Employee Spotlight: David Florio, the Assistant Crew Coach Living in Boathouse Row History

David Florio '06 is surrounded by rowing history in the Button, where he has lived as the caretaker for five years. Photos by Charles Shan Cerrone.
David Florio '06 is surrounded by rowing history in the Button, where he has lived as the caretaker for five years. All photos by Charles Shan Cerrone unless otherwise noted.

When David Florio ’06, an assistant crew coach for Drexel University’s rowing program, was in high school rowing out of the Penn AC Rowing Association for Saint Joseph’s Preparatory School, he spent a lot of time on Boathouse Row and used to joke with friends about living there — which he actually ended up doing.

“My friends and I would say, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if you could live here one day?’ You’d just joke around. And now I live here,” said Florio. “It’s like, ‘How did this happen?’ It’s really wild when you think about it. But I just lucked into it.”

What Florio “lucked” into is living at the Button, the social club of Bachelors Barge Club, the longest continually operated boathouse on Boathouse Row and the clubhouse that Drexel has rowed out of since 2008. Bachelors Barge Club, from which Conestoga High School as well as club members now row out of, was started as a members-only rowing organization in 1853 with ties to the founder of the University, financier Anthony J. “Tony” Drexel, and also maintained connections to the University before aligning with it in the 21st century.

The exterior of the Button photographed today, and how it might have looked when photographed in the past.

The Button is located close to East Falls Bridge about four miles north of Boathouse Row. It was built in 1873 for members of the Bachelors Barge Club who wanted to have a place to row upriver where they could relax, eat and drink. Certain traditions have persisted, like members drinking out of their individual mugs at the Button and giving each member (or “brother”) a club name, usually based off his profession, interests or a pun from his name. The folklore around Boathouse Row has it that the Button’s location upriver was ideal for members who could drift downstream to the Bachelors Barge Club if they had trouble rowing after socializing.

Florio has lived at the Button for about five years as the caretaker, living rent-free on the second floor of the house in exchange for managing the property and its yard, and preparing the ground floor, which has a porch, meeting area, commercial-grade kitchen and bar area used by the club’s members. His living room, for example, used to be the “ladies’ room” where the companions of Button members would freshen up, and is filled with memorabilia dating back to the early years of Bachelors Barge Club. He has lived there with a rescue dog, Maddie, for four years, and his wife, a Drexel graduate, for two years; with a baby on the way, they plan on staying at the Button for a little while longer.

“It’s a piece of history,” said Florio, “and I get to be a part of it.”

As a Drexel student, Florio was a coxswain on the University’s crew team from 2000–2005. After graduating with a finance degree, he continued working as a sales associate/junior broker at Commerce Bank (where he had worked for his second and third co-ops, and also between co-ops).

David Florio and his dog, Maddie, playing in the driveway of the Button.

But he never stopped being involved with crew.

In 2007, Florio earned a spot on the U.S. National Team and competed in the men’s pair event in the World Championships, which were held on the Olympic course in Munich, Germany. After Commerce Bank was purchased by Toronto-Dominion Bank to create TD Bank, Florio turned to coaching full-time at Lower Merion High School and Archbishop Prendergast. He actually came back to Drexel in 2010 as a graduate assistant, receiving a stipend to help out with the crew team while taking graduate classes.

“I wasn’t sure where this next part of my life would take me,” said Florio. “I was taking classes in things that I thought could either give me an idea of what I might want to do next, because I was thinking about becoming a teacher, or help me where I was at then, as a coach.”

And if he had also been looking for a sign for where to continue, Florio received many of them. A full-time assistant coaching position opened up at the University in 2012, which he took. And the previous caretaker of the Button, an elderly man who had managed it for decades by himself, had left, and Bachelors Barge Club was looking for a replacement.

The drinking mugs of deceased Bachelors Barge Club members are displayed at the end of the porch area of the Button.

“My name was thrown out there because I wasn’t married and I would just be around the boathouse, coaching and fixing boats and hanging out,” he said. “So of course, I said yes.”

And it all happened at the right time, at the right place, with the right man for the job.

“There was this idea of trying to bring the two houses of Drexel and Bachelors together,” he said. “And there I was, a member of the Drexel coaching staff, and I became the caretaker of the Button. It’s kind of my thing, trying to keep things clean and trying to keep people together. That’s what the job of a coxswain is, and the job of a coach. I get things in order and then I keep everybody together. It was really just an extension of that.”

For Florio, there were many other benefits to moving into the Button besides free rent. His commute got that much easier, since he had been coming to campus and Boathouse Row from New Jersey. And the location also benefited his coaching and how he could help the team.

The walls of the Button are filled with hanging memorabilia, like a plaque with the Bachelors Barge Club crest, left, and a painting of Olympic gold medalist and Bachelors Barge Club president W.E. Garrett Gilmore, or "Loft," right.

“It just adds an awareness of things that you need to know about,” he said. “Like, how cold it is, what the weather is doing, what the water is like, what other people are doing on the water and things like that. There are all types of things to think about.”

A year after he started living at the Button, David Florio became the house manager of Bachelors Barge Club (the first to be a Drexel employee). But before he left his coaching position, he helped the Dragons win their first-ever Dad Vail Regatta overall team title, as well as a men’s varsity eight gold medal and a men’s title.

Florio returned to Drexel as an assistant coach in 2018 and is the boat and equipment coordinator for the men’s and women’s teams. Ever since returning to Drexel after graduation, he has seen the emergence of the University’s team as a major powerhouse — Drexel Rowing has won the team title at the prestigious Dad Vail Regatta every year since 2013.

And he has also seen a further overlap between Drexel and Bachelors Barge Club. Members, which include Drexel alumni, cheer on the University at races, and Drexel uses the Button occasionally for events. In a way, he’s keeping up a tradition that was started centuries ago.

Bachelors Barge Club was created in 1853 by a group of upper-class men, some of whom were members of the Phoenix Engine Company, a volunteer firefighting organization in Center City, and a “Yes, Oui, Si” chess club that met at the Athenaeum Building. They had gathered in the house of Israel W. Morris, Jr., a wealthy industrialist and mining engineer, to start the organization; Morris, who is recognized as the founder, had a club name of “Tubes.”

David Florio pages through "Boathouse Row: Waves of Change in the Birthplace of American Rowing" by Dotty Brown. It's one of the many, many books related to rowing, Boathouse Row and Bachelors Barge Club kept in the Button.

Morris and Drexel’s founder moved in similar circles in Philadelphia’s upper-class. They were philanthropists — both, for example, donating to Pennsylvania Hospital. And they were members of the American Institute of Mining Engineers, one of the country’s first national engineering societies; in 1881 they served on its local committee of arrangements. Morris’ son, a prominent financier named Effingham Buckley Morris, was a trustee of Tony’s estate.

A key figure in Bachelors Barge Club history was the financier Edward “Ned” T. Stotesbury, who was known as “Gum” in the club, possibly because he liked singing a song about a shared family toothbrush. He was president of Bachelors Barge Club from 1927 until his death in 1938 and had been a non-rowing member since 1887.

Stotesbury, who donated a silver trophy cup to start the Stotesbury Regatta (today’s largest high school competition in the world), presided over a time in which “Bachelors sent athletes to the Olympic Games in 1924, 1928, and 1932, winning a total of 10 medals,” according to the club’s “Bachelors 150th Anniversary” book.

Old minute books from the Bachelors Barge Club of yesteryear are stored in David Florio's living room of the Button.

At the time of his death, Stotesbury was one of the wealthiest men in America, with his obituary on the front page of the New York Times estimating his estate at $25 million, or about $450 million today. He was head of the Drexel & Company banking firm started by Tony’s father Francis Martin Drexel, as well as a managing partner at J.P. Morgan & Co., which had spun out of the Drexel, Morgan & Co. that existed while Tony mentored J.P. Morgan. In 1866, Stotesbury had started at Drexel & Co. as a 16-year-old office boy; on his first day, he made an impression on the notoriously punctual Tony by showing up to work earlier than him. By 1875, as a 25-year-old clerk, he started receiving two percent of the firm’s profits. He was made partner in 1883 and became a senior partner in 1904, which he remained for 34 years until his death at age 89. Stotesbury was also a member of the board of trustees of the Drexel Institute of Art, Science & Industry (today’s Drexel University) from its early years in the 1890s to 1924. And, technically, Stotesbury became part of the Drexel family when his step-son Oliver Eaton Cromwell married Tony’s grand-niece Katharine Drexel Dahlgren Cromwell in 1927.

In the second half of the 20th century, the connection between the Button, Bachelors Barge Club and Drexel continued. Thomas “Doc” Kerr, MD, (called “Surge” at the Club), who had rowed in the 1932 Summer Olympics and had been a member of the Button and Bachelors Barge Club, founded the Drexel Rowing program in the ’50s as a varsity sport (it had been offered as an intramural activity in the first years of the Institute). He did this, reportedly, by purchasing and restoring an eight-oar shell in 1958 and asking eight Boathouse Row club members to donate one oar each. He was the coach of the team until 1968, also serving as the team’s physician and surgeon. Kerr refereed for the rowing competitions in the 1968 and 1972 Olympics.

The Drexel/Bachelors/Button connection has evolved, and strengthened, in the 21st century, especially after the University signed a 50-year lease in 2008 (with two 20-year extensions) to row out of Bachelors Barge Club. For example, Drexel’s Athletic Director and Carl R. Pacifico Professor of Neuropsychology Eric Zillmer has been an honorary member for 10 years (his club nickname is “Inkblot”). 

Now, the University and Bachelors Barge Club, and the Button, are more closely intertwined than ever before, especially with Florio living at the Button.

“I am helping to keep the tradition and connection alive in a way,” said Florio.

This story was published in the spring 2019 issue of Drexel Quarterly.