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Visitors discovering boathouse designed by Wright, supporters say

Two years after it opened, Frank Lloyd Wright's Fontana Boathouse is beginning to fulfill its potential as a tourist destination, advocates say.

At first, the waterfront location -- well off the beaten path on Black Rock Channel -- was not trumpeted to travelers. The facility, which Wright had designed more than a century earlier for the University of Wisconsin, did not even have a phone.

But visitors from all over the globe are finding their way to the distinctive structure, the volunteer group that built it reported Tuesday.

After accepting a $250,000 state grant obtained by State Sen. William T. Stachowski, D-Lake View, that will help pay off construction debt and start an endowment, Sharon Courtin, executive director of the Frank Lloyd Wright's Rowing Boathouse Corp., noted that hundreds of people from 20 states and from nations as distant as England and Australia have come this year for a look-see.

"We are attracting many people from around the world and expect to attract many more," she said.

The group now has a reception desk in the facility, which doubles as a boathouse for the West Side Rowing Club, and offers docent-led and cell phone audio tours.

The visitor count does not include busloads of sightseers who regularly ride by, people who rent the upstairs hall for social gatherings or rowing club members who frequent the premises, Courtin said.

The state grant will help reduce the $750,000 outstanding balance on the $5.5 million construction loan and jump-start an endowment campaign that "will sustain the boathouse for generations to come," said John D. Myers, board chairman and a founding director.

The organization has not mounted a fund drive since completing a $3.3 million campaign to erect the two-story, poured-concrete structure, which has the contours of a Wright prairie house.

With the state facing record deficits, legislators have less discretionary money to pass around, Stachowski noted.

"We're trying to make wise choices," he said, "and helping culturals with capital expenses has become a very important part of what we're doing."

Lifting an oar for the boathouse was an easy call, Stachowski added.

"The beauty of the architecture and the significance of the design makes this a worthy destination for architecture enthusiasts" as well as a worthy facility for the nation's largest youth-based rowing club, he said.

The boathouse was named for the late Charles Fontana, a legendary rowing coach, and his wife, Marie -- the parents of television writer and producer Tom Fontana.

e-mail: tbuckham@buffnews.com

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