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Poetica, a Fitzgerald & Lee Classic Sedan


Poetica is a charming name given to an equally charming one-of-a-kind boat from a superb boat builder. She was designed and built in 1935 by the small and unpretentious custom boat building firm of Fitzgerald & Lee in Alexandria Bay.

During the early years of the 20th century this tiny river village's craftsmen had earned a solid reputation for building boats of fine quality with superb finishes. The numerous boat builders of Alexandria Bay included Fitz Hunt, Fred Adams, Lou Britton, the Hutchinson Brothers, Andy and Fred Duclon and Fitzgerald & Lee. Most of the recognition was often focused on the boats produced by the Hutchinson Brothers Boat Works. The Hutchinsons began building wooden boats in 1902 and soon developed into the village's largest boat building firm. Hutchinson built wooden boats for more than sixty years in a wide range of types that included launches, runabouts, limousines, day cruisers, utilities, race boats, military craft and more. Hutchinson was a remarkably capable firm that seemed to have no limit to its ability to successfully build, repair and refinish virtually any type of wooden boat. During World War II their labor force increased from twenty boat carpenters to more that two hundred workers in order to meet the Government's urgent demand for rugged military craft.

The sheer size and volume of Hutchinson's operation often overshadowed the other high quality boat building shops in Alexandria Bay. One of the outstanding smaller shops was the firm of Fitzgerald & Lee, located a few blocks away from Hutchinson in the village. The firm's two founders, Bernie Fitzgerald and Albert Lee, were friends who began their partnership in 1920.

They opened the new business in a building that was previously owned and occupied by the Hutchinson Brothers after they moved to a larger facility. Before forming their partnership, Bernie Fitzgerald was employed as a highly skilled machinist and foreman of the prominent Cranker Machine Shop in Alexandria Bay. His partner, Alfred Lee, was the outstanding chief mechanic for Captain Thompson's large fleet of tour boats. Their new enterprise would be initially called the Motor Boat Shop specializing in the growing demand for a reliable commercial shop to service and repair marine engines. The Motor Boat Shop would also become agents for many of the best-known marine engines of the 1920s including such brands as Sterling, Scripps, St. Lawrence and Wisconsin engines. With the increasing demand for good small boats, the partnership soon began building 15-foot models suited for the growing interest in outboard power. In addition their shop also built two 24-foot inboard runabouts. Their new boats were attractive, well constructed and sold rapidly.

Bernie Fitzgerald was a natural salesman focusing his attention on the prominent summer residents of the Thousand Islands. By 1926 their boat building business developed steadily under Alfred Lee's constant supervision and grew into a full time, profitable operation. The boat building operation became known as Fitzgerald & Lee. Bernie Fitzgerald believed that it was a suitable time to secure a high quality boat franchise to compliment their custom boat building operation. Influenced by Edward Noble's spectacular Baby Gar runabout, Snail, Fitzgerald attended the National Marine Trade Show in Chicago specifically to try to secure a Gar Wood franchise. His goal was to become their authorized dealer for the entire Thousand Islands region. After productive agreements and an order for three new runabouts, Fitzgerald returned to Alexandria Bay with the important Gar Wood dealership firmly secured. It was a great coup for the small firm. Even during the stressful years of the Great Depression, Fitzgerald & Lee turned out to be one of Gar Wood's most successful dealerships. Their sales of Gar Wood boats grew steadily and became a positive compliment to their own custom boat building activities.

Fitzgerald & Lee employed a very skilled boat builder who quickly developed into a superb master craftsman. His name was Gordon Kenyon and he also possessed a flair for pleasing design to compliment his wood-working skill. He often favored hard chine hulls to provide greater speed. His designs offered wider beam to provide more room, dryer performance and greater stability. In 1935 he designed one of the earliest streamlined sedan utilities for a client with many thoughtful details. The Sedan style was becoming very popular in the Thousand Islands because it offered all-weather operation and thus, extended boating beyond the pleasant summer conditions. The Kenyon-designed 26-foot sedan would be one of the first of its type to use the new Chrysler V-drive transmission. The advantage of the V-drive was quickly apparent to Kenyon because this feature allowed him to design a sedan that offered the advantage of an unobstructed cockpit with the engine under the aft deck rather than in a large box in the middle of the cockpit. It was an innovative option that provided more usable space for passengers and better access to the cabin. Gordon Kenyon's initial design for a custom 26-foot V-drive sedan seventy-seven years ago resulted in the special boat that would be named Poetica.

The design called for a round bottom hull that would assure the owner of a soft, comfortable ride. The original V-drive engine was a six-cylinder Chrysler Crown that would provide a top speed of 28 miles per hour. The cabin was thoughtfully designed to be a bit higher than normal to permit easier access for the tall owner. Both windshield panels open for full ventilation. The cabin roof extends smartly over the windshield to provide a built-in sun shield. The forward triangular side windows included a colorful leaded glass floral design. It is a very special boat with thoughtful details.

Poetica was built during the same year that Fitzgerald & Lee constructed Charles Lyon's 38-foot commuter, Finesse. The shop was very busy and their skill for outstanding workmanship was being reported in national boating publications. Naval architect, John L. Hacker, became increasingly aware of their talented craftsmanship because this special shop had the skill to construct his challenging designs. In the years ahead, the small custom shop in Alexandria Bay would build four of Hacker's most acclaimed designs. They built Vamoose, the 42-foot express cruiser for Charles Lyon, Messenger for Frederick Bourne that was renamed Foot Loose – Fancy Free and is now in the collection of the Antique Boat Museum, Skol, the magnificent 29-foot art deco design triple cockpit runabout for Nils Johanesson, and Skid, the 22-foot art deco runabout for J. Sidney Hammond. Each boat was a special Hacker custom design and considered by marine historians to be among his finest work. This small, premier custom boat building shop in which almost every construction operation was accomplished by skilled woodworkers using hand tools . It's been reported that the shop's only power tools were a table saw and a band saw. This view of the cabin shows the innovative roof extension that provides a practical, built-in sun visor.

At the outset of World War II, Charles Lyon donated his 42-foot commuter, Vamoose, to the United States Navy. She was assigned to patrol service on the Atlantic coast and never returned to the Thousand Islands. Fitzgerald and Lee's Poetica, Skol, Messenger and Skid have all survived and have been recognized by serious collectors as exemplary examples of their era in terms of design, construction and performance. Fitzgerald & Lee closed their shop in early 1942 after they completed Skid due to material shortages created by the War effort. Their craftsmen were quickly employed at Huchinsons to build military craft. Fitzgerald & Lee never reopened after the War. 

Poetica is a wonderful example of Gordon Kenyon's classic design skill and the workmanship of the Fitzgerald & Lee firm. She is now an important component of Lee Anderson's superb collection of classic boats located in Minnesota.

By Anthony Mollica Anthony Mollica’s first wrote professionally in his teaching career in communications. Writing for pleasure evolved from his activities with the Antique and Classic Boat Society and the Antique Boat Museum as well as his life-long interest in the history of boat building in American. He has published articles in various marine periodicals including Classic Boating, ACBS Rudder, Gar Wood News, The Antique Boat Museum Gazette Annual, Motor Boating, Lakeland Boating and The Chris-Craft Brass Bell Quarterly. He is also the author of twelve published books, many of which are available in local book stores.  In September 2010, TI Life reviewed Building Chris-Craft: Inside the Factories,  a book he wrote with Chris Smith, a member of the founding family.   (See Anthony Mollica on our Publications page)

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Comments

Karen LaFave
Comment by: Karen LaFave ( )
Left at: 3:40 PM Wednesday, January 15, 2014
Alfred Lee was my grandfather. He sure did design and build some beautiful boat back then. They are still around now.
Ray Unseitig
Comment by: Ray Unseitig ( )
Left at: 3:55 PM Wednesday, January 15, 2014
The boat looks sporty and elegant, fun and practical.
Stephanie Mider
Comment by: Stephanie Mider ( )
Left at: 6:41 AM Sunday, January 19, 2014
Gordon Kenyon was my grandfather, a true perfectionist. His wife, Freda, a talented artist. They combined their talents to make many cherished gifts for their family.
Walter Kenyon
Comment by: Walter Kenyon ( )
Left at: 10:34 AM Wednesday, February 12, 2014
I just recently read the article about "Poetica" as designed and built by Gordon Kenyon. I, as a Kenyon, did not know of this gentleman. I am a "model" boat builder, especially interested in the Chris Craft, Duke, Gar Wood,etc. I am a member of ACBS Toronto chapter and am interested in knowing if there are any plans available that I could use to build a "model" of "Poetica". I enjoyed reading this article very much, Thank you.

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