’ uses have changed over time. Their interiors are being modified accordingly, to accommodate the teams’ ease of use, “while preserving the patina and charm” of the historic structures’ Charles River rowing traditions for returning alumni and visitors.
Among other details yet to be unveiled are the financial supporters who are underwriting the Weld and Newell renovations. As noted, the requirements of updating historic buildings on urban and waterfront sites (the dock and pier renovations will likely involve barge-mounted cranes and other craft) involve costly work. And the buildings themselves are substantial: Bruner/Cott lists them as about 23,000 square feet each. So the projects are likely on the scale of the makeovers given the Lavietes basketball arena, and the Bright-Landry Hockey Center (which carried a $14-million construction cost, plus design and other fees): both multimillion-dollar programs, concluded when building costs were lower than today.
There are active Friends of Harvard-Radcliffe Rowing groups, with passionate alumni whose undergraduate experiences were heavily influenced by their involvement with crew teams. The head coaching positions for the men’s and women’s heavyweight and lightweight crews are endowed. And rowing received at least one publicized gift during the recent Harvard Campaign: hedge-fund executive Bill Ackman ’88, M.B.A. ’92, who rowed heavyweight crew, made a gift to underwrite professorships, with additional funds in support of his undergraduate sport.
In due course, perhaps the person or people underwriting the substantial Weld and Newell refurbishments will be recognized publicly, as well. But even if the gift or gifts remain anonymous, two buildings that have become icons of Harvard’s presence along both sides of the Charles are now on the cusp of makeovers that secure their functionality and anchoring visual presence for decades to come.