New life for Rosenwald YMCAs

Posted on March 22nd, 2012 by

Celebration marking the laying of the cornerstone of the Paseo YMCA in Kansas City
Photo Credit: Unknown, published in The Outlook, October 28th, 1914

Between 1911 and the time of his death in 1932, Julius Rosenwald provided funding for the construction of African-American YMCAs in 24 cities. Although some have been lost, many have survived the better part of a century since the opening of Rosenwald’s challenge grant program.

The Butler Street YMCA in Atlanta, in operation since 1920
Photo Credit: Rob Dunalewicz, 2012 (flickr)

While African-Americans are no longer restricted from staying in other hotels, the Rosenwald YMCAs can still serve a purpose in their communities. Some of these buildings remain in active use as YMCAs, such as the ones in Atlanta, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Harlem and Chicago. Others have been adapted over the years to meet the changing needs of their communities. Brooklyn’s has become a nursing home, while Toledo’s, Dayton’s and Washington’s have been repurposed as community centers.

The Paseo Boulevard YMCA building in Kansas City, pre-renovation
Photo Credit: Equina27, 2010 (flickr)

Several others have seen more creative reuse. In Kansas City, reuse of the long dormant and increasingly blighted Paseo Boulevard YMCA as an extension of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum will be made possible through a remediation grant from the EPA, a federal grant and a massive fundraising drive in the community. The new facility, known as the Buck O’Neil Research and Education Center, will house museum archives, exhibits, conference facilities and educational areas. The Paseo YMCA is an important historical site for the Negro Leagues, as it was the location in 1920 of the formation of the Negro National League, the first African-American professional baseball league.

Murals outside the new Buck O’Neil Research and Education Center in the former Paseo YMCA
Photo Credit: Pam Morris, 2011 (flickr)

In Los Angeles, the Paul Revere Williams-designed 28th Street YMCA is in the process of being rehabilitated and expanded to provide 50 units of affordable housing to the Central Avenue community. The new building, expected to open in June of 2012, will also provide social services to its tenants and community meeting space. While no longer a YMCA, the building has stayed true to its original goal of providing housing and services to a vulnerable population.

After the YMCA in Dallas closed its Rosenwald-funded building on Flora Street in 1970 to move into a new facility closer to the emerging African-American community in Oak Cliff, the building was intermittently vacant or used as office space until it was purchased in 2002 by the Dallas Black Dance Theatre. Thanks to small and large-scale fundraising in the community, the Theatre opened its new space in 2007 after a lengthy rehabilitation of the building.

Rosenwald would likely have approved of the reuse of these structures. Rosenwald’s philosophy of philanthropy, outlined in two popular articles he wrote in 1929 for the Saturday Evening Post and the Atlantic Monthly, stressed the importance of large, flexible gifts as opposed to specific, restricted ones. The YMCAs in their original state as multipurpose community centers and temporary residences epitomize this form of flexible, unconditional philanthropy.

The Rosenwald YMCA on 135th Street in Harlem
Photo Credit: Jeff Dobbins (http://nycxplorer.com/)

Likewise, the creatively repurposed YMCAs are an extension of Rosenwald’s philosophy. The fundraising drives that have made these creative reuse projects possible have come from the same communities Rosenwald’s challenge grants energized into building the YMCAs in the first place. Biographer Peter Ascoli points out that Rosenwald knew that “it was just as likely that the concerns of today would be completely superseded by other concerns in the far distant future,” so reuse of the YMCA buildings fits with his intentions. For example, the revitalization and repurposing of the Harlem YMCA honors Rosenwald’s legacy of philanthropic giving, as it “is known less for its history than for its effort to re-establish itself at the center of the neighborhood” (The New York Times, Oct 25, 2008).

By Michael Rose