Given its proximity to Lake Mendota, it is not surprising that the UW has long been famous for its crew teams. The original crew house was located between the Old Red Gym and the Mendota shoreline, and by the mid-twentieth century was clearly inadequate to the size of the teams that were trying to use it. In the 1960s, plans began to be made for the construction of a crew house farther west on the shore, with the original chosen site being proposed at Willow Beach.
There was much public protest about this site, since the beach was the only one open to the public on the west side of Madison. The Athletic Department initially sought to deflect this concern by constructing a new beach house on the north side of Picnic Point, and that building was in fact completed (though never actually used). But protests continued, until finally a new site was chosen on the lakeshore at the north end of Babcock Drive. A single-story concrete building 110 feet square, it was completed in 1967.
Unfortunately, this new structure was already proving inadequate by the 1970s, especially after the promotion of women’s crew to varsity status. In the early twenty-first century, the 15,000 square foot 1967 crew house was demolished and replaced by a new, much more spacious three-story building with 52,000 square feet of space for the crew teams. Named the Porter Boathouse, it has space for storing more than 100 boats, along with repair facilities, exercise areas, locker rooms, and offices.
Given its proximity to the Lakeshore Path, the Porter Boathouse requires team members and users of the Lakeshore Nature Preserve to be respectful of each other’s needs and interests. Although there was originally some discussion of rerouting the Lakeshore Path around the building, there was widespread feeling that this would violate one of the most cherished features of the UW landscape. The compromise solution was to provide gates that the crew teams can close when they are moving boats in and out of the buildings, to prevent collisions with bicyclists and other users of the path. Whenever the gates are closed, bikers and walkers are asked to go around the boathouse.
Raising the crew house by three stories had the consequence of blocking the view of Lake Mendota from Babcock Drive and surrounding buildings, but the narrow site permitted no other obvious solution to the space problems that the teams were facing.