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What Once Was

The YMCA in Washington: Shifting With the Times

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By Matthew Gilmore*

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 Picture this: the YMCA faces a difficult financial situation. Attendance at its programs and use of its facilities has fallen off and the neighborhood around its building has undergone a vast transformation. Retaining and recruiting members is difficult. The facility is being eyed enviously by others. Today, 2015? Yes, indeed. But it was also the situation faced by the fledgling organization in 1871. Washington’s Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) has gone through many trials since its founding and made its home in a variety of locations.

A dapper William Chauncey Langdon in 1855. photo--courtesy  Springfield College, Babson Library Archives and Special Collections.

A dapper William Chauncey Langdon in 1855. photo–courtesy Springfield College, Babson Library Archives and Special Collections.

On June 9, 1852 a meeting was called to organize a Young Men’s Christian Association, propelled by Rev. William Chauncy Langdon. The YMCA movement had its origins in Great Britain where it was founded by George Williams in 1844. Its initial emphasis on a religious mission was soon expanded to education (both intellectual and physical) — religious, social, intellectual, and physical improvement for young men, particularly those rootless recent migrants to dangerous big cities.

The Republic newspaper (Washington, DC) June 9, 1852 announcement of organizing meeting for the Young Men’s Christian Association. photo--courtesy Library of Congress.

The Republic newspaper (Washington, DC) June 9, 1852 announcement of organizing meeting for the Young Men’s Christian Association. photo–courtesy Library of Congress.

Langdon himself was a recent arrival in Washington, an assistant examiner in the United States Patent Office — typical of the type of young man the association meant to serve. Langdon also soon spearheaded the movement to confederate all the YMCAs throughout the United States; a feat accomplished in 1854, just two years later.

After meeting at various locations around downtown Washington, the association built a quite splendid building in 1867 at 9th and D Streets, NW, called Lincoln Hall. The Starkweather and Norris architectural firm responsible had also designed Cooke’s Row in Georgetown and several other notable Washington buildings.

Lincoln Hall was occupied by the association’s offices, a free library, stores, and included an opera house and public hall. The public hall became a noted venue of the lecture circuit, hosting speakers such as Victoria Claflin Woodhull and the second National Woman Suffrage Convention.

1867 stereo photo view of Lincoln Hall at 9th & D Sts., NW. photo--courtesy Library of Congres.

1867 stereo photo view of Lincoln Hall at 9th & D Sts., NW. photo–courtesy Library of Congres.

But the YMCA hadn’t built it themselves, rather under the gloss of another corporate organization — the “Joint Stock Company of the Y.M.C.A.” which had been organized to issue stock to raise the funds needed for the construction of the building. For years there seemed to be no reported issues between the two organizations. The payment of rental of space was formalized in 1879. And then the Joint Stock Company decided in 1881 to raise the YMCA’s rent from $990 per month to $1,200. The YMCA’s board of managers decided they could not afford that rent and (having sued and lost in equity court) were forced to look for new accommodations.

After leaving Lincoln Hall in October of 1882, the YMCA moved to the old Chamberlain Clubhouse at 1409-11 New York Avenue, NW, a handsome structure several doors away from the still-standing National Savings and Trust building. The YMCA prospered in this new location.

Old Chamberlain Clubhouse used by the YMCA at 1409-11 New York Ave., NW. photo--courtesy Library of Congress.

Old Chamberlain Clubhouse used by the YMCA at 1409-11 New York Ave., NW. photo–courtesy Library of Congress.

On July 24, 1895 disaster struck and the building burned down. According to the District Commissioners’ annual reports it was fire #11 for July and caused $47,500 worth of damage. The YMCA had $20,000 worth of coverage.

Determined to continue, the association set itself a tight schedule to raise funds for a new building. In Foggy Bottom an opportunity would arise. Edward Beale had several years before sold property in the block of G Street NW between 17th and 18th Streets to the Columbia Athletic Club. Conveniently for the YMCA, the Club was in default on interest payments on its mortgage on the property, and on December 30, 1898, the property was sold at auction to them, according to State Department histories. (The State Department occupied a house on the site from 1814-1816).

1736 G Street, NW, the home of the YMCA for 70 years. photo--courtesy Library of Congress.

1736 G Street, NW, the home of the YMCA for 70 years. photo–courtesy Library of Congress.

This became their home for the next 70 years. It was an elegant building at the start, as this image of the lobby shows.

YMCA lobby, circa 1900-‘13. courtesy John DeFerrari.

YMCA lobby, circa 1900-‘13. courtesy John DeFerrari.

The Columbia Athletic Club building had been built in 1889; the YMCA made a major addition in 1904 and minor additions in 1933. The YMCA made extensive use of the building at 1736 G Street where it played host to a very impressive range of educational as well as athletic programs. Besides less formal lecture format programming, the Y began a third to 12th-grade private school, initially the YMCA Day School for Boys, renamed the Woodward School for Boys (named after Samuel Woodward in 1924).

Woodward School badge. photo--www.facebook.com/WoodwardSchoolForBoys.

Woodward School badge. photo–www.facebook.com/WoodwardSchoolForBoys.

Woodward School for Boys became simply the Woodward School when girls were admitted in 1972. A notable attendee was L. Ron Hubbard.

One of the YMCA’s most generous benefactors was S.W. (Samuel W.) Woodward. Woodward is best known for being half of the team responsible for Washington’s most famous department store, Woodward & Lothrop but also was a successful real estate developer. (See, “Samuel W. Woodward: Department Store Magnate and Real Estate Developer,” intowner.com, “What Once Was,” December 2014.

Samuel W. Woodward. photo--courtesy Stephen Hansen.

Samuel W. Woodward. photo–courtesy Stephen Hansen.

Woodward, who lost his 16-year-old son Walter in 1898, helped salvage the YMCA from the physical and logistical ruins after the 1895 fire. He took on the project of finding a new home for the association and spearheaded the acquisition of the Columbia Athletic Club.

View of the YMCA gymnasium illustrating young men engaged in a variety of sporting activities. photo--ourtesy Library of Congress.

View of the YMCA gymnasium illustrating young men engaged in a variety of sporting activities. photo–ourtesy Library of Congress.

Sports took on a new importance in the YMCA program. The new building included a gymnasium, advanced for its day. The young men also had use of the grounds of the old, derelict Van Ness mansion at 17th Street and Constitution Avenue until the construction of the Pan American Union building in 1909.

 

YMCA Athletic Park on the grounds of the old Van Ness mansion at 17th St. & Constitution Ave., NW, circa 1900. photo--ourtesy Library of Congress.

YMCA Athletic Park on the grounds of the old Van Ness mansion at 17th St. & Constitution Ave., NW, circa 1900. photo–ourtesy Library of Congress.

Portion of Baist atlas map showing the location of the YMCA Athletic Park. photo--ourtesy Library of Congress.

Portion of Baist atlas map showing the location of the YMCA Athletic Park. photo–ourtesy Library of Congress.

As part of its educational programming along with the Woodward School, the YMCA created Washington Preparatory School, an evening adult education program for those who had not obtained a high school diploma. A law school was added as well. In 1907, the Washington School of Accountancy was added; in 1923 this became Southeastern University — chartered by Congress in 1937.

The YMCA operated all these programs ambitiously throughout the 1920s, 1930s and into the war years. There were plans to greatly expand the building at 1736 G Street, plans which were dashed by World War II. Postwar Washington was dramatically different and the YMCA struggled to adapt. The suburbanization of Washington in the 1950s drew away much of its actual and potential membership. The turmoil of the 1960s accelerated the dramatic changes in its school-age population.

In the 1970s the YMCA billed its athletic resources as the Washington Athletic Club. Even as the facilities aged press was still good in the early 1970s. But it had to sell off part of its building in 1973 for the construction of the Federal Home Loan Bank building on 17th Street. 1736 G Street was tired and worn out, replacing it would be expensive. Resources were eventually put together and plans adopted and the new building project was begun.

The new YMCA rose at 17th Street and Rhode Island Avenue, NW. One of the last press mentions of 1736 G was when a group of 58 Cub Scouts refused to stay in the Y because of cockroaches and “filth” — they camped on the sidewalk instead. 1736 G Street was demolished in February of 1978; replacing it today is a large, undistinguished office building.

In 1978 the new National Capital YMCA opened. It shifted its focus to athletics and as YMCA headquarters; in the new building there would be no hotel function or rooms for visiting Cub Scouts. Nor was the Woodward School included in the plans; it had closed in 1975. Southeastern University had left 1736 G several years earlier.

1711 Rhode Island Ave NW was not destined for a similar 70-year run, however. A bit short of 40 years it will close December 31, 2015 (with the site presumably due to be redeveloped by the new owner, Akridge Management Company).

This history of the YMCA runs parallel to a variety of similar (and similarly named) organizations. The separate Colored Young Men’s Christian Association, was founded one year later, in 1853, in Washington by Anthony Bowen. The 12th Street YMCA, operated in its notable 1912 William Sidney Pittman building (renamed after Anthony Bowen in 1973) until 1982. In 1987 the YMCA purchased the old Children’ Hospital building at 14th and W Streets, NW where they continued to offer a limited program until a proper facility could be built; that did not occur until 2008 when construction started, though because of the recession and other factors was not completed until 2013. During that four-year period, the Y was not offering programs until it opened in its specifically designed facility that occupies a large portion of the new building. It is to these W Street facilities that some of the programs which had a home at 1711 Rhode Island Avenue will be transferred.

[Editor’s Note: A little over two years ago the InTowner reported extensively on the building and opening of the new Anthony Bowen YMCA. See, “Historic Anthony Bowen YMCA to Move Into Exciting New Space,” March 2013 issue pdf, <www.intowner.com/2013/03/07/march-2013-pdf> page 1; “New Anthony Bowen YMCA Opens to Great Acclaim, Enthusiastically Welcomed to the U Street Area With Appreciation for its Beauty and Offerings,” September 2013 issue pdf, < <www.intowner.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/InTowner-sep13web.pdf> page 1.]

As for the 1912-built National Historic Landmark 12th Street building, that was taken over and restored by the Thurgood Marshall Center for Service and Heritage which continues to this day as an important and vibrant community center in Shaw.

YMHA at 11th St. & Pennsylvania Ave., NW, circa 1918. photo--courtesy Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington.

YMHA at 11th St. & Pennsylvania Ave., NW, circa 1918. photo–courtesy Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington.

In 1854 the Young Men’s Hebrew Association (YMHA) was founded in Baltimore. In 1911, a group of Jewish men in their early twenties formed the Young Men’s Hebrew Association (YMHA) in Washington DC. The Young Women’s Hebrew Association (YWHA) followed in 1913. Together they have morphed into what is now the Jewish Community Center.

The Young Women’s Christian Association (originally the Ladies Christian Association) was founded in 1858 and the District of Columbia association founded in 1905. It has always maintained a distinct identity from its male counterpart.

View of the elegant YWCA Building at 17th & K Sts., NW prior to its sale and demolition in 1981 to be replaced by an undistinguished office building. (The YMCA was known for its much favored toll house cookies.) photo--courtesy Library of Congress.

View of the elegant YWCA Building at 17th & K Sts., NW prior to its sale and demolition in 1981 to be replaced by an undistinguished office building. (The YMCA was known for its much favored toll house cookies.) photo–courtesy Library of Congress.

The Phyllis Wheatley Colored YWCA was organized in 1905, apart from the national women’s organization. While the YMCA is giving up its location on Rhode Island Avenue and moving some programs to the Bowen YMCA, the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA eight blocks to the east on Rhode Island Avenue has just begun renovating is building to provide enhanced residential housing services for its clientele.

Each shift of location of the YMCA has corresponded with, or resulted in, a significant shift in priorities and association programs. The move to 1736 G Street saw a new emphasis on physical education as well as intellectual. The move 70 years later to Rhode Island Avenue saw all of the schooling and transient accommodations fall away in favor of a stronger emphasis on the athletic facilities. Today most the programs of the central YMCA will be dispersed to other branches, although someday, perhaps, another central facility might be created should the need arise.

Map of Washington DC YMCA locations 1867-present. illus.--author’s private collection.

Map of Washington DC YMCA locations 1867-present. illus.–author’s private collection.

Sources consulted include Laurence Doggett’s History of the Young Men’s Christian Association (1922) and the Republic, the Evening Star, and the Washington Post newspapers. Special thanks also to John DeFerrari, Stephen Hansen, Claire Uziel, and Laura Apelbaum.
*Matthew B. Gilmore is the editor of the H-DC discussion list and blogs on Washington history and related subjects at matthewbgilmore.wordpress.com; he is also on the Board of Directors of Humanities DC. Previously, he was a reference librarian at the Washingtoniana Division of the DC Public Library for a number of years and chaired the Annual Conference on DC Historical Studies for four years.

*Matthew B. Gilmore is the editor of the H-DC discussion list and blogs on Washington history and related subjects at matthewbgilmore.wordpress.com; he is also on the Board of Directors of Humanities DC. Previously, he was a reference librarian at the Washingtoniana Division of the DC Public Library for a number of years and chaired the Annual Conference on DC Historical Studies for four years.

© 2015 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Matthew B. Gilmore. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part, including for commercial purposes, without permission is prohibited.

 

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