A block northeast of Huntsville’s county square, the Central YMCA maintains it status as a downtown landmark. It just isn’t a YMCA anymore.
In 1909, Mary Virginia McCormick prevailed upon her eldest brother, Cyrus McCormick Jr., to vouchsafe funding for new central YMCA to be located on the corner of Randolph Avenue and Greene street. He responded by sending $12,500 in wire transfers.
Opened in 1912, the new YMCA was a handsome structure, designed by renowned local architect Edgar Lee Love.
In the 1990s, as I ascended the YMCA’s front staircase for the first time, I felt strangely at home. At the main entryway, the top steps had welcomed so many guests over the years that they were worn into broad, concave saucer shapes. Having spent many of my happiest days in similarly well-used and downtrodden habitations, I saw this as a profound aspect of its charm.
Contemporary photos from the 1910s reveal a bright, airy lobby, graced by ferns and palm trees, offering sturdy, comfortable-looking furniture. About the only remainder of these accommodations when I got there was the flint-colored tile floor. Every window, light source, and any other fixture betraying a level of fragility was protected by some variety of wire caging.
Downstairs, in the basement, eight decades of ghostly perspiration welcomed you to the locker room and weight room. It was hard to tell where one left off and the other began. Almost all of the equipment looked like something a dad would grudgingly buy for his son, expecting him to give up on this whole weightlifting kick any minute now.
This was fine with me. I had belonged to modern, snazzy health clubs in the past, where bodybuilders curling 100 pound dumbbells released in me unending waves of inadequacy. My workouts were mostly an excuse to use the swimming pool, sauna, steam and whirlpool. On this front, the “Y” had us covered, in a minimal, sort-of, not-really kind of way.
The “wet” area of the basement ran parallel the pool, sharing a wall and a pair of doors. The pool seemed wedged into its space, lending it a close, claustrophobic, urban feel. You might just as easily be in Chicago or New York. The pool’s deck was narrow, and while the water was usually cool by health club standards, it was always sparkling clean.
In the shower area, a professionally crafted sign enjoined, “If You Wouldn’t Do It At Home, Don’t Do It Here.” I was never party or witness to the sort of Libertinism the Village People led us to expect from a YMCA — not even spitting or nose-honking, for that matter — so presumably the warning was doing its job.
The sauna and steam rooms were white tile spaces with glass doors, heated by steam-powered radiators. Some days they were hot and/or or steamy, and some days they weren’t. If they weren’t, you might as well go home, because they wouldn’t be heating up anytime soon.
Probably the most hilarious provision in the wet zone was the whirlpool, or whirlpools, really. In an effort to provide hot, swirly water for its patrons, the Y had installed two crayon-blue, homestyle bathtubs. They may have been official Jacuzzis, but somehow that seems out of keeping with the institutional principles involved.
Against the far end of the wet zone were consumer-grade washers and dryers, cranking out an endless supply of threadbare, miscellaneous towels of the sort that traditionally emerged from boxes of Breeze detergent.
Making it all work was a compact, muscular old hand who also served as masseur. Always pleasant and engaging, he nevertheless realized his responsibility to bring neophytes up to speed in the workings of the operation. After my first visit, as I was getting dressed, he asked me a question:
“That massage all right for you?”
I answered, “Yeah, great, thanks very much!”
He continued, “Yeah cause I noticed you didn’t leave no tip.”
He told me he usually got five bucks. I gave him ten. A massage therapist would have charged at least forty for the same level of service, and I desired to foster no ill-will between myself and the man who was quite clearly in charge.
As delightful as it was in its way, it was pretty obvious that the Y was in its waning years and probably had been since the 70s, when cheap paneling was nailed up over peeling plaster, and fire retardant paint was slathered over everything.
In 1998, the Central Huntsville YMCA finally breathed its last. Buck Watson and WJGM, LLC. spent roughly $2 million and took a little more than a year to transform the facility into an office building that opulently reclaims its 1912 glory.
Before and after photos of the transformation may be found here and here. Downtown Huntsville is now being served by the “Downtown Express” YMCA, welcoming women as well as men, kids and even the occasional duck. It is in every way a superior venue to the one I enjoyed those years ago. Still though, every now and then, I will feel a pinprick of nostalgia brought on by the smell of towels fresh out of the dryer, a cloud of steam or chlorine not quite winning its battle against mildew.