Fit-ting Legacy

Written by Douglas Towne Category: History Issue: April 2014
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The Downtown YMCA has undergone more than $32 million in renovations, but its egalitarian vision has changed little since 1892.

As one of the most “ancient” things in the comparatively young city of Phoenix, the mid-century Downtown YMCA building has long been a beacon for those in search of a pick-up basketball game or iron to pump. But aside from the old red brick facade, the original Y is almost unrecognizable after recent facility upgrades, including the addition of the Sun Devil Fitness Complex and posh ASU athletics wing, with its state-of-the-art equipment and stunning rooftop pool. One thing that hasn’t changed with the remarkable facelift, however, is the Downtown YMCA’s century-old mission of providing Phoenicians with a healthy environment for mind, body and spirit.

The Downtown YMCA has incrementally changed with the times to remain vital over its storied history. It relocated twice, evolved from its origins as a civic gathering spot and choir-practice hub, and embraced the sexual revolution by admitting women. Phoenix Suns players no longer storm up and down the practice floor, as they did in the infancy of the franchise, but as one the few branches nationwide that still offers residential housing, the Downtown Y is very much a remnant of the organization’s golden era.

When Phoenix was incorporated in 1881, there was a strong interest in opening a local Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) to help civilize the raucous frontier town. Founded in London in 1844, the organization was admired for its three-point promotion of a healthy “body, mind and spirit,” and in later decades would serve as the birthplace of such world-encompassing games as basketball, volleyball and racquetball.

In 1892, Phoenix finally got its Y, situated in leased space on the ground floor of a two-story building located at First and Washington streets. The first permanent YMCA facility, located at Second Avenue and Monroe Street, was completed in 1911. Local newspapers cheered the new facility; an announcement in the February 24, 1911, issue of The Arizona Republican proclaimed, “The YMCA building is an asset for good which cannot be overvalued.” The three-story structure – now gone, replaced by a parking lot for the Phoenix District Office of the U.S. Department of Labor – featured residence rooms, and a gymnasium, swimming pool and club room. The growing city soon overwhelmed the facilities, but the building had been designed so the roof could be raised to insert a fourth floor, which occurred in 1915.

In addition to sports and crafts like woodworking, a popular program was the annual Thanksgiving Day breakfast sponsored by the Raggers, an honorary YMCA society. “By the 1940s, Barry Goldwater often presented a slide show about Arizona at the event,” says Robert Moore, a 79-year-old retired health care worker. “Goldwater was a great speaker and had amazing photographs of Native American ceremonies he took while flying his plane around the state.”

PHM 0414 PF25a

To assist military personnel passing through Phoenix during World War II, the YMCA added a servicemen’s dormitory to the roof in 1942. Further expansion was delayed by the war, and canceled in 1944, when YMCA Director John C. Lincoln proposed construction of a new facility. The fundraising campaign was launched at Hotel Westward Ho on November 16, 1944. Within a few months, $525,000 had been pledged to the project by more than 3,500 people, including $50,000 from the Lincoln family.

Twelve residential lots along the west side of First Avenue between Van Buren and Fillmore streets were purchased to become the site for the new YMCA. The architecture firm of Lescher and Mahoney was hired to design the building, which reflected emerging Cold War fears by featuring Downtown’s largest civil defense shelter.

The $1.1 million Downtown YMCA opened on January 21, 1952, and hosted more than 18,000 people during Open House Week. Students were recruited to demonstrate various activities for the festivities, but some were given instructions contrary to normal procedures. “I jumped at the chance to skip school and go swimming all day at the YMCA,” Moore says with a laugh. “We were told, however, to wear swim trunks. Normally all the boys swam au naturel because it was considered more hygienic, but with the public coming through, they didn’t want us skinny-dipping.”

Many Phoenix youth virtually grew up at the Downtown YMCA. Rick Davis spent countless hours on the basketball court with his brother, John, while their father patrolled the parking lot as a security guard. “Back then, the men’s locker room was restricted to adults, but occasionally I would sneak in to see what was so fascinating about the place,” says the 52-year-old Fox 10 News photojournalist. “They played pinochle all day long. And the funny thing about it was they would be dressed in workout clothes to play cards.”

Fresh out of law school, Robert Pickrell, the future Arizona Attorney General and Superior Court judge, had an office adjacent to the Y. He initially had few clients, so during slow times he would play handball next door. “If someone walked into Bob’s office, his secretary would alert him via a call to the YMCA desk manager,” his cousin and former YMCA board member Tom Pickrell says with a laugh. “Bob would run back to his office by way of the back door so that he could greet his prospective client as if he had been working in his office the whole time.”

The YMCA’s new rooftop pool

Over the years, the popularity of specific sports has ebbed and flowed. Basketball, swimming, running and weightlifting remain favorites at the Y, while others like fencing and handball have faded. Badminton soldiers on with a group that includes four octogenarians. New recreation outlets include yoga, kickboxing and water aerobics. Classes such as rock-hounding, photography, guitar and painting were largely phased out by the 1980s. A more dramatic change is coed membership. A YWCA formed in Phoenix in 1912, and women were included in limited activities at the YMCA as far back as the 1930s, but coed fitness programs didn’t start until the 1970s, obligating male members, for the first time, to wear swim trunks while using the pool.

But while programs and membership evolved, the mid-century building did not. “During a rainstorm in 2003, I taught a yoga class with students interspersed with a half-dozen buckets collecting water,” recalls former YMCA fitness instructor Wendy Reese. Fortunately, a generous donation by the Lincoln family led to a $6.9 million building renovation in 2006. The facility was then renamed the Lincoln Family Downtown YMCA. In 2013, the Downtown YMCA partnered with ASU. A $25 million fund added 75,000 square feet, and college students now comprise a large part of the membership.

Even with the expansion, the facility retains its community vibe; members feel building relationships is just as important as burning calories. “For many of us, our daily lunchtime trip to the Downtown YMCA is the best part of the day,” Maricopa County Manager Tom Manos says. “It’s like recess for adults, where for one hour, we forget about our daily challenges and just enjoy each other’s company.”