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‘A labor of love’: The lives of Boathouse Row’s little-known inhabitants

Philadelphia's iconic boathouses have been standing for more than a 150 years, and at that age, a leaky pipe or a loose wire left unfixed can spell doom. They might be long gone, in fact, if not for the Row's "watchers on the wall" — resident managers.

Resident manager Robin Wijngaarden in large living room of the Sedgeley Club on Boathouse Row. Behind him is the base of the club's lighthouse, which extends through the floor into the foundation.
Resident manager Robin Wijngaarden in large living room of the Sedgeley Club on Boathouse Row. Behind him is the base of the club's lighthouse, which extends through the floor into the foundation.Read moreJonathan Wilson

Dutch newlyweds Robin Wijngaarden and Sigrid Gouma migrated to Philadelphia about a year and a half ago, and much to their surprise, they soon found a home in one of Philly’s most iconic places: Boathouse Row.

“I never thought this would happen when I moved to the United States, that I’d be living in a historic lighthouse on the most beautiful spot in Philadelphia,” Wijngaarden said, laughing. “You could say I’m partly living the American dream.”

Wijngaarden’s official title is resident manager of Sedgeley Club, the women’s social house at the northwest end of Boathouse Row. He and Gouma share a tiny apartment — barely 300 square feet — at the top of the building. As resident manager, he’s charged with maintaining and repairing the historic structure. He is one of five such managers on the Row.

Boathouse Row, a National Historic Landmark, houses 10 rowing clubs between Kelly Drive and the Schuylkill. They’re all governed by the Schuylkill Navy of Philadelphia, the oldest amateur rowing organization in the United States. At night, white lights line the houses and reflect along the river, one of the city’s most iconic sights.

Around the 19th century, “the boathouses had a lot of issues with crime,” said Dotty Brown, author of Boathouse Row: Waves of Change in the Birthplace of American Rowing. “Criminals used to break in and steal things. There wasn’t a lot happening around the Row, and so the houses became easy pickings at night.”

The solution: permanent inhabitants.

Records indicate that some boathouses were regularly monitored by a salaried caretaker, or janitor, whose role included house upkeep and boat launch preparation, Brown said. It’s unclear from club minutes whether the role initially included living in the boathouses.

Joe Krajewski, a former resident manager of Sedgeley, said the job these days isn’t primarily about security — or at least, about preventing break-ins. Instead, it focuses on house maintenance and upkeep. For historic buildings such as these, a leaky pipe or a loose wire left unfixed can spell doom, he said.

Bonnie Mueller, vice commodore of the Schuylkill Navy, said that due to “an enormous amount of stewardship,” the boathouses have largely avoided catastrophic problems in the recent past. The clubs take their responsibilities both to the past and future of the historic structures seriously, she said, and have made major investments toward preventing their decline.

“It really is a labor of love,” Mueller said.

Resident managers play a critical role not only in the houses where they reside, but also on the entire Row. “They spend so much time there that if something is off — a sound, a smell, anything — they’ll notice it,” Mueller said. “That’s invaluable.”

When Wijngaarden first moved into Sedgeley, he painted the stairs, organized the basement, and fixed the crumbling wall at the base of the lighthouse. Now, he mostly does maintenance: cleaning windows, mowing the grass, taking care of the garden. Occasionally, he’ll give house tours to prospective event hosts.

One thing Wijngaarden doesn’t have to do: stick around during actual events. Although he’s always happy to be on call in case of an emergency, he tries to stay out of the event organizers’ way. “When they come in,” he says, “I go out to dinner.”

Between events, both Wijngaarden and Krajewski said, life on the Row is quiet. In winter, Krajewski loved the silence of the house during big storms. In summer, Wijngaarden sits on the waterfront as the sun goes down and watches rowers go by.

Despite the everyday rhythm of a crew schedule, a boathouse can be lonely. “There’s always somebody there, but you don’t really have neighbors,” Krajewski said.

On the other hand, he said, rowers are “a pretty tight group.”

“There’s like one degree of separation between everyone on the Row,” said Krajewski, who’s been around Boathouse Row for 20 years. “If you don’t know someone, you at least know someone who knows them.”

Krajewski, who had been training for the Olympics — “unsuccessfully,” he adds with a laugh — at Penn Athletic Club and Vesper Boat Club, started working at Pennsylvania Barge Club on a one-year contract in 2008. When he finished with PBC, he moved into Sedgeley and worked there for nine years.

He’s now based in North Carolina but misses aspects of life on the river. “More than any individual club, Boathouse Row itself feels like home,” he said.

All the resident managers have a background in rowing. Wijngaarden, for example, has been rowing since he was 12 and works as an independent rowing coach for three clubs. The manager of Crescent Boat Club, Troy Madden, has coached novice rowers for six years, and the resident in Bachelor Barge Club’s upriver house, Dave Florio, has been on Drexel University’s rowing staff for nine.

Paul Garberson, a longtime member of Undine Boat Club, discovered his vocation while working as the resident manager of Undine’s clubhouse, Castle Ringstetten.

“We used to joke that it was so beautiful we felt like we were living in a Wes Anderson movie," Garberson said. "But you’re really living in a 140-year-old historic home, and it’s a constant battle to maintain.”

Over the five years that he and his partner (now husband) Joey Hoepp lived in the Castle, they redid the driveway, replaced 60 to 70 feet of plumbing after a water main break, rebuilt the deck, and hosted hundreds of dinners and events.

“It’s hard, but it’s worth it,” he says.

It was while hosting dinners that Garberson decided to pursue a longtime dream: going to culinary school. As the special-events chairs of the Schuylkill Navy, he and Hoepp had access to a commercial kitchen, so he figured, why not?

As it turned out, he loved it. After culinary school, Garberson quit his full-time job in real estate and got a job at the Fitler Dining Room, now Trattoria Carina, in Rittenhouse Square. Then he and Hoepp opened Irwin’s, a cocktail bar/restaurant at the top of the Bok building in South Philadelphia.

None of it would have happened if they hadn’t moved to the Castle, Garberson said. “I owe so many things in my life to living out there. … Looking back now, I wouldn’t change anything.”

It’s a particularly interesting time to live on Boathouse Row, as the need to dredge the Schuylkill threatens the health and future of Philadelphia’s rowing scene. Even if there were no rowing, some say, Boathouse Row would still be an iconic place.

But Jack Higgins, the current resident manager of Undine’s Castle Ringstetten, disagreed. “Rowing is such an interesting and integral part of the city; it’s always going to be a constant here.”

As the 28th manager of the Castle, the Undine rower noted, living in the house often feels “like being taken out of time.”

“Right now, I’m sitting in a room full of things that are more than a hundred years old,” said Higgins, who moved into the Castle last spring after Garberson and Hoepp left. The role has opened his eyes to history in a new way, and now he can’t possibly imagine the Row without, well, rowers. “The equipment changes, the people change — but as long as there’s good stewardship of the river, I see the sport continuing.”

For Wijngaarden, especially, the work is deeply meaningful. “I’m just a foreigner passing through, but I’m now part of this history,” he said. “That’s why I do the maintenance the way I do it now, all the painting and fixing and just preserving the place a little better than it was before. It’s a part of giving back.”

Last year, he and Gouma visited the Netherlands for the first time since coming to Philadelphia. They brought back tulip bulbs, the Dutch national flowers, and planted them along the side of the boathouse.

He hopes they’ll bloom this spring.