YMCA in Downtown Miami (1918 – 1978)

YMCA Building in 1920 from McAllister HotelYMCA Building in 1920 from McAllister Hotel

Sixty years is a good run for a building in Miami. Many of the city’s early twentieth century structures had a far shorter lifespan. When the YMCA building at 40 NE Third Avenue, aka Short Street, was opened in 1918, it was the culmination of a community-wide effort to construct an institution for the betterment of the city.

By the time it closed and was razed in 1978, sixty years after it opened, it was referred to as the ‘Old Gray Lady’ whose time had passed. John Harold, the Miami Herald staff writer who covered the demolition, summed up the sentiment of the day as “Miami’s old-fashioned downtown ‘Y’ had outlived its usefulness.”

While the YMCA organization still operates in and around the Miami metropolitan area, the loss of the ‘Old Gray Lady’ left Miami’s Short Street missing a symbol of early Miami’s innovative spirit to address problems. What began with an observation by a concerned winter resident led to a city-wide campaign to construct an institution that served the community for six decades.

City Leaders Advocate for Recreation Center

Dr. James Jackson

Figure 1: Dr. James Jackson

When Paul Keith, operator of the B.F. Keith chain of vaudeville theaters, began to winter in Miami in 1911, he noticed that boys and young men had no place to spend their leisure time except on the streets and in pool halls. In a conversation with pioneer physician, Dr. James Jackson, as well as other city leaders, Keith shared his concerns with the group and offered to put up $5,000 toward constructing a YMCA if the others felt the idea had merit.

Dr. Jackson agreed to lead a committee to solicit the YMCA organization to explore the option of constructing a recreation center in downtown Miami. In September of 1915, the committee met with William S. Frost, a representative of the international committee of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), who offered to undertake the campaign necessary to raise funds to construct a building that would cost not less than $75,000. Frost would also guide and oversee the construction of the building once the necessary funds were secured. He had extensive experience overseeing the development of YMCA buildings in four other cities prior to the Miami project.

The first fundraising event took place in February of 1916 at which time $103,000 was pledged in a campaign that lasted only one week. Shortly after the fundraiser, the committee purchased two lots for $28,500 on the southwest corner of Avenue A (aka Short Street), and Eleventh Street, today’s NE Third Avenue and NE First Street, for the location of the YMCA building. Once the site was selected, the committee recommended Harold Hastings Mundy to be the architect of the building, who immediately began working with Frost to understand the specifications and standards required by the YMCA organization.

BBQ & Craft

WWI Modifies Plans for the YMCA

Soldiers Marching on Flagler Street in 1917

Figure 2: Soldiers Marching on Flagler Street in 1917

As planning for the Y building was in progress, the United States entered World War I. Miami was under consideration by the navy as a training location and the Secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels, pointed out that a well-equipped YMCA facility in Miami could be an important consideration for the selection of the Magic City to become a naval training camp.

The local planning committee unanimously agreed that the only course would be to enlarge the building beyond the plans that were first proposed. The original plan called for a four-story facility, so the committee agreed that a fifth floor be added to the plan to provide for 86 dormitory rooms to accommodate those in need of temporary place to stay while in Miami. The expanded plan called for raising an additional $70,000 to pay for the enlargement of the facility.

Once the building was completed and opened, the director of the YMCA declared that all servicemen would have full access to the YMCA free of charge with the ability to rent a room when they were off duty. The manager of the Y reserved the pool every Sunday morning for the exclusive use of servicemen. Ultimately, the Navy did choose Miami as a training base during World War I.

Construction and Description of Building

Breaking Ground for YMCA in 1917

Figure 3: Breaking Ground for YMCA in 1917

On February 26, 1917, the committee put out a request for bids to construct the Y building. Within a week of the request, they made the decision to accept the proposal from Richardson and Company to build the structure for a total of $107,000. The project plan called for the edifice to be completed in two hundred days from the signing of the contract to be ready to open in time for the next winter season. However, disruptions in getting building materials, due to restrictions imposed during World War I, delayed the completion of the YMCA by the project’s original target date, which was tentatively scheduled for November 1, 1917.

The groundbreaking for the project took place on March 15, 1917, which was followed by the laying of the cornerstone two months later. On May 15th, a full Masonic ceremony marked the placement of a granite cornerstone, which bore the emblem of the association, on the corner of NE First Street and NE Third Avenue. At the time of this ceremony, the committee had collected $76,000 of the $103,000 pledged in February.

The corner lot purchased on Avenue A (Short Street or NE Third Avenue), and Eleventh Street (today’s NE First Street), was 100 by 150 feet, of which the building was constructed on a foot print of 90 by 130 feet. The exterior of the five-story white building included a loggia across the front and on the south side of the building. There was a porch on the north, or Eleventh Street (NE First Street), side of the building.

Gymnasium in YMCA Building in 1920s

Figure 4: Gymnasium in YMCA Building in 1920s

The building’s design provided for a basement, which included a billiard’s room, bowling alley, a swimming pool, shower, and dressing rooms. The main lobby and offices were located on the main level, or first floor. The gymnasium was on the second floor, though a portion of the third floor was also incorporated into the gym. It was configured in a layout of 76 by 42 feet on the second level, providing a full basketball court, and a track on the third floor providing a scale of 23 laps to the mile, with banked curves featuring the “finest kind of cork.”

The second floor also included an L-shaped banquet hall, with a frontage of 80 feet on Avenue A (NE Third Avenue), and 50 feet on Eleventh Street (NE First Street), capable of being divided into five separate rooms by means of a set of accordion doors. The flexibility of configuration allowed the YMCA to host different campaigns and events for different organizations needing the space. The week after the building officially opened, the Red Cross used the banquet hall as their headquarters for a war bond drive.

There were three distinct set of locker rooms to accommodate different age groups and provide business members their own dressing room and lounge separate from the kids and young adults. The men’s lounge permitted smoking and featured couches and chairs for leisure and relaxation.

The assembly hall was located on the third floor, with flexible walls to be able to be divided into class rooms. The parlor and kitchen were also located on the third floor. The fourth and fifth floors provided dormitory rooms for naval trainees or traveling young men needing a place to stay for a short period of time.

YMCA Pool in 1930s

Figure 5: YMCA Pool in 1930s

The proponents of the YMCA were particularly proud of the pool in the basement. Finished in mosaic art tile, it was considered one of the most modern swimming pools in the country at the time. The pool ranged in depth from 3.5 to 7 feet, with plenty of space at the sides and ends to allow for a large spectator’s gallery.

The water in the pool was cleaned and purified thoroughly every nine hours via a filtration plant constructed to ensure a sanitized and clear pool at all times. To make the water doubly safe, it was sterilized with chloride of lime as part of the filtration system. The excitement of the filtration system led the YMCA to adopt the slogan: “Some people drink filtered water. We swim in it.”

The fourth and fifth levels were dedicated to 86 dormitory rooms to provide accommodations for members traveling away from home. These rooms were rented all year round by members at a rate of $2.50 to $3.50 per week, depending on the size of the room. Apartments that were not rented by members at any given time were made available to tourists at the market rate. However, the organization did reserve rooms for the needy who did not have the funds for the weekly rate. The Y made provisions for the servicemen who needed temporary quarters during wartime.

On the day the YMCA was dedicated, an article in the Miami Metropolis described the interior of the building as follows:

“In the Eleventh street lobby is a brick fireplace surmounted by a striking medallion depicting Paul Revere’s ride, while a corresponding fireplace in the main lobby has a medallion, the subject of which is the Spirit of ’76. The interior of the building is finished in fumed oak throughout, except the secretary’s office, which is mahogany. The floors are of Georgia pine, with madeira border. The lobbies are of floor tile, with iron spot buff.”

Additional Fund-Raising Campaign

YMCA Campaign on February 21, 1918

Figure 6: YMCA Campaign on February 21, 1918

By February of 1918, the YMCA building was nearing completion. However, given unforeseen cost overruns and the need for capital to outfit the edifice with equipment and furniture, the committee needed to raise an additional $60,000 to complete the project. On February 20th, a group of fundraising teams were organized to quickly raise the amount needed. The team approach provided competition to create the necessary urgency to ensure a successful campaign.

By the end of the first day, the campaign received $24,000 in new pledges. Some of the notable significant contributors were William Jennings Bryan, a three-time presidential candidate and Secretary of State for Woodrow Wilson, C.W. Armour, a prominent member of the meatpacking family from Chicago, and Arthur Curtis James, a wealthy and well-known captain of industry.

Some prominent Miami pioneers were also big contributors to the fund-raiser. Some of the significant contributors during the campaign included Dr. James Jackson, Isidor Cohen, Hugh Anderson, George Merrick, Edwin Nelson, and Captain J.F. Jaudon to name a few. Although the YMCA was being constructed for men, pioneer women and notable women’s groups got involved by helping to organize the campaign and canvass for new pledges.

As a way to make the entire city aware of the fund-raiser, a clock was placed on the Hippodrome Theater to provide a meter to show how much was raised during the campaign. The clock was updated hourly to show progress and create urgency to help the initiative reach its goal.

The campaign concluded by mid-March when it successfully raised $71,500 from 2,400 different contributors. Once the committee had enough capital to order the equipment and furnishings, Frost could turn his attention to organizing the membership drive to ensure there was a large enough member base to sustain the Y after its opening. Dr. James Jackson purchased the first business membership which kicked-off a drive that netted 175 new members by June of 1918.

Dedication in May of 1918

YMCA Building in 1920

Figure 7: YMCA Building in 1920

The dedication of the YMCA building took place on May 16, 1918. With the exception of a few fixtures which were ordered but not yet delivered, the structure was complete. The building was beautifully decorated with American flags and potted palms and ferns placed around the structure, under the direction of the decorating committee, which was headed by Florie Tatum, wife of Smiley M. Tatum.

The dedication was initiated with a prayer from Reverend Dr. W.W. Faris of the First Presbyterian Church, and was followed by a short speech by Dr. James Jackson, the chairman of the committee that initiated and oversaw the project. William Frost welcomed all those in attendance and made an additional pitch for the membership drive. Members of the woman’s auxiliary served as a reception committee during a three-day open house that followed the dedication proceedings.

The ‘Y’ Through the Years

YMCA in 1936 on NE First Street

Figure 8: YMCA in 1936 on NE First Street

Miami’s downtown YMCA served a vital role during both world war periods. In addition to providing a place of recreation for servicemen when it opened during World War I, it served the same purpose when downtown Miami was once again selected as a training center for the Navy during World War II. The assembly hall provided a place to host dances for young couples during the wartime. The dormitory rooms provided a place for non-military visitors and family members during a time when most of the downtown hotels were turned over to the Navy.

After the war, the Dade Community Chest moved their campaign headquarters into the YMCA building as they inaugurated their fund-raising drive in 1949. The assembly hall was converted into office space to organize volunteers for canvassing prior to the start of their pledge drive.

The YMCA continued to be a gathering spot for mid-century Miami residents. Men who grew up in Miami fondly remember learning how to swim in the Y swimming pool, or playing pickup basketball games in the gymnasium. The institution remained a central recreation facility for businessmen who were members and spent their lunch our working out, playing basketball or some other competitive sport.

However, the migration to the suburbs in the 1960s and 70s left the ‘Old Gray Lady’, as people began to refer to the YMCA building at this time, an aging and lonely relic of the past. By the late 1970s, the YMCA organization felt it was time to replace their old building with something more modern.

Demolition in 1978

Demolition of YMCA on October 8, 1978

Figure 9: Demolition of YMCA on October 8, 1978

When John Arnold, writer for the Miami Herald, showed up at the corner of NE Third Avenue and NE First Street to cover the razing of the YMCA building on Sunday, October 8, 1978, he found a small group of onlookers waiting to witness the demolition. Some were curious and just passing time, but a few others were mourning the loss of what Arnold described as the “four story monument to sweat and exercise.”

When John interviewed one of the bystanders, 26-year-old Bill Heffernan of Key Biscayne, he captured a moment of nostalgia when Heffernan said “sixty years ago some guy my age was standing here doing the same thing. Only then, he was watching it go up.” It has been 44 years since the demolition of the old YMCA, and the others like Bill have witnessed many buildings go up and down since that time.

It is unlikely that any of the onlookers witnessing the demolition of the YMCA understood what went into the effort to conceive, fund, and construct the sixty-year-old building that was being removed on that day. It was more than a small crowd of onlookers that celebrated the opening of that YMCA building on May 16th in 1918. To the city’s leaders and pioneers involved with the project, the YMCA was much more than another building that blended into Miami’s early skyline. It represented what a community can accomplish if they pooled their resources and focused on solving a problem.

After the Y building was razed, the YMCA organization tried to generate enough interest to construct a new building on the same site. In the end, there just weren’t enough people who would commit to purchase the $350 annual membership fee to justify constructing a new building in downtown Miami at the time. The corner was left vacant for fifteen years.

Today, the Galleria International building occupies the former location of the YMCA. This structure was constructed in 1993 by the Flagler 251 organization who redeveloped the entire block from Flagler Street to NE First Street, and from NE Third Avenue to NE Second Avenue, to construct the Galleria complex. The old location of the Y was part of phase III of the development which provides a two-story structure of retail space. The Miami Money Exchange is one of the retailers occupying the corner of NE Third Avenue and NE First Street in 2022.

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Resources

  • Miami Metropolis: “Open Bids for YMCA Bldg Monday Feb 26”, February 21, 1917.
  • Miami Herald: “Contract Signed for Erection of YMCA Building”, March 1, 1917.
  • Miami Metropolis: “Begin Work on YMCA Building”, March 15, 1917.
  • Miami Metropolis: “Secure Men of National Prominence to Speak at Laying “Y” Cornerstone, May 15, 1917.
  • Miami Metropolis: “Big YMCA Drive for $60,000 to Complete Miami Building Starts off with Big Rush Today”, February 20, 1918.
  • Miami Metropolis: “Twenty-Four Thousand Dollars is Total Reported in YMCA Drive”, February 21, 1918.
  • Miami Metropolis: “Total of $71,500 Given to YMCA by 2400 Persons”, March 12, 1918.
  • Miami Metropolis: “Making YMCA Building Ready for its Opening”, May 15, 1918.
  • Miami Metropolis: “To Dedicate “Y” Building, One of the Finest in South, with Service this Evening”, May 16, 1918.
  • Miami News: “YMCA to Hold Week-End Dances”, January 15, 1943.
  • Miami News: “Miami YMCA Free of Debt on Property”, January 2, 1944.
  • Miami Herald: “At 60, ‘Old Gray Lady’ Crumbles”, by John Arnold, October 9, 1978.

Images

  • Cover: YMCA Building in 1920 from McAllister Hotel. Courtesy of Florida State Archives.
  • Figure 1: Dr. James Jackson. Courtesy of HistoryMiami Museum.
  • Figure 2: Soldiers Marching on Flagler Street in 1917. Courtesy of HistoryMiami Museum.
  • Figure 3: Breaking Ground for YMCA in 1917. Courtesy of Florida State Archives.
  • Figure 4: Gymnasium in YMCA Building in 1920s. Courtesy of Miami-Dade Public Library, Romer Collection.
  • Figure 5: YMCA Pool in 1930s. Courtesy of Miami-Dade Public Library, Romer Collection.
  • Figure 6: YMCA Campaign on February 21, 1918. Courtesy of Miami News Collection.
  • Figure 7: YMCA Building in 1920. Courtesy of Florida State Archives.
  • Figure 8: YMCA in 1936 on NE First Street. Courtesy of Miami-Dade Public Library, Romer Collection.
  • Figure 9: Demolition of YMCA on October 8, 1978. Courtesy of Miami Herald.