#1. Fontana Boathouse. buffalo, ny

Buffalo, New York

(designed 1905, constructed 2007)

After a quick tour around the desolate city of Buffalo, we arrived at our very first Frank Lloyd Wright building, the Fontana Boathouse. It was designed for the Wisconsin University rowing team in 1905. However, due to limited budget, the construction for the building wasn’t realized until 2000, when three long time rowers came together to develop a plan to build the unfinished project. In 2007, the building was finally opened to the public. Instead of the originally intended location, Madison, Wisconsin, the boathouse was located on the Niagara River. The building was originally designed to be sitting right alongside the river, but there was a severe thunderstorm a little after the foundation had been poured. The water level exceeded the ten-year water level projection and forced them to investigate a hundred-year water level outlook for the area. The surprise result of a high water level rise prompted the relocation of the building to a higher elevation than its original intent. The building is now used as the boathouse for the West Side Rowing Club, which also offers tours of the building.

As Wright’s earlier work, the Boathouse embodies characteristics of the Prairie School aesthetic, with big emphasis on horizontality. The horizontality is emphasized with the extended roof overhang, but on the north and south elevations are balanced with vertical elements. The boathouse sits parallel to the river, with two entrances on both the north and south sides of the building, where rowers would enter from one side, grab their boats, and exit from the opposite side. This double access point directs the circulation parallel to the river and follows the horizontal elements of the building.

The building is completely symmetrical, with all four elevations complementing and sitting nicely in the natural context. The ground floor is the boat storage area (heavy concrete mass that supports the recessed upper floor.) The lack of openings and its comparatively large size emphasize the lower mass. The east façade, facing the highway, creates visual continuity with the horizontal flow of the river, with its defined ledge and cantilevered roof.

The clerestory window (in oak wood frames) are structural and support the heavy roof, while also opening up views to the river through the club dining area. The windows are recessed back from the concrete mass (of the first floor), and form balconies opening up to the second floor dining space. A continuous glass railing, apparently not a part of the original design, was added to reflect the current building codes. I think the Club did a great job with the clean glass railings, which seemed not impose on the design too much. (I wonder what type of railings were designed with the original building?)

Through the balanced composition of different elements, I love how the building sits seamlessly with the landscape and the river.

Wright’s obsession with symmetry and proportion is expressed right into the interior spaces.

In the boat storage room, darker trims are added to form a grid, while also outlining the square light fixtures on the ceiling. These lines align nicely with the supporting columns, the skylights, and the window frames.

Every single detail of the building is, naturally, custom designed by Wright, including the doors, light fixtures, wooden shutters, right down to the diamond pattern on the windows. As his earlier designs, the corner window frames are thicker. (unlike his later work, like Fallingwater, where the corners disappear) The thick frames become structural supports for the roof, eliminating the need for extensive concrete supports on the second floor.

The gathering room on the top floor is filled with natural light from both sides of the room. The oak window frames align with the wood trims on the ceiling, creating continuity in the room. The west wall frames the view of the river, and the east wall frames the view of the traffic in the highway.

Larry Austin

1 year ago

I've been inside the boathouse during a regatta. Your pictures and description capture it perfectly for those who haven't been there.


1 year ago

Desolate city of Buffalo???

Marge S

1 year ago

The first reviewer stated my exact sentiments: Desolate, really??? Not the city I visited. The city has diverse neighborhoods, and there was an incredible job done in restoring the Frank Lloys Wright Darwin Martin Compkex near the Buffalo Zoo, as well as the Martin summer home, known as Gray Cliff. Others used Wright's original design and created a full scale gasoline station inside an automotive museum! The city is an arcitectural gem and has done an incredible job of bringing people to the Site of the Erie Canal and the Harborside. Perhaps the author visited in bad weather. Try again.

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