The Brittingham Boat House is the oldest surviving parks building in Madison. It pre-dates the Madison Parks Division, and is a direct link to the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association, begun informally in 1892 and incorporated in 1894. The Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association raised private funds to develop and maintain scenic drives and parks in and around Madison. The Association developed some of Madison’s most charming public spaces – Brittingham, Hoyt, Olin, Burrows, Tenney & Vilas Parks and the Glenway Golf Course. Until 1931, the Association functioned as the city’s unofficial parks department. In 1938, the organization disbanded after completing final title transfer of its property holdings to the city. The Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association’s influence extended beyond park development to other areas of civic life where it set standards for public service.
In 1908, John M. Olin, President of the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association, wrote of the need in Brittingham Park for a public bathhouse and boathouse. Some neighborhood residents lost their private boathouses when Brittingham Park was created, and it was Olin’s desire to both serve the neighborhood needs and provide some compensation for their loss.
Thomas E. Brittingham, already a large donor to the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association, stepped up to the challenge. The prominent lumberman and philanthropist (and donor of Brittingham Park, Madison General Hospital, Neighborhood House at 29 S. Mill St., the 1st UW student infirmary and the statute of Lincoln on Bascom Hill) pledged $7500 for the construction of a public bathhouse, if the city would donate $5000 for a boathouse. The city agreed.
Landscape architect and city planner, John Nolen, drew up a sketch plan and site arrangement for each building. These sketches were sent to the prestigious Milwaukee architectural firm of Ferry & Clas for final designs.
The boathouse, constructed of cypress, was erected by early 1910. In 1921 the south wing was extended to add six bays, using the same design and materials as the original structure.
In 1977, the boathouse was named a City of Madison landmark. In 1979 the City of Madison spent over $50,000 to renovate the building. It received a new roof and electrical system and the entire exterior was sanded and painted. In 1982 it was listed on the National Historic Landmarks Registry.
Unfortunately, over the decades, the building’s condition deteriorated mostly because of the unstable dredge material used for fill under the original structure. Although the boathouse was partially restored in 1979, no significant renovation funding was available to repair the structurally failing building.
In 2001, Camp Randall Rowing Club, Inc., in partnership with the Madison Parks Division, the Madison Parks Commission and the Madison Parks Foundation, restarted the effort to save the Brittingham Boathouse. Phase 1 of the Brittingham Boathouse Renovation Project (approximately $850,000) was completed in 2006. It included lifting and relocating the structure to an adjacent location with more stable soils and the complete historic restoration of the exterior of the building, along with the establishment of historic landscaping surrounding the structure.
The money for this extensive renovation came from the fund-raising efforts of Camp Randall Rowing Club, the donations of private citizens, the Hollister trust (left over from the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association days), City of Madison TIF funds, fund-raising efforts of the Madison Parks Foundation, Park Development Fees and Madison Parks Division capital budget funds.
Under the terms of a long-term lease, Camp Randall Rowing Club uses the Brittingham Boathouse to provide competitive high school rowing programs, summer Learn to Row programs for middle and high school students and a WeCanRow program for women cancer survivors. Madison residents can rent rack spaces at the boathouse for privately owned rowing shells.
On May 3, 2007, the 2007 Historic Preservation Award was presented to Camp Randall by the Madison Trust for Historic Preservation in recognition of its outstanding preservation efforts on the Brittingham Boathouse. On June 11, 2007, the Wisconsin Historic Society Board of Curators and Awards Committee selected Camp Randall and the Madison Parks Department to receive the Historic Preservation Award. These awards honor the work of Camp Randall Rowing Club and the City of Madison in protecting the Brittingham Boathouse, a Wisconsin historic property.
In 2009, Camp Randall Rowing Club, in partnership with the Madison Parks Division, began the next phase of the renovation project, involving the addition of restrooms and running water for the many rowers using the boathouse, along with the installation of an exterior water fountain for the fishermen, runners and bicyclists using Brittingham Park. This phase (approximately $120,000) was completed in the summer of 2011.
The final phase of the Brittingham Boathouse Renovation Project involves the historic renovation of the building’s interior spaces. Much of the handcrafted interior cypress wood was removed during the initial construction and is currently in storage. This final phase contemplates reuse of the original cypress and reconstruction of the original interior architectural details of the boathouse.
Madison Originals magazine featured an article on Brittingham Boathouse in its May 2010 issue. It’s an interesting read and includes the more recent history of the boathouse as Camp Randall Rowing Club, with the help of many, worked to bring the building back to life. Read the article here. (PDF)