The Rise and Inglorious Fall of the Downtown YMCA
by Lynne Rostochil
Tourists visiting the Oklahoma City National Memorial, site of the horrific 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building, often park in a lot conveniently located across the street at NW 5th and Robinson. Little do they know that they’ve parked on the site of one of Timothy McVeigh’s last victims, the downtown YMCA building. With its unusual-but-harmonious blend of horizontal and vertical lines, the stark white concrete YMCA was surely one of the Capitol city’s most exceptional pieces of mid-century architecture … and one that many fought valiantly, if unsuccessfully, to save when new owners wanted to demolish it. But the failure to save one building galvanized the community to work fiercely to save another just a few months later. More about that in a bit.
The Oklahoma City YMCA goes back to the Land Run days when a small group of men gathered at the post office in May 1889 to form a new chapter, one that quickly numbered over 100 by the end of the year. Over the next decade and a half, membership continued to grow as rapidly as the city itself, which resulted in the Y moving from smaller rented spaces to increasingly larger ones every few years. With all of this moving, it was quite clear that the YMCA needed its own building, but several fund raising efforts failed to produce enough money to buy a piece of valuable downtown land and construct their quarters. So, the YMCA continued to rent and tolerate frustrating landlords, one of whom refused to let the organization use the exercise equipment they had installed in a second-floor space because the noise of men using it bothered the other tenants.
It was World War I and the great need for temporary housing that finally got the YMCA a building of its very own. Years of stalled fund-raising efforts kicked into high gear as young men from the surrounding countryside and other urban areas moved to Oklahoma City for jobs or passed through on their way to other ports of call. With funds in hand, construction began on a traditional, six-story building at 125 NW 2nd and was completed just months before the war ended in November of 1918. Finally, after almost 40 years as tenants, the YMCA had a building to call home … and a place to exercise as loudly as members wanted.
The red brick building served its patrons well through the boom times of the ‘20s and the Great Depression of the ‘30s, but by the end of World War II and the beginning of the burgeoning baby boom, it was evident that the YMCA had again outgrown its space, and fund raising efforts began once more to construct an even larger headquarters.
All of the stunning vertical and horizontal lines of the downtown YMCA can be seen in this linen postcard from the ’50s. (Lynne Rostochil collection)
This time, the YMCA, led by general secretary, J.B. White, opted to construct a building on NW 5th and Robinson that they would never outgrow and hired local firm, Sorey, Hill & Sorey to come up with the design. Founded in 1931 by University of Oklahoma graduate Tom Sorey, Sr., the firm initially included his brother-in-law, Alfred Hill and cousin, Lee Sorey. Adhering to clients’ needs and conservative trends of the time, the young team was adept at traditional design in the firm’s early years, as evidenced by the Crown Heights Christian Church (Oklahoma City) and the Student Union Building and Library at OSU, but they also embraced a more modern aesthetic with their Streamline designs for the Carpenter Paper Company (Oklahoma City) and the concrete block municipal building in Stillwater.
After the war, a second generation of family members rounded out the firm when recent OSU graduates, Tom Sorey, Jr., his cousin, Neil Hill, and his brother and OU graduate, Stewart Sorey, came aboard (Stewart later left the firm and moved to Denver). The new blood brought a more intense zeal for Modernism to the firm, leading to some of the most impressive mid-century designs to be seen anywhere in the state, including Sorey Hill Sorey’s effort for the new downtown YMCA building.
In sharp contrast to the functional-but-lackluster, traditional brick building the Y had outgrown in less than two decades, the firm’s design for a whopping eight-story, dazzling white concrete structure that was the absolute antithesis of lackluster was heartily embraced by the Y board and memberships. To signal their enthusiasm for the project, funds were raised in record time to build the $1.9 million beauty (that’s almost $17 million in 2013 money). Ground broke for the first building embracing the modern style in downtown in April 1950, and construction was completed exactly two years later. According to Tom Sorey, Jr., in an article he wrote about his family’s firm in the winter 1993-94 issue of The Chronicles of Oklahoma, the building’s “asymmetrical composition, recalling elements of both the Dutch De Stijl movement and the International Style, was a startling departure from the Neoclassical, Italian Renaissance, and Art Deco style buildings in the area.”
Indeed it was.
The downtown YMCA building featured on the cover of the Winter 1993-94 of The Chronicles of Oklahoma.
The sleek design was a study in contrasting horizontal and vertical lines that not only gave the building its unique and very dramatic look but also served a practical purpose in using a “solar design for the utilization of light and shading during summer and winter,”* something that was very important in the years before air conditioning became widespread. In addition, the building featured just about every amenity a young boy or rooming guest could hope for, including two gyms, an eight-lane bowling alley, three handball courts, a health club, steam rooms, a rooftop exercise and lounge area, a darkroom, a restaurant, a snack bar, and an ultra-violet room, where, for two minutes under a lamp, users could “soak up as much vitamin D as you can in half a day in the sun.”*
The spacious building also boasted 212 dorm rooms for guests, a 30-seat chapel, an auditorium, meeting rooms, a daycare, a barber shop, and a 75’x25’, 100,000-gallon pool, complete with a large spectator space. Many an Oklahoma City resident who enjoyed the water activities as young boys at the downtown Y during the 1950s may recall one particularly interesting and very un-politically correct pool rule … they had to swim naked. Yes, you read that right, they swam naked, nude, bare assed … and with potential spectators watching! As one former swimmer recalls, “The reason they gave was that lint from the swimsuits clogged the pool’s filter…. The parents didn’t seem to see a problem with it. Times were different.” They sure were!
For all of the activities and pre-pubescent, bare-butted views, members of the newest, 100,000-square-foot YMCA club paid annual dues anywhere from $10 for kids to $50 for a limited, businessmen’s membership, to $125 for full privileges. Within the first year of opening, the downtown Y boasted that it served over 5,500 community boys annually through its programs and sports activities (that number would jump to over 70,000 people among the downtown and branch YMCAs by the 2000s).
From a detailed spread in The Oklahoman celebrating the downtown Y’s grand opening.
The downtown Y proudly served the community for well over four decades and claimed over 1,200 members by 1995, but with eight branches now serving most of the Y’s patrons, the aging downtown building found itself underused and increasingly costly to maintain. There were rumblings among board members about selling their home and constructing a smaller building to serve the downtown community but before any decision could be made, Timothy McVeigh parked his rented, banana-yellow Ryder truck in front of the Murrah building on that horrific April 19th morning, changing so many lives and the face of downtown forever.
Sitting less than a block away from the blast site, the Y continued to serve the community that fateful day when its mighty concrete walls bravely protected dozens of innocent members, daycare children, and about 90 boarders, including 22 members of a Russian ice skating troupe that became stranded in Oklahoma City when their funding dried up while on tour. Although there were injuries from fallen debris and shattered glass, remarkably, no lives were lost in the Y on that fateful spring morning, which was one of the few pieces of good news reported in the aftermath of the bombing.
Likened to a battleship by engineers inspecting the building later on, the strong exterior concrete weathered the blast well, but the interior sustained severe damage that would take millions of dollars to repair. Even with the damage, the YMCA was deemed structurally sound and many expected that the building would be restored and reopened within a couple of years. Alas, that was not the case. Although the Y received a $6.5 million insurance payout for its damaged main branch, board members opted not to restore their still-beautiful piece of Modernism, but instead, to construct a new, smaller building a few blocks away. This decision left the Sorey Hill Sorey creation’s fate up in the air … temporarily, at least.
In 1998, the YMCA sold its long-time home for a measley $50,000 to Karen and Gene Maule, owners of the Kemco vending machine company. The Maules announced their lofty intentions of converting the building into retail, office, and restaurant space. However, by the following spring, nothing had been done to clean up the building or its surrounds and the Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority threatened to take over the old Y if the Maules didn’t begin rehabilitation efforts right away.
As the Urban Renewal Authority board was going through the process to acquire the building, the Y got a second reprieve when architect Jim Loftis and his non-profit group, American Homes Foundation, stepped forward in November of 1999, expressing an interest in buying the beleaguered structure and re-adapting it into 72 apartments, with a parking garage and retail space on the first floor. Loftis explained his interest in rehabbing the Y this way: “Our group believes the building is very important to this community. It is the only example left (downtown) of the architecture that was being done in the 1950s.” In celebration of the announcement and the apparent rescue of a downtown icon, the downtown YMCA was named by The Oklahoman as one of the Metro’s most significant buildings by a panel of architects, historians, and preservationists.
A YMCA matchcover from the ’50s. (Lynne Rostochil collection)
Unfortunately, the Loftis deal never made it through the planning stages and the new millennium saw the building once again endangered. After being unable to develop the property, the Maules ended up selling the Y to 5th Street Parking Partners, a partnership whose primary investor was the Bob Moore Auto Group. The new owners immediately announced they would demolish the bomb-damaged and boarded up building and replace it with an ugly-but-money-making surface parking lot. Galvanized by the announcement, local architects and preservationists sprung into action in an effort to save the forlorn structure; they wrote letters, signed petitions, and came up with alternative development plans, but all to no avail. The new owners had as much sympathy for the plight of the building as then-mayor Kirk Humphreys, who summed up their feelings in an Oklahoman interview with this very short-sighted, callous, dollars-and-cents logic, “What talks is the marketplace and real dollars. The marketplace is saying that land needs to be used for other purposes. If architects or preservationists want to weigh in, they need to buy it.”
After much outcry and many demolition postponements, representatives of both sides finally got the chance to argue their cases before the city’s Board of Adjustment in 2000, which ultimately decided in the new owner’s favor. With no more legal avenues to pursue, there was nothing left to do but stand by as wrecking balls arrived on a balmy June day in 2001 and got to work tearing down one of Oklahoma City’s premier examples of International-style architecture to make way for … well, for nothing but a paved piece of blacktop that the City now owns.
The failure to save this magnificent structure deeply pained many citizens and preservationists in Oklahoma City and around the state, so much so that when the word got out a few months later that the Gold Dome at NW 23rd and Classen would be coming down to build a Walgreen’s, people who had come together to try to save the Y swiftly re-organized. Using some of the lessons they learned from their Y experience, the new group, called Citizens for the Gold Dome, created an effective and prolonged protest, complete with ample local and national media attention. All of these efforts culminated in a solution that saved the Gold Dome from the same sad fate as the downtown YMCA building, so perhaps the demise of one building ultimately saved the other.
(Mike Brown collection)
* Quote from the April 6, 1952 special issue of The Oklahoman, which devoted an entire section to the opening of the downtown YMCA.