As the first snow of the season fell, a large crowd gathered along a quiet bend in the South Branch of the Chicago River. Jovial groups of teens, community members, and public officials were all there for the opening of the Eleanor Boathouse at Park 571 in the South Side neighborhood of Bridgeport. The boathouse is the second designed by Studio Gang Architects and the final of four boathouses planned for the Chicago River.
The boathouses are part of a much larger movement within the city to connect the public with the underutilized river. Though the river is still heavily polluted—two half-sunken boats can be seen up river from the Eleanor Boathouse—the city is quickly improving its resources along the shore. The boathouses specifically provide space for rowing teams to train, kayaks to be rented, and people to directly access the water.
“The Eleanor Boathouse supports the larger movement of ecological and recreational revival of the Chicago River,” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said at the opening. “For too long, Chicago residents were cut off from an asset in our own backyard. So today, we are transforming our rivers from relics of our industrial past to anchors for our neighborhoods’ futures.”
Like Studio Gang’s earlier iteration, the Eleanor Boathouse takes its form from the rhythmic movements of rowers. Divided into two structures, undulating rooflines allow for clerestories, which bring soft light into the project. The lofty interior of the 13,171-square-foot boat storage structure can hold up to 75 boats for use by several rowing teams, clubs, and organizations. The other structure is a 5,832-square-foot field house that contains a multipurpose community room, main office, open seating area, restrooms, and showers, and can accommodate 57 “erg” machines, which simulate rowing movements for training purposes. A dark zinc facade wraps most of the project, while one face of the boat storage building is a custom green gradient window screen.
While Chicago’s winters can be brutal, the boathouse is already under heavy use. Rowing teams train in the river nearly year-round and there is also classroom and activity space for after-school and community programs. “This connects us to the origins of the city. The river is the first reason that the native peoples and eventually Fort Dearborn were settled here,” said Studio Gang’s Managing Principal Mark Schendel at the opening. “And it is that potential to come back to that amazing resource and put citizens back on the water. It is the type of project, as architects, we love to do.”