The Downtown YMCA is back, sort of. A fire in April 2007 caused extensive smoke damage throughout the building and forced its closing for several weeks. The swimming pool, closed for several months for a renovation that included deep cleaning and repair of the delicate ceramic tile work and installation of new lighting and sprinkler systems, is now open. The vaulted plaster ceiling has been removed, revealing the original board-formed concrete slab-and-beam structural system. The pool, sunken half-underground below the level of the sidewalk on Clinch Avenue, is as beautiful as ever and a delight to use again.
The Y has been a Knoxville landmark since it was built in 1929 at the start of the Great Depression. Designed by Barber and McMurry in an eclectic Italian Renaissance Revival style (their words, not mine), it was typical of the YMCA building program of the time, containing common rooms on the ground floor, single-room residences above with showers and toilets "down the hall," an indoor swimming pool that became the place most Knoxville boys learned to swim, and a glazed-brick gymnasium with basketball court and suspended walking track.
From its origins in England in 1844, the Young Men's Christian Association has traditionally responded to the social needs of a community, particularly in the area of affordable housing. The very first were built to provide healthy dormitories for single rural men flocking to the cities in search of employment in a newly industrialized economy. Programs expanded to provide a range of free medical, educational and recreational services. Boston was home to the first Y in the United States, built in 1851. During World War I, the YMCA movement raised $235 million to run military canteens, and when the war ended, surplus funds spurred a building boom of which Knoxville and cities of its size were beneficiaries.
For a college student traveling across the US in the 1960s, it was common to ride into downtown on a Greyhound bus and walk to the YMCA, where a clean, quiet room could be obtained for as little as $4 a night. This formula worked until the 1970s when cuts in government subsidies, increased maintenance costs, changes in programs from residential to health/fitness, and real estate pressures convinced many Ys to abandon their older buildings and construct new ones on the fringes of downtown and in the suburbs. Nevertheless, some cities have resisted the trend by keeping and maintaining their older buildings. Ys in New York, Chicago, Phoenix and San Francisco, for example, still have the affordable residential component in their programs, fulfilling the original mission of the organization.
Knoxville has not been so lucky. With its rooms empty for decades, a decision was made to sell parts of the building for conversion into condominiums and use the money to renovate and expand the health/fitness components. In 2003, the three upper floors of the Clinch Avenue building, the Locust Street entrance lobby (the former boy's entrance), several rooms in the rear, and the entire courtyard were sold to a developer for $400,000. At a meeting with the director, members suggested that this sum was inadequate for the kind of changes needed to attract a growing downtown residential population, that the Y needed to launch a fund-raising campaign and build an addition to its existing plant that would enhance its programs and meet the needs of a new membership.
That in fact happened and the current construction reflects the commitment of the YMCA management and determination of its membership to invest in the historic building and its location. The design, however, posed difficult problems for the architects, contractor and users. Nothing could be more complex than designing renovations where the building remains in use during the construction phase. Imagine this: the new men's locker room was constructed in the parking lot under the old locker room. Upon its completion, the women's locker room was moved to the former men's locker, and renovations began on the old women's locker room (where the unfortunate fire started). After the women were moved back into their renovated space, the old men's locker was transformed into the new fitness center, where giant holes were cut in the existing brick wall to provide picture-window views of Henley Street and World's Fair Park. While all of this was in process, the swimming pool was being rebuilt.
The final results of this juggling act will be evident in a few months. If there are glitches, they're in the details. The new men's sauna is pitifully inadequate; the benches are incorrectly dimensioned and the room barely seats five people in comfort. The steam room is a prefab unit that seems more appropriate for a family of six than a downtown fitness center. The water pressure and temperature of the showers are temperamental at best. One has to wonder whether unsupervised interns rather than experienced architects and engineers were assigned to work these things out.
But that's small stuff compared to the big issue: why was half of this stunning building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, sold to a developer at a bargain price for conversion to expensive condos? Couldn't the Y itself have renovated the rooms as a hostel or affordable residences like its older sister down the block, the YWCA, had done? That Y runs a transitional housing program in its historic 1925 building, offering simple, safe places for women to stay temporarily for $42 per week. Those who can't locate or afford market housing can find an affordable solution for a limited period of time. Couldn't a similar program, consonant with the Y's mission, have been initiated for men as well?
When work began on the condo construction, the contractor used the Locust Street entrance as the principal means of access to the construction site, entering across a marble threshold incised with the words "YMCA Boy's Department." The slab was as pristine as when first set in 1929. For a few weeks, it was protected by several layers of cardboard, but as the pace of construction quickened, the cardboard disintegrated and the first of several cracks in the slab appeared. While one could bemoan the damaged threshold and demand its replacement, it should perhaps be left intact as a memento of more generous times, when we constructed durable, beautiful buildings that were themselves part of a social program of compassion and care.
©2007 Michael Kaplan. This article originally appeared in the Knoxville Voice. Photo: Not your father's YMCA: threshold slab victimized by condo construction