In 1925, Akron’s Jewish community decided that they were in dire need of their own cultural center. Although there were several synagogues, there wasn’t a building for the community to hold classes, have events or play sports. So, several of Akron’s Jewish leaders came together and formed a committee to build an Akron Jewish Center to meet those needs. They chose property in Akron’s West Hill neighborhood near where the Anshe Emeth Congregation had been meeting.
After six years of planning and fundraising, a contract was signed with Akron architects J. Edward Fitcher and Harry A. Booker to design the Center. The funds were raised through banquets, recitals and dances hosted by the Center’s Ladies’ Auxiliary. The remaining costs were paid for by Center memberships, which were $20 per family.
The final cost of construction was $150,000 and the building was completed in the summer of 1929. Bert A. Polsky, owner of Polsky’s department store, was the chairman of the September dedication banquet that marked the Center’s grand opening.
The exterior of the building is brick with terracotta trim and friezes. Instead of choosing the popular Art Deco designs of the time, the architects chose a Byzantine revival style. The most noteworthy feature is the arched main entrance with lions and figures inspired by Tanakh imagery.
When it opened, the building contained an Olympic-sized swimming pool lined with mosaic tile, a 900-seat auditorium with a stage, a “moving picture booth,” a women’s lounge, a billiard room, a game room, a library, meeting rooms in various sizes, two dining rooms, a full-size event kitchen, a handball court, offices and classrooms.
In 1951, architect Michael M. Konarski designed an addition for the east side of the building. Wanting to blend the new wing into the original structure, he acquired matching brick and created a large two-story terracotta panel with a Star of David at the front bay where the two structures met.
Besides holding Jewish-oriented programming for members, the Center also hosted events and programs for the general public. These included the Center Theatre Guild, Sunday Evening Concert Series and the Akron Civic Forum. The concert series attracted local, national, and, sometimes, international performers. The visit of the Budapest String Quartet was particularly popular. The Theatre Guild put on a wide variety of plays, including “The Diary of Anne Frank,” “Heaven Can Wait” and “The Women.”
The Akron Civic Forum was perhaps the most significant event of the Center’s programming. When First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt spoke in 1937, there was so much demand for tickets that the event had to be moved to the Akron Armory. Other notable speakers included columnist Drew Pearson, Edward R. Murrow and Ohio Senator Robert A. Taft. The program eventually went on to become a local television show and radio series on WAKR.
In 1962, the Center’s Ladies’ Auxiliary booked actress Joan Crawford to speak at their Women’s Day luncheon and fashion show. Crawford, in addition to being a famous actress, was also a member of Pepsi-Cola’s board of directors. She spoke at the Center during her inspection of the local Pepsi bottling facilities.
After 45 years, the Jewish Center was in need of a new, larger facility with outdoor recreation space. In 1973, the center moved to White Pond Drive. The Shaw JCC of Akron still serves the area’s Jewish community today.
The Balch Street building was sold to Shadyside Baptist Church in 1975, which occupied it for 10 years before its congregation merged with another church and moved. By then, the building was in need of some renovations. Akron lawyer Robert Meeker purchased the facility, refurbished it and reopened it as the Balch Street Athletic Club. Meeker had spent his childhood at the Akron Jewish Center and wanted the facility to be open again to the neighborhood in West Hill.
In 1992, after suffering some financial losses, he sold the building to Summit County, which in turn sold 75% of the building to the City of Akron to become a municipal recreation center. LeBron James was one of many community members who used the city gym.
In 2018, the LeBron James Family Foundation and the 2K Foundation paid for an extensive renovation of the gymnasium. The gym has been the site of I Promise School recreational activities and assemblies.
The Balch Street Community Center continues to be open to the public.
Charlotte Gintert is an archaeologist and a photographer.You can check out her photos at www.capturedglimpses.com. Follow her on Instagram at @capturedglimpses for more old Akron building content.