This month, we turn our attention to one of Akron’s most recognizable buildings and a landmark of its downtown skyline. The Akron YMCA Building on Center Street has managed to survive all of the urban renewal projects of the last century and remains a lone historical holdout in an area of modern hospital buildings and parking lots.
The Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) was founded in 1844 in London, by George Williams. An alternative to the streets and public houses, the YMCA’s purpose was to provide a safe and spiritually enriching place for young male factory workers to spend their time outside of the workplace. “Ys”, as they became known, quickly sprang up outside London, and the first American one opened in 1851 in Boston.
The YMCA’s early programming was entirely composed of prayer meetings and religious lectures. Its mission was expanded in 1866 to “the improvement of the spiritual, mental, social and physical condition of young men.” The organization began constructing dedicated buildings in America’s larger cities shortly afterwards.
Up until then, YMCAs had rented rooms and offices in multipurpose buildings. The new buildings not only included the usual classrooms, but also gymnasiums, swimming pools, bowling alleys and dormitories. Rent for these small apartments went towards building maintenance and Y programing. America’s first fitness classes were held at Ys, and it was in their gyms that the games of basketball and volleyball were invented.
The Akron YMCA was formed in 1870. Like others in the nation, it was originally housed in rented rooms and did not move into its own building until 1904. This was located at the southeast corner of Main and State Streets, where Mayflower Manor is today. The Main Street building included all the usual features of the modern Y, including the pool and dormitories.
However, the Akron chapter quickly outgrew this facility, and construction began on new large facility on Center Street in 1931. John R. Luxmore of Akron’s preeminent architectural firm, Good & Wagner, designed it to be the most beautiful and luxurious Y in Ohio. It was built at a cost of $1.26 million.
Dominating the skyline, it was — and still is — unlike any other building in downtown. The exterior is faced in buff colored brick with detailing of terracotta and limestone. Its most outstanding feature is the tin-plated pyramid at its top, which features classic Art Deco geometric designs. The upper parapets are adorned with glazed tile. The 13th floor features large balconies on all four sides of the building.
The interior boasted many classic features of the the Art Deco era, including tiled geometric decorative borders and sleek minimalist light fixtures. For a time, Akron’s downtown Y also housed Ohio’s largest indoor pool.
Straying from the Art Deco theme, and perhaps as a nod to Akron’s favorite residential design style of the 1920s and 30s, the northwest light court was styled after a Tudor English manor house.
Services at the Akron Y included restaurants, a barber shop, a clinic, dry cleaners, and about 200 dormitories.
The downtown Y remained popular until the late 1970s and closed in 1980. Coincidentally, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places the same year. After undergoing extensive renovations and repairs, it reopened as the Canal Square Y in 1986. Most of the old dorms were turned into apartments, available to both men and women. In 2012, the Akron YMCA auctioned its remaining shares of the building and relocated to its present location on East Market Street.
Today, the old YMCA building has a new life. Managed by Testa Companies, it has once again undergone extensive remodeling and now serves as a downtown apartment building known as Canal Square Lofts.
Thanks to the efforts to reuse the building and the growing interest in downtown living, the stately old Y is likely to remain a landmark of the Akron skyline for generations to come.
Charlotte Gintert is an archaeologist by day and a photographer by sunrise and sunset. You can check out her photos at www.capturedglimpses.com and follow her on Instagram at @capturedglimpses.