History of the Downtown YMCA

December 19, 1854 is recognized as the first day of the Richmond YMCA.  On this date, a meeting was held in the lecture rooms of St. Paul's Church where the constitution and by-laws drafted and presented.  These rules made clear the reasons for forming a YMCA here.  They included to bring young men under religious and moral influences, to provide a library and a reading room, to provide lectures, devotional meetings and Bible classes, and to provide young men a safe, wholesome home-away-from-home to counteract the "lure and ruin" of the city.

The men of the newly formed Richmond YMCA moved quickly to pursue the goals noted in the constitution and by-laws.  One early goal was to pursue a headquarters.  The Richmond YMCA opened in May 1855 at the Goddin Building, named for its owner, at Bank and 11th Streets facing Capital Square.  W. Goddin gave the YMCA an annual discount of $50 on the rent.  While the building provided a base of operations, it could not accommodate large crowds.  As a result, monthly meetings and lectures open to the public convened at area churches.

Leaders soon discovered its lecture series was far more accepted than other programming.  Lectures helped developed the mind as did other YMCA programs here.  At first, they had a strongly religious flavor, however, as the first speakers were local clergy.  Over time, the topics touched on secular topics as well.  Representative programs included Professor E. L. Youmans on "The Chemistry of the Sunbeam," Professor John Lord on "Dante and the Revival of Poetry," and W. T. Willey on "Christian Missions in Their Secular Influence."

Far more enduring and by far the single-most popular YMCA project of the 1850s was the establishment of a free library and reading room.  Libraries stocked with books, newspapers and magazines were a standard feature of YMCAs in Great Britain and North America.  The Boston YMCA reported in 1850 that its library was packed every evening.  The library in Washington D.C. was the city's first.  Fundraising for the local YMCA library began in summer 1855.  By year end, the library had almost 900 volumes. 

The library proved a steady draw during the decade.  By the time of the Civil War, it held 2,350 volumes and maintained subscriptions to at least 50 newspapers and 12 magazines.  The collections covered a wide range of topics from philosophy to mathematics. 

In addition, the Richmond YMCA established a standing committee in 1855, which divided the city into 12 districts.  The committee ultimately concerned itself with offering an employment service, a guide to login and liaison with churches and sick visits.  By the end of the 1850s, the YMCA was well established and contributing significantly to the local community.

During the Civil War, Richmond changed completely.  The Y changed to meet the city's needs.  Richmond shifted from being a state capital to being the capital of a nation and a state.  It became a city of government bureaus, vast military hospitals and frenetic war production.  Gentile Richmond grew tough and hard, almost unrecognizable from her pre-war appearance. 

The Richmond YMCA first tried to continue its pre-war ways.  But this proved impossible.  The association gave up large room in Goddin's Hall to the Confederate Post Office.  While the library remained open, no new books were added, and there was great difficulty in getting Northern and foreign newspapers and magazines.

After the Battle of Manassas, the Richmond YMCAs began to forward supplies to sick and wounded soldiers from other southern states.  It joined forces with the Ladies Aid Society and the Spotswood Hotel.  The delivery service succeeded magnificently.  In 1863, the Y reported forwarding to the army 4,500 shirts, 9,855 pairs of drawers, 3,000 pairs of socks, 500 pants, 500 pairs of shoes and 1,000 blankets.

The Richmond YMCA got involved in other ways as well. Some illiterate troops wanted to learn to read. So the YMCA developed and printed a simple handbill for use as a primer, and hired officers to teach.  The Richmond YMCA also worked with neighborhood women to establish three private hospitals in 1861, located at 4th and Cary, Franklin between 8th and 9th, and one at 4th and Byrd Streets.  The YMCA operated them for three month free of charge to the government with volunteer doctors and support.  In fact, two of the YMCA founders worked in two of these facilities.

Like many Southern institutions, from he late 1860s to the early 1870s, the Richmond YMCA struggled for its life.  Its survival was a testimony to the leadership of its officers and members.  Only two Southern YMCAs still operated at war's end - Charleston, S.C.'s and Richmond's.  No one today knows how the Richmond YMCA persevered.  Few records exist form the period.  Records do show that the association lost everything in the 1865 fire of Richmond.

The Richmond YMCA took a major turn for the better in 1874.  A new spirit at the Y led to a membership and fundraising drive.  The membership rose from 300 in 1873 to 753 in 1874.  Debt was cut from $700 to $438.55.

Still popular was the YMCA library.  The Y had few books and scant funds to buy more.  However, men and women poured through the organizations door eager to read.  Use of the library jumped.  Circulation went from 400 volumes a month in 1873 to 1,200 in 1874.

One of the brightest moments form the Richmond YMCA was the opening of its first permanent home during 1887.  Located at the corner of 6th and Main Streets, this Y was a popular, busy place in its heyday.  There, men lifted weights, swung on parallel bars and twisted, turned and swayed and deliberately yawned, performing complicated exercise routines.  Women did calisthenics. So did boys. And , basketball teams pounded up and down the courts.  By the day's standard, it was a modern Y.

The YMCA could build a facility in Richmond at this time for several reasons.  Chief among these was the sound economy of the late 1870s and early 1880s. Tobacco production held a prominent place among the varied factories, as did other firms making bricks to brooms, candy, chemicals, drugs, furniture and fertilizer.  The wealth and stability these ventures created led to population growth.  Good times meant that residents had money to support a new YMCA building and the leisure time to enjoy it.

The new YMCA quickly became a busy place and remained so for the next 25 years. Library visitation was high and classes proved popular too.  The most popular actives at the Richmond YMCA were those associated with sports and fitness.  Y members enthusiastically embraced "muscular Christianity" on the baseball diamond, tennis court and floor.  The YMCAs fitness offerings were not just for men.  The gym also had "Physical Culture for Women" and other ladies classes.  

In December 1891, Luther Gulick, then director of the International YMCA Training School in Springfield, MA, wanted a fast-paced indoor winter game, which became the sport we know as basketball.  James Naismith, a physical education instructor, experimented early by mounting peach baskets in the gym, initially with just 13 rules.  Students loved the game and Naismith developed more detailed rules and publish them on January 15, 1892.

It is unclear with basketball arrived at the Richmond YMCA.  However, by 1898, documents show basketball was a centerpiece of local Y sports programs.  Leagues and championships were permanent features by the early 1900s.  Y pools arrived in Richmond in the first decade of the twentieth century. 

The first Y structure built in Richmond at this time was a YMCA for railway workers in October 1909.  Rail management and workers liked the Railroad YMCA because it offered employees a decent alternative to flop houses, brothels and saloons.  Located at Main Street Station, it offered showers and tub baths, a swimming pool, a gym, soap and towels, a reading room, checkers, chess, dominoes and social events. Sleeping space was available as well as a bowling alley, poolroom, auditorium, kitchen and ladies' parlor.

By the early 1900s, the Richmond YMCA was filled with patrons.  Interest, too became strong in adding a swimming pool.  However, studies showed that neither reconfiguration nor additions to the existing building were practical.  The best option was to build a new structure.  The project began in earnest in 1905.  That year, the local association purchased a lot at the corner of Grace and 7th Streets.  After a collection of 4,264 contributions worth $222,623.93, a groundbreaking ceremony occurred on New Year's Day 1908 and was dedicated May 17, 1910.

Besides rooms for lodging, the new Richmond Y featured 3 floors with much expanded fitness equipment and facilities, a swimming pool, an auditorium, a gym, offices, a spa, a music room and billiard room.  Other features included four bowling alleys, a barbershop, laundry, and courts for handball, volleyball and basketball. 

During World War I, the local YMCA assisted with raising funds for association wartime initiatives.  The greatest of these included opening the doors to servicemen training in the area, especially at Camp Lee outside Petersburg. Free stationary was made available for soldiers to write home.  By the end of the war, the building regularly accommodated almost 300 men on Saturday nights.  The local Y did not finish its work with the milliard when the war ended in November 1918.  Well into 1919, the association offered sleeping space and assistance to demobilized veterans headed home.

The Richmond YMCA, like other YMCAs, was affected deeply with the national movement in the 1920s reevaluated its relations to evangelical Protestantism.  The most significant shift for the YMCA occurred in the 1930s.  In 1931, the YMCA eliminated all theological tests for membership and abandoned theological identification of any kind. 

Although the YMCA enjoyed a prosperous decade in the 1920s, the Depression affected the organization deeply.  The Richmond YMCA first noticed the slowly soon after October 1929 Wall Street Crash.  YMCA leadership worked hard to operate during the Depression, though this was difficult.  Revenue dried up as people could not afford fees.  Although figures appeared grim, the Y was incredibly busy and making a huge contribution to the community. 

In 1934, a report showed that gym use was high, in part because membership fee for boys under 16 was waived. If the contribution was not dramatic, it was important and sustained.  A 1937 report compared Richmond YMCA usage and community involvement to 1927.  The increase was phenomenal.  Over those 10 years, the Richmond Y held its full-time staff to ten. However, the number of individuals regularly using the YMC rose from 3,159 to 7,294.  The number of volunteers more than doubled, and the number of persons enjoying the Y free of charge totaled 4,200, up from 991.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch acknowledged this contribution in a 1939 editorial: "At present, the agency is serving many persons besides the paying members.  The number of Richmond's touched by the agency's widespread program of adult education, religious training and other activities cannot possibly be determined."

The Richmond YMCA dedicated its new building at Foushee and Franklin street on June 28, 1942.  At the time, it was the most modern Y facility in the nations and the largest in the city's history.

The YMCA captured its plans and goals for the building in a details 1938 report.  Significantly, the study called for bring more young women to the YMCA, including a women's locker room and rest rooms be provided.  The Richmond YMCA had a female presence from the beginning.  Female auxiliaries were a standard feature at YMCAs across the nation. 

As World War II became a possibility, YMCA leaders prepared for soldiers' arrival before the war began.  The YMCA helped to form the USO.  Richmond had three USO facilities, all three welcomed hundreds of thousands of people.  In 1943, for example, the USO at 2nd and Grace streets entertained 540,000 men.

Even as the YMCA of Greater Richmond moved aggressively into the Richmond suburbs, it recognized it could play an important, positive role in the City of Richmond.  So, the decision was made in the late 1970s to stay in the 1942 building at Franklin and Foushee (where it remains today) and to support the North Richmond YMCA and Community Center.  The YMCA chose to renovate the structure beginning in the early 1970s.  This work continued for the next 30 years. 

As the YMCA approached its 150th anniversary, the Downtown Y offered members a bright, welcoming facility that embodied the best modern technology wed to the association's traditional values.

The text was taken from the book "The Richmond YMCA: 150 Years of Innovation and Service for Central Virginia" by Edward R. Crews.