LONGTIME TEMPLE crew coach Gavin White remembers being in the East Park Canoe House on Kelly Drive with one of his athletes before the building was finally condemned in 2008.

It wasn't a Kodak moment.

"I was walking up the steps and all of a sudden he disappears," White recalled. "He fell right through them. He was OK, but that's the kind of fear you had.

"It was ready to be shut down."

When that happened, after decades of neglect, it meant that the university's men and women rowers had to go about their business operating out of tents. Then in December 2013, the programs were among seven designated for elimination. The following February, they were the only ones that received a full reprieve (gymnastics was allowed to continue at the club level), thanks to a restoration plan for the facility made possible by $2.5 million in city funding and $3 million from the Lenfest Foundation.

Yesterday was the groundbreaking ceremony. The 101-year old structure - which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Fairmount Park Historic District - is expected to be ready for partial occupancy by the spring racing season and completed by next summer. The site, which is being restored to its original Spanish Mission Revival look, also will be used by the marine unit of the city's Police Department, as well as for children's programs.

"We were on the brink of extinction," said White, understandably emotional. "I mean, to come back and have this . . . It's going to be a great boost. You can imagine it's been very hard.

"I've been looking forward to this for about 20 years, trying to get this thing going. I'm happy the boys won't have to spend their mornings waiting in line to use the port-o-pots. They'll be treated like champion athletes.

"This saved us, is the way I look at it. Back when I was in college, it wasn't in that bad a shape like it is now. I have so many memories. Nothing guarantees success, but it makes you feel really proud. The kids never complained, but it was like George Washington being in Valley Forge. It was a dump. There's no way I can put into exact words what this means. Philadelphia without Temple rowing wouldn't have been the same. I think people realized that.

"The fact that we won 20 Dad Vail heavyweight titles might have something to do with it. It is what it is, I guess. We were beating most of these other teams anyway without it . . . I'll probably drive right by it [when it's finished]."

H.G. "Gerry" Lenfest, who owns the Daily News, Inquirer and Philly.com, is a Temple trustee and philanthropist.

"Temple University is the city's university, above all other schools," he said. "And not to have a home for its rowing team on the Schuylkill seemed like a real crime. So when the opportunity came up, we made it happen."

And really, there was no other option.

"We needed the help," said Temple's newly appointed athletic director, Pat Kraft. "It's a huge statement. It puts a flag in the ground. Everybody wins. It's a great partnership.

"It's what we deserve. Temple should have the best facilities. It gives our athletes what they need to compete on a high level. It's been a long time coming for a lot of people. I'm just excited to be a part of it. All you have to do is come to one Dad Vail and look at the Temple tents to see the support."

On Twitter: @mikekerndn