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Canoe Club Building Slated for Upgrades

By Mark LiebermanCurrent Staff Writer

The Washington Canoe Club has stood at 3700 Water St. NW in Georgetown since 1905, with several additions expanding its footprint over the decades. In 1991, the National Park Service-owned site earned distinction as a historic landmark.

But since 2010, the club has been forced to make do largely outside the historic boathouse building — the majority of the two-story, 11,240-square-foot facility is unsafe for occupation, according to the Park Service. Now the club’s robust selection of canoes and other watercraft sit outside, and users endure portable toilets and outdoor rinse showers in lieu of indoor facilities.

Members are enthusiastic, however, about a plan to restore and even upgrade the boathouse. Earlier this year, the club announced a partnership with Georgetown-based design firm Cox Graae + Spack Architects, which is now working on a preliminary report on possible short- and long-term improvements. Those findings could be available as early as June, according to the firm’s Chris Graae.

Progress can’t come soon enough for the canoe club’s members, who have dismissed out of hand the possibility of demolishing the building or relocating. The club also hopes to secure soon a 60-year renewal of its lease with the National Park Service, which took over the property from the now-defunct C&O Canal Co. in 1971.

“We’ve got this building that’s very expensive to fix up. It’s not ideal,” said Chris Brown, chair of the club’s Boathouse Rehabilitation Committee. “But we’re committed to making it happen. We can’t really see any other alternatives for ourselves.”

Susann Shin/The Current
Susann Shin/The Current

An engineer estimated that a full slate of repairs could cost well over $5 million, including fees and contingencies. The club — which has 225 individual and family members, as well as a handful of junior members and out-of-towners — doesn’t have the reserves for such an undertaking, according to Brown. The bulk of the renovations will rely on donations from members, corporations and the general public, he said.

Thus far, the National Park Service has indicated to Brown that its funding priorities are larger projects like the C&O Canal restoration. Agency spokesperson Ben Helwig said officials haven’t made any funding decisions on the boathouse work.

When most of the club’s functions left the building seven years ago, members fretted about the long-term future of the organization. Early concerns were unfounded, though; after a brief drop in membership, users returned, and the club’s broad range of events and offerings resumed, serving casual river users and athletes alike. In addition to recreational activities, the club frequently hosts youth groups and community events like the annual Potomac River Cleanup.

Still, the building itself, which also includes a ballroom that fits up to 150 people, has structural problems that will only worsen with time. The impact of sustained heavy snowfall remains a concern, though last year’s blizzard was less damaging than anticipated. Cox Graae + Spack hopes to identify relatively easy repairs while a more comprehensive renovation is funded over the next few years. “We want to make sure that if we can’t finish it for a decade, it will be standing,” Brown said.

Graae said his team is considering an approach that would bring the club operations back into the building’s eastern half while a longer repair effort addresses the older western portion. The boathouse was designed for its current purpose, which makes some renovation efforts easier, according to Graae. But the downside is that the building sits on a precarious, flood-prone point on the Potomac River. Any solution will require a delicate touch, as well as input from numerous review agencies including the Old Georgetown Board.

The renovation also comes amid change for the surrounding area. The National Park Service envisions three new boathouses and a new storage building at nearby sites along the Potomac, and the Georgetown Business Improvement District is working to improve Water and K streets, including replacing some parking spots with a bike lane.

The prospect of tighter parking constraints from both initiatives worries Brown, who sees persistent congestion in that area. He has been working with the business group’s transportation manager Will Handsfield on the possibility of using space in nearby commercial parking garages.

This article appears in the April 26 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.