WMS Boathouse at Clark Park – Studio Gang

The boathouse so nice, they built it twice – and for good reason. The boathouse in Clark Park, coupled with the one in Bridgeport and the continued expansion of river walks around the city, are part of Mayor Emanuel’s attempt to get the city back to the river (and is probably the best decision he’s made in his mayorship but we’re not getting into politics here). The boathouse also has a simple poetic concept rooted in historical research – it is literally shaped by the slow motion serial image capture of a rower in motion. It’s a formal move grounded in history and program giving it meaning.

You can almost read the cadence of “Stroke! Stroke!” in the roofline of the building itself. The cadence is as functional here as it is in a race, as the rooflines allow for clerestory windows letting light into the storage areas. It’s a beautiful, poetic, yet functional way to take what could have been a simple utilitarian parks building and turn it into a great moment along the Chicago River.

The materiality is wonderful too – taking traditional slate and using as both wall and roof cladding and combining with zinc panels. This building will age very well over time, and should be quite durable. The slate cladding also allows for small detail moments that come together to enhance the project – the small drip overhang where roof meets wall and the “channel” where walls angle that allow water to flow into the gravel area instead of hitting concrete. The thickened thresholds at openings in slate give it a gravity that contrasts with the flush placement of openings in the zinc cladded walls.

It is also designed as a building “in the round” – making a statement to the river, park, and the walking path along the river. Perhaps the only portion that seems a bit off is the approach via car along Rockwell coming from Addison. This is the only approach that belies the spectacle of a node along the river and approaches formally the utilitarian nature of the building, although it doesn’t distract from the overall whole.


The separation of massing into storage shed and training center is really well done, continuing the strokes of the rower in the roofline and allowing for a change of material from slate to zinc cladding at the walls. Even with change in material and program, the buildings read as a cohesive whole.

Overall the boathouse (and it’s sister in Bridgeport) are great amenities to have along the river, and allowing the boathouses to be great design is a wonderful civic gesture and helps to begin the process of Chicago taking back it’s rightful place as a center for architectural design. Anyone want to go kayaking?

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Josh Mings

Architect and painter. Columbus, IN born, New Orleans educated, Chicago living and trying to leave the world better than I found it.