The Elbert Files: YMCA's deep Des Moines roots
Friday, March 07, 2014 7:00 AM
When the new $30 million Wellmark YMCA opens in the former Polk County Convention Complex in early 2015, it will become the fourth permanent downtown location for one of the Des Moines’ oldest and most storied nonprofits.
Today, the YMCA of Greater Des Moines operates 11 branches in Central Iowa with assets worth $63 million, an annual budget of $23 million, more than 1,400 employees and 66,000 members.
It’s a far cry from the first YMCA established in London in 1841 as a Bible study group by a 20-year-old clerk named George Williams, or the first U.S. YMCA, which was organized in Boston in 1851.
The Des Moines Y traces its origin to a notice in the Daily State Register of Jan. 26, 1868, inviting “young men of this city to meet on Monday evening (Jan. 27) at 8 o’clock in the room in rear of the Business College on Walnut Street, over Coskerry & Tannahill’s store for the purpose of organizing a ‘Young Men’s Christian Association.’”
Tannahill’s dry goods store was on Walnut Street where Capital Square is today. During the early years, Y members met in more than a half-dozen different locations, often discussing civic efforts, including the creation of Drake University in 1881.
In 1888, fundraising began for a permanent location, and a five-story building, capped with a bell tower, was completed in 1891 at a cost of about $70,000. The building was at the northeast corner of Fourth Street and Grand Avenue, where the Brown Garage is now. It had bowling alleys and advertised “the largest gymnasium in the West.”
The location also housed the city’s first library and had rooms that were used by Capital City Commercial College to teach business skills to young men.
In 1893, the Des Moines Y acquired a basketball and two hoops and introduced Iowans to the game that had been invented two years earlier by James Naismith, an instructor at the YMCA in Springfield, Mass.
But the building soon became too small to accommodate the Y’s expanding menu of programs, and efforts to construct a new YMCA were launched in 1907.
The second YMCA was one block north at Fourth Street and Keosauqua Way (now Watson Powell Jr. Way). It opened in 1912 with a footprint that covered a full quarter block, more than twice that of the first building. The new Y was six stories tall, with rooms that provided housing for older men.
The building had a price tag of $225,000 and featured the city’s first indoor swimming pool. Swimming, like basketball and bicycle riding, was a sport that was promoted nationwide by YMCAs in the early 20th century. In 1911 alone, 326 YMCA pools opened.
The 1920s was a period of soul searching as Y members nationwide debated whether to become a separate Christian denomination. Ultimately, the group decided the Y could teach Christian values to a wider audience by remaining independent.
After World War II, the Des Moines Y found itself once again in need of more space. After Des Moines’ riverfront Coliseum burned to the ground on Aug. 13, 1949, plans were made to build a new Y on that site.
The new building was designed by architects Wetherell and Harrison, and Jesse Owens, the hero of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, attended the cornerstone laying in 1959.
At the dedication in 1960, the Des Moines Tribune’s Robert H. Spiegel wrote that the eight-story residence section provided “a United Nations look” for the riverfront and that the new Y was “an arresting addition to the Des Moines skyline.”
Now, nearly 50 years later, and 146 years after the first YMCA meeting in Des Moines, the group will move again.
I said at the outset that the Des Moines Y has a lot of stories. With the help of Vernon Delpesce, president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Des Moines, I hope to share some of those stories in the months ahead.
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