By Stanley Turkel, CMHS
Hotel History: YMCA of Greater New York
Do you know that there is a 167-year old organization located in New York City which owns and operates more than 1,200 hotel rooms in five separate locations in three boroughs? Some of its facilities are housed in landmark buildings and contain world-class athletic and fitness centers that surpass all private competitive facilities.
It’s the YMCA of Greater New York which traces its roots to 1852 and has evolved as a flexible organization serving people of both genders, all ages, races, and religious beliefs. Its history is one of responding energetically and consistently to the times and the changing needs of its constituents and communities.
From its initial evangelical Christian orientation, the YMCA has grown to be a secular, values-oriented organization with a special focus on positive development in city youth. Historically it has served the urban poor as well as the middle class with programs ranging from educational courses and employment bureaus to gymnasiums and resident accommodations. Some people interpret “YMCA” to mean that YMCAs are only for “young Christian men.” Not true. Despite its name, the YMCA is not just for the young, not just for men and not just for Christians. All ages, all religions, all genders are welcome at the YMCA.
There are currently five YMCA properties in the New York area providing accommodations for transient guests. These YMCA’s house both male and female guests who are interested in finding safe, clean, affordable and centrally located guest room facilities, fitness centers and restaurants.
Guest rooms at the YMCA are singles and twin rooms (bunk beds) with shared bathroom facilities located down the corridors. There are a limited number of premium rooms with double beds and rooms with private baths at an additional cost.
Amenities at all the YMCA’s include daily housekeeping service, free group fitness classes, cardio strength training, basketball court/gymnasium, sauna, teen programs, youth sports, swim lessons, electronic door locks, guest laundry, luggage storage and restaurant.
West Side YMCA – 480 Rooms
The world’s largest YMCA opened to the public on Monday, March 31, 1930. It was designed by Architect Dwight James Baum who designed 140 houses in the Riverdale area from 1914 to 1939.
The West Side Y has two swimming pools: the Pompeiian pool (75’ x 25’) with glazed Italian tiles. The slightly smaller Spanish pool (60’ x 20’) is surfaced with Andalusian tiles of rich cobalt blue flecked with yellow, a gift from the Spanish government. The Y has three gymnasiums, one with a running track above; five handball/racquetball/ squash courts, two group exercise studios, 2,400 sq. ft. free weight room, boxing room with both heavy and speed bags, stretching and martial arts rooms, mediation studio for yoga and mediation classes. The building also houses the jewel-box Little Theater, where one-time resident Tennessee William’s play “Summer and Smoke” was presented in 1952.
Any number of famous people have stayed at the West Side Y while establishing their careers; among them Fred Allen, John Barrrymore, Montgomery Clift, Kirk Douglas, Eddie Duchin, Lee J. Cobb, Douglas Fairbanks, Dave Garroway, Bob Hope, Elia Kazan, Norman Rockwell, Robert Penn Warren and Johnny Weismuller.
A recent renovation to the bathrooms reflects an important amenity improvement that will be installed on the remainder of the West Side Y’s floors and ultimately to the other New York City YMCA’s. The shared bathroom facilities have been converted to private bathrooms, each with a stall shower, toilet, wash basin, good lighting, mirror, electrical outlet, hooks and new colorful tile from floor to ceiling. These locked private bathrooms are accessible only with the guests’ electronic room key card. These bathrooms are better than country club standard.
Vanderbilt YMCA – 367 Rooms
Located on Manhattan’s fashionable East Side, the Vanderbilt Y building has a classic design matching that of its neighbors, which include the United Nations and Grand Central Station. Over the doorway of the Vanderbilt Y these words are etched into the stone: “Railroad Branch Young Mens Christian Association”. It was initiated under Cornelius Vanderbilt II’s leadership in 1875 when the YMCA’s had grown enormously, spreading from Manhattan and the Bronx to Brooklyn and Queens.
The new Railroad YMCA opened in 1932 at a cost of $1.5 million at 224 East 47th Street between Second and Third Avenues. In 1972 its name was changed to honor Cornelius Vanderbilt. The building has 367 guest rooms, a full-sized gymnasium, a modern four-lane indoor swimming pool with a one-meter diving board. There are shower rooms for men and women; weight training and exercise rooms; and massage, sunlamp and sauna departments.
The Vanderbilt’s spacious, air conditioned restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner from Monday through Friday. The facility seats 122 persons and serves more than 250,000 meals per year.
Harlem YMCA – 226 Rooms
The 135th Street YMCA traces its roots to the summer of 1900 which was marked by racial disturbances in the still predominantly white Harlem and Manhattan’s Tenderloin district over the growing inequality of black citizens. Earlier a “colored” YMCA operated at 132 W. 53rd Street in the heart of San Juan Hill, an African American residential area where fashionable clubs fueled artistic life and gave the district its reputation as a “black Bohemia”. Between 1910 and 1930, Harlem’s black population doubled creating the only large-scale, fully developed African American community in the nation.
Julius Rosenwald, a top executive of Sears, Roebuck and Company in Chicago, gave a total of $600,000 in challenge grants to build YMCA’s and YMCA’s for African Americans in many North American cities. One of those was the 135th Street Y which opened in 1919 at a cost of $375,000. The Branch quickly established itself as a pillar of the community in civic and social affairs and of the Harlem Renaissance that began in the 1920s. Writing in the Outlook, Booker T. Washington noted that the gifts from his friend Julius Rosenwald to the YMCA “have been a help to my race….in what they are doing to convince the white people of this country that in the long run schools are cheaper than policemen; that there is more wisdom in keeping a man out of the ditch than in trying to save him after he has fallen in; that it is more Christian and more economical to prepare young men to live right than to punish them after they have committed a crime.” By 1940, the original Harlem Y was inadequate, overcrowded and worn and needed program space for boys, a supervised dormitory and counseling facilities for the thousands of African American youth seek work in New York City. Transient “Red Caps”, Pullman porters and dining car men, who were not allowed to use the segregated Railroad YMCA’s, also needed accommodations. In 1933, a new Harlem YMCA was built on West 135th Street directly across from the existing Harlem Y. By 1938, the original Y was remodeled as the “Harlem annex” to house its boys’ department. In 1996, it was remodeled again, reopening as the Harlem YMCA Jackie Robinson Youth Center.
A cultural center unto itself, the Branch hosted and housed renowned writers such as Richard Wright, Claude McKay, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes; artists Jacob Lawrence and Aaron Douglas; actors Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Cicely Tyson and Paul Robeson. In years gone by, the Harlem YMCA’s 226 rooms were often occupied by African American visitors and performers to New York City who couldn’t get rooms in midtown hotels because of racial discrimination.
Flushing YMCA – 127 Rooms
Citizens in Flushing broke ground in 1924 for a YMCA Branch on Northern Boulevard near La Guardia Airport to serve residents of Bayside, Douglaston, College Point, Whitestone, Kew Gardens and other nearby communities. The building with 79 guest rooms opened in 1926. Subsequent expansion took place in the following two years with new playgrounds, athletic leagues, and summer camps. Flushing added a new wing with an Olympic-sized pool and a businessmen’s athletic club in 1967 and 1972, 48 guest rooms.
Greenpoint YMCA – 100 Rooms
The Brooklyn Association raised capital for new buildings through the 1903 Jubilee Fund, a drive that marked its 50th Anniversary. Between 1904 and 1907, the Association completed three new buildings: Eastern District in Williamsburg; Bedford between Gates and Monroe Streets; and Greenpoint. Each of these branches contained a swimming pool, running track, gymnasium, club rooms, lounges and residence guest rooms. In 1918, the Greenpoint Branch added two floors of dormitory rooms. In its early days, it was known as the workingmen’s YMCA because of its focus on the needs of employees in many nearby factories.
William Sloane Memorial YMCA-1,600 Rooms
Opened in 1930 on West Thirty-Fourth Street and Ninth Avenue, the building was built primarily to serve more than 100,000 young men seeking their fortune during the Great Depression as well as the thousands of soldiers, sailors and marines during and after World War II. Finally, in 1991, the Association closed the Sloane House and sold the building.
In 1979, the singing group, the Village People, scored their biggest all-time hit in the form of “YMCA”, a disco smash recording. The band promoted the song with a folk dance routine that features hand signals illustrating the letters of the title. This caught on at discos around the world and has since become a part of pop-culture folklore. Anytime the song is played on a dance floor, it’s a safe bet that many people will perform the dance routine with the appropriate YMCA hand signals.
“Young man, there’s no need to feel down.
I said, young man, pick yourself off the ground.
I said, young man, ‘cause you’re in a new town
There’s no need to be unhappy.
Young man, there’s a place you can go.
I said, young man, when you’re short on your dough.
You can stay there, and I’m sure you will find
Many ways to have a good time.
It’s fun to stay at the Y-M-C-A
It’s fun to stay at the Y-M-C-A”
My New Book, “Great American Hotel Architects” is Available
My eighth hotel history book features twelve architects who designed 94 hotels from 1878 to 1948: Warren & Wetmore, Henry J. Hardenbergh, Schultze & Weaver, Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter, Bruce Price, Mulliken & Moeller, McKim, Mead & White, Carrere & Hastings, Julia Morgan, Emery Roth, Trowbridge & Livingston, George B. Post and Sons.
You can order copies from the publisher AuthorHouse by posting “Great American Hotel Architects” by Stanley Turkel.
My Other Published Hotel Books
- Great American Hoteliers: Pioneers of the Hotel Industry (2009)
- Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels in New York (2011)
- Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels East of the Mississippi (2013)
- Hotel Mavens: Lucius M. Boomer, George C. Boldt, Oscar of the Waldorf (2014)
- Great American Hoteliers Volume 2: Pioneers of the Hotel Industry (2016)
- Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels West of the Mississippi (2017)
- Hotel Mavens Volume 2: Henry Morrison Flagler, Henry Bradley Plant, Carl Graham Fisher (2018)
All of these books can be ordered from AuthorHouse by visiting www.stanleyturkel.com and clicking on the book’s title.
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