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Explore Buffalo Building Profile: Wright’s Fontana Boathouse

Summer is a time when many Buffalonians enjoy days by the water.  If you’re sailing north on the Niagara River from Buffalo, it’s hard to miss the striking Frank Lloyd Wright structure located near the Peace Bridge.  Explore Buffalo docent Barb Peterson describes the design and history of the Wright’s Fontana boathouse, an architectural gem that was a century in the making.

When Frank Lloyd Wright designed a boathouse for the University of Wisconsin crew team in 1905, he could not have imagined that it would be built 100 years later in Buffalo, NY.  The Wright Fontana Boathouse is located on the Niagara River next to the West Side Rowing Club. Completed in 2007, it is a fine example of Wright’s Prairie Style architecture. The Wright Fontana Boathouse is a sister organization to the West Side Rowing Club and provides needed space for crew boats affiliated with schools throughout the area.

Wright’s Prairie Style embraces the flatness of the Midwest landscape. It incorporates horizontal lines, a flowing plan, low roofs with pronounced overhangs, and a connection between the building and its site. Many of these details are seen in the Fontana Boathouse. It is constructed of concrete with red oak trim and doors, a beautiful pairing of two very different materials. This was Wright’s first design using a flat roof which is a deviation from the hip roof often seen in Prairie designs. There are 10-foot cantilevers on either end of the building. Porthole windows are seen from the side view leading some people to think it resembles a boat. The red oak doors are beautifully designed and are a focal point of the building.

The original design was intended for the University of Wisconsin crew team. The student commodore, Cudworth Beye, requested the design of Frank Lloyd Wright, who was a family friend. Perhaps to humor the boy and his parents, Wright accepted the “commission.” The boathouse was never built in Wisconsin because it was the students’ responsibility to raise the funds and they were unable to come up with the money needed to proceed. We know that Wright fell in love with the design, though. He included it in the Wasmuth Portfolio which was published in 1910 and included many of his important early designs. This portfolio was shared and studied by many European architects. He also included a model of the boathouse when he lectured in several European countries in 1930.

The exterior of the 2-level building is highlighted by skylights on the 1st level which let in a great deal of natural light. The floors are made of white pine and are drainable. No nails were used in the construction of the floors but a peg and frame system was used to attach them to a steel grid below.

No nails were used in the construction of the floors but a peg and frame system was used to attach them to a steel grid below.

Stairways on either end lead to a 2nd floor with locker rooms and a central Club Room furnished with authentic pieces obtained from the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. A balcony looks out to the Niagara River and is a beautiful spot for viewing regattas.

There have been building code changes since the creation of the initial design. An architect, Tony Putnam, was hired to oversee the construction and to make decisions that included some necessary changes to the original plan. Tony Putnam had worked with Frank Lloyd Wright during the construction of the Guggenheim Museum so he was a good choice to make decisions during the boathouse construction process. An elevator, 1st floor restroom, lights, handrails and a sprinkler system were incorporated into Frank Lloyd Wright’s design under his supervision.

How did this building, originally planned for a 1905 college team from Wisconsin, come to be built in Buffalo, NY? The story begins with a group of rowers from the West Side Rowing Club: Ted Marks, Jay Meyers, and John Courtin. John Courtin, who was the Executive Director of the Darwin Martin House, became aware of the boathouse design. They founded the Frank Lloyd Wright Rowing Boathouse Corporation in 2000. It took 2 years to acquire the property next to the West Side Rowing Club. The county owns the land and leases it to the Boathouse Corporation. After the land was acquired, the rights to the boathouse design were purchased from the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. Construction began in 2006 and the building was completed one year later.

The boathouse is named for Charles and Marie Fontana.

The boathouse is named for Charles and Marie Fontana. Charlie was a rower for Lafayette High School in the 1940’s. He was an excellent oarsman and tried out for the Olympics in 1948. He continued his involvement with the sport through coaching at the West Side Rowing Club for almost 40 years. His wife, Marie, was very involved with the club, as well. The lead private donor for the project was their son, Tom Fontana, a well-known television writer and producer, who wanted his parents recognized for their lifetime commitment to the West Side Rowing Club. Additional funds were contributed by New York State, the Rotary Club, the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development, and Erie County.

The West Side Rowing Club was founded in 1912 by a group of young men of moderate means from the West Side of Buffalo. In 1936, a 4-man team from this club qualified for the Olympics held in Germany. They tied the 1st week but lost at the Olympics. In 1937, the National Rowing Championship was held in Buffalo. Another West Side team also qualified for the Olympics in 1952. Women began rowing at the West Side Rowing Club in 1978. Home to adult, high school and middle school rowers, they currently offer many programs to those interested in the sport. They are proud of their long tradition of teaching the “art of rowing” to the Western New York community.

Photos courtesy of Explore Buffalo.


You can discover more local architecture and history by signing up for Explore Buffalo’s weekly email newsletter, which is filled with local history content every Monday, and by following Explore Buffalo on Facebook at facebook.com/ExploreBuffalo. In a typical year, more than 80% of Explore Buffalo’s revenue comes from tours, events, and other public programs, all of which are currently suspended. You can help Explore Buffalo to continue its mission of promoting Buffalo architecture and history during this time by:


Also see Explore Buffalo Building Profiles:

The Hellenic Orthodox Church of the Annunciation

The Clement House

Blessed Virgin Mary R.C. Church

Buffalo’s Armories

St. Anthony of Padua Roman Catholic Church

Old Post Office

Holy Angels Church

Electric Tower

Kleinhans Music Hall

Blessed Trinity Roman Catholic Church

First Presbyterian Church

Written by Explore Buffalo

Explore Buffalo

Explore Buffalo is a nonprofit organization with a mission of promoting Buffalo and Western New York history, architecture, and neighborhoods through quality education to learners of all ages. Explore Buffalo's volunteer docents lead a wide range of guided tours by foot, bike, bus, kayak, and boat to explore our city's history and architecture; in 2019, more than 25,000 people participated in an Explore Buffalo tour or program. Learn more at explorebuffalo.org

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