Under a hazy sun on the banks of the Schuylkill, city and Temple University officials Thursday marked the on-schedule and on-budget start of the restoration of the East Park Canoe House, the historic - and once-condemned - home of Temple's rowing teams.
The boathouse, which had sat unused since being condemned in 2008, got a new breath of life last February, when the city announced that it would kick in $2.5 million and that Temple trustee and philanthropist H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest would donate $3 million to renovate the 100-year-old brick-and-stucco building.
Before turning the earth in a symbolic groundbreaking attended by dozens, including past and current members of Owls teams, Lenfest addressed the athletes, who have been using tents alongside the building since 2008.
"Temple has to have a home on the Schuylkill for its rowing teams," Lenfest, owner and publisher of The Inquirer, said, adding, "The one thing I would like is that you will win next year. So I want you to get to work."
Mayor Nutter said, "When this renovation project is complete, Philadelphia only stands to benefit from the result."
When it came his turn to speak, school president Neil Theobald told the athletes, "This has been a circuitous route to where we got to today. There's no program we're prouder of than our rowing and our crew programs. Thank you for hanging in with us."
Saving the boathouse saved the men's crew and women's rowing teams, both of which faced elimination in 2013 in a cost-cutting move. One of the reasons for disbanding them was the state of the East Park Canoe House, which both teams had called home since 1969. The school could not afford to renovate the crumbling, fenced-off structure.
"Knowing that it's being rebuilt for us is so incredible," said Temple rower Emilie Mehler, 21, who will be a senior this fall and might get to use the boathouse. The renovation is expected to be finished by March.
Gavin White, 35-year coach of the crew team, once rowed out of East Park Canoe House himself.
After years when "the walls were falling down," he said, he's encouraged to see construction progressing so his team can get back inside.
Rowing coach Rebecca Grzybowski, who has worked out of tents with her team since joining the program five years ago, said moving into the boathouse would be new for her and exciting.
"I feel like it's one of those things where we're not even going to realize the benefit until we get in and start using it," Grzybowski said.
Just south of the Strawberry Mansion Bridge, and upstream from the grandeur of Boathouse Row, the East Park Canoe House was designated as historic 20 years ago, a move that barred its demolition.
Its Mission Revival architecture features ornate window grills, engraved wooden details, and a red-clay tile roof, all of which will be restored, said Temple associate vice president Margaret Carney, the school's architect.
The roof tiles, for example, will be replaced by the Philadelphia plant that made the originals. That's one of the reasons the renovation will require months to complete.
When the 1914 building is again in use, Temple athletes will share the space with the Police Department's Marine Unit.
"It takes the city a long time to do anything," Lenfest said after the ceremony. "This is a celebration that it's happening."