- Associated Press - Monday, October 27, 2014

DETROIT (AP) - The headlights cut the dark before 4:30 a.m., over the bridge, around the bend, back into the gravel lot that abuts the old boathouse. It is quiet, the river a sheet of glass, the city across it still slumbering.

The rowers descend from all spokes of the Detroit area, but mostly from the city and its northern and eastern suburbs. They come to this forgotten place to test themselves in the elements, against backdrop of massive freighters, gliding along the waters that split two countries.

“A lot of people probably thought rowing died at the old boat club,” said Dick Bell, an institutional fixture at the Detroit Boat Club Crew who teaches teenagers how to row. “It never has.”

The club, sponsored by Friends of Detroit Rowing, dates to the late 1830s, and most things that old get forgotten. Even now, the place is easy to miss, the Detroit Free Press (https://on.freep.com/Zqc1lK ) reported.

Its crumbling stucco facade hugs the Detroit River just northeast of the bridge to Belle Isle, but unless you are looking for it, you would never find it. The place is like a lot of Detroit that way, so much history, yet invisible anyway.

At one point, the club pumped out Olympians and national champs, a focal point of rowing for the country. Yet we don’t connect the water and its pursuits to the city. Michigan might be surrounded by the greatest of lakes, but Detroit remains dry in our psyche. All that industry along the river surely separated us from the water. And, let’s face it, our difficult history did, too.

When Bell began coaching at the club in the early 1970s, the sport was more popular. Still, here he is, ordering instructions into a megaphone, riding in a motorboat alongside his students.

Forward they lunge in unison, elbows extending out, the oars slipping over the surface of the water before dipping back in for a pull. Crew is a difficult and demanding sport, and its reward is blending in with teammates moving in synchronicity to the lure of the water.

Though the club began 175 years ago - it celebrated the anniversary in August - the current home on Belle Isle dates back only 112 years. Two previous boathouses occupied this tuft of land before, but both were taken out by fire.

It’s not much prettier now, not with weather and neglect fighting so fearsomely against it. It’s hard enough for the club to maintain the innards, let alone the equipment to stay on the water.

As Todd Platt, the president of the club, said: “It comes down to (structural) expenditure versus equipment,” and remaining on the river is what keeps the operation afloat.

For the teenagers who practice here from area high schools to the master rowers who arrive before daybreak, the building isn’t what drives them. It’s the history, and the river, and the city that sprawls out alongside it.

But even then the decay is too much for others. Platt said there are those that find the place too heartbreaking. Not its spirit, certainly, just its ghostly reminders.

In its heyday, the club offered up a resplendent social scene, a bandstand on one edge of the river, a swimming pool on the other. There were ballrooms and show rooms and complete kitchens to feed the bustling crowds.

Its Spanish-inspired arches still suggest a grand history - the boathouse was designed by Wirt Rowland, who found his own creative inspiration after a trip through the Basque region of Spain.

The terracotta roof still sheaths the top, and remnants of the stucco cling to the walls. Weeds and fallen rock cover what’s left of the old deck. Platt and the loyalists he oversees do what they can to keep the plumbing updated and focus on the boats and the indoor rowing equipment to keep the enthusiasts coming back in the winter.

They’ve all splashed new paint on the insides and tidied up where they can. The city itself lost interest in the building long ago, at one point discussing turning it into a hotel.

Now the state is considering stepping in to help - the club and the state are negotiating a lease. Platt and Bell and the rest of the staff are hopeful.

The old house used to be the center of rowing in America, and for some it was so much more. “Used to be” is a familiar phrase in this city, but even that is beginning to change, too.

It begins when the headlights break the dark, and boats are carried out to the water. It doesn’t take long before the sun comes up to light the way.

___

Information from: Detroit Free Press, https://www.freep.com

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