Fontana Boathouse (designed 1905, constructed 2007)
Buffalo, New York
After a quick tour around the desolate city of Buffalo, we arrived at our 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 could not be 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 soon after the construction of the foundation building. The rise of the water due to the storm, which exceeded the ten-year water level projection, enforced the investigation of a hundred-year water level outlook for the area, and 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 offers extensive tours of the building.
As Wright’s earlier work, the Boathouse embodies characteristics of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie school design, with emphasis on horizontality. 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 working harmoniously with its natural context. The bottom floor, boat storage area is the concrete mass that supports the recessed mass of the upper floor. The weight of the concrete mass is emphasized with the lack of windows and its large size compared to the upper floor. The east façade, facing the highway, continues the horizontal flow of the river with its defined ledge and cantilevered roof. The weighted appearance of the flat concrete roof is contrasted by the transparency of the supporting second floor dining area. The roof is unreinforced concrete, supported only with steel I-beams, with a hidden gutter system along its inner perimeter. The structural clerestory windows with oak wood frames support the roof and permits views to the river through the club dining area. The windows are recessed back from the concrete mass of the first floor, which act as a balcony opening up to the second floor dining space. A continuous glass railing, not a part of the original design, had to be added for safety measures that reflect the current building codes. However, the continuity of the clean glass railings seem to not impose on the design too much.
The horizontality on the north and south elevations are balanced with vertical elements. The bilaterally symmetrical façade is shaded by a cantilevered roof that extrudes outwards to form an open entrance space. Unlike most of Wright’s works consisting of a compressed entrance, he opens up the pathway with the double storey columns that extend to support the cantilevered roof. (b) The horizontality is emphasized with the cantilevered concrete overhang. Overall, the building is an organic addition to the landscape, through the balanced composition of different elements and the continuity of the horizontal line of the river.
Wright’s obsession with symmetry and proportion is further expressed into the interior space. The grid of the boat storage room is outlined with the wooden frames that run in a perpendicular axis to the building, outlining the square light fixtures on the ceiling. This lining meets the alignment for the supporting columns designed to carry the boats, which meets the skylights, running down the walls to outline the window frames. Every detail of the building is custom designed by Wright, including the wooden shutters that horizontally cross the diamond pattern on the windows. As one of his earlier designs, the building consists of thicker corner window frames. The thickness of the frames allow for them to be used as a structural support for the roof, eliminating the need for extensive concrete supports for the second floor.
The gathering room on the top floor is open to natural light from both longitudinal sides of the room. The wooden frames of the windows are extended to the wooden strips on the ceiling, and the lining is met on the opposite side of the wall, to the mirrored window frames on the other side. (c) The west wall frames the view of the river, and the east wall frames the view of the traffic in the highway.
The floor is composed of Oak panels with slight gaps, where the water from the boats can drip through to the drainage floor below. The Boathouse was designed without a mechanical room and the exposed mechanical system was added later by the architects who built the building. The concrete floor units of the second floor balcony are also made with slight gaps that allow for water to drain underneath.