Citadel Boathouse

The Citadel has broken ground on a new boating center after razing its old boathouse. Construction is expected to wrap up by the summer of 2019. Thad Moore/Staff

There aren't many places on The Citadel campus that are associated purely with joy, but Dr. Christopher Swain can think of one.

It has been shuttered for years.

It was the old boathouse, where cadets checked out sailboats and rowing shells for decades. It was a launching point to the Ashley River, out through the marsh, away from classes, room inspections and other rigors of daily life at the school.

Swain jokes the boathouse was his path to sneak off campus from time to time. Even the Citadel's president, Lt. Gen. John Rosa, admits that in his day, cadets would bring drinks along since the river was off-campus. ("We were OK," he clarifies. "We checked out the rules.")

Cadets haven't had that sort of escape in years — and not just because the drinking age increased to 21. Instead, the opportunity for a break on the Ashley gradually closed inch by inch.

Budget shortfalls put dredging on the back burner until the college's channel had silted in. The old boathouse — built nearly a century ago — crumbled as termites and neglect set in.

Swain and his wife, Debbie, stepped in five years ago with an offer to cut a check to revitalize it with both a new boating center and an endowment to maintain it. The couple's identity remained a secret until this month.

They stepped forward last week when construction crews formally broke ground on the new facility which will feature an event space that takes advantage of the campus's river views. The college's waterfront property is dominated today by parking lots and windowless buildings, including its rifle range.

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Dr. Christopher Swain speaks at a groundbreaking ceremony for the Citadel's new Swain Boating Center with his wife, Debbie. Provided/Louis Brems/The Citadel

That's partly why the Swains stepped up with what has been described by the college as a seven-figure gift. The construction alone will cost $3.3 million, and the college isn't financing it with tuition dollars or state money. It declined to disclose the exact size of the contribution.

"It was a beautiful piece of waterfront to have. It just really was a shame to not be able to see it," Swain said. "Literally, you couldn't see it."

The idea of reviving the college's boating culture isn't new, though.

The Citadel has floated the idea since at least 2000 when its president at the time said cadets could access the Ashley only a few hours a day when the tides were high. At that point, the college was looking at joining a city proposal to build a marina by Brittlebank Park.

Those ideas never came to fruition.

The boathouse had not been touched up since the 1970s when The Citadel's rowing crew disbanded and its sailing team started practicing downtown.

Citadel hopes to revitalize ‘culture of water’ with new boathouse project (copy)

The now-demolished Citadel boathouse stood for decades before it faced problems with termites. The building's deterioration came as the college's boating channel silted in. File

Now they will.

The new facility is still a year from opening but work is coming along. The old boathouse has been leveled, a new dock installed and blue pilings sunk into the marsh. The channel was cleared out in late 2016.

For the first time in a decade, cadets can get on the water in a vessel larger than a skiff, a canoe or a jon boat, said college spokeswoman Kim Keelor Parker.

"Never again will a tight budget force the college not to dredge, not to maintain the facilities, not to fund the day-to-day operations," said Claudius "Bud" Watts IV, chair of the Citadel Foundation. "Generations of cadets ought to be able to enjoy access to the open water and maybe even fall in love with the waters of Lowcountry South Carolina."

Reach Thad Moore at 843-937-5703. Follow him on Twitter @thadmoore.