You have heard the song, and you’ve probably even done the dance. Yet, despite the frivolity of its eponymous disco classic, the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) has been doing serious work, providing a myriad of services in this community for nearly 165 years.
Organized in London in 1844, the YMCA was dedicated to providing moral strength and positive fellowship through bible study and social activities to the growing number of single male laborers during the industrial revolution. The first American YMCA was formed in Boston in 1851. As it was in England, this was a period of increased manufacturing and urbanization in American cities. Soon, other U.S. cities followed, including Syracuse, with representatives from several of the city’s Protestant churches holding organizational meetings in September 1858.
For the first quarter century, the Syracuse YMCA rented rooms in various locations. Programs in the 1860s centered on operating “mission” Sunday Schools at some of the poorer churches. The missions served the city’s growing immigrant population of Germans, its sole African American congregation, and the local orphan asylum, among others. In the 1870s, the YMCA’s welfare activities shifted more toward men at the penitentiary, the county Poor House, and increasing numbers of railroad employees
Men from all walks of life were recruited to join the YMCA, at its first permanent home in the Pike Block on South Salina Street. By the mid-1870s, it maintained a well-stocked one. The YMCA organized social gatherings and a public-lecture series. The primary goal of all these activities was to provide a positive Christian influence on young men and boys who might stray into lives of crime or vice. The Syracuse YMCA had 806 members by 1879 and served hundreds more. But its leaders believed its work was hampered by the physical limitations of its rented facilities. It yearned for a building of its own. While maintaining programs of topical lectures and Christian-based study, the YMCA increasingly realized that attracting members and guests required more than religious and intellectual offerings. YMCA leaders recognized that they needed better social facilities and spaces for physical recreation to continue to attract more male members. Leading businessmen and members were tapped to support a building project. In 1884, land was purchased in downtown Syracuse on Warren Street. In January 1886, the YMCA opened its new Warren Street building.
Having its own gymnasium marked a turning point for the YMCA. It now added athletics as a tool for building character in young men. This started with gymnastics and track activities. The rapid spread of basketball, a popular game invented in 1892 at the Springfield, Massachusetts YMCA, attracted new audiences to the Syracuse “Y”. America also became fascinated in the 1890s with bicycling of all types, including competitive racing. Athletics created a strong new identity for the YMCA that has continued to this day in its philosophy of building mind, spirit, and body.
The Syracuse YMCA began summer camping experiments in 1897 with 50 boys at a site called Oak Orchard along the Oneida River in the town of Clay. This would be expanded in 1901 when wealthy Syracusan Benjamin Tousey offered part of his Oneida Lake summer property for YMCA camps. Locations would change over time, but rustic youth camping became firmly associated with the YMCA for decades.
From its beginning, the Y was concerned about safe housing for single men seeking employment. It maintained a reference service for approved boarding houses. In the late 1890s, it renovated space in its Warren Street building for short-term rental apartments. Thus, began a residential program that continues to this day in the downtown branch on Montgomery Street.
The Warren Street building revitalized the YMCA but also brought financial challenges. The organization met those challenges through fundraising by board president Levi Chapman, who worked closely with the new general secretary, Stephen Groner, after 1900. Both envisioned an expanded facility. Chapman, a member of the neighboring Baptist Church, approached another church supporter, wealthy businessman Benjamin Tousey, who contributed $117,500 toward a new YMCA building, an amount worth well over $2 million today. Tousey’s generosity was commemorated in the naming of the various YMCA camp locations after him, until that program ended in 1990.
Syracuse’s population soared past 125,000 by 1905, and the YMCA outgrew the Warren Street building. A new structure opened on Montgomery Street in 1907 and the Warren Street building was converted to a boy’s wing. In addition to the traditional gymnasium, lounge, reading room, and auditorium, the new building added a swimming pool, cafeteria, pistol range, billiard room, barber shop, a Turkish-bath facility with masseur, and dozens of permanent dormitory rooms.
During World War I, thousands of young men faced new social challenges and moral stresses. Nationally, the YMCA recruited thousands of volunteers (men and women), including some from Syracuse to staff canteens, leave centers, and hospitals — providing spiritual support and social comfort. The Syracuse YMCA also served these needs locally. Hundreds of soldiers from the Army camp at the State Fairgrounds used the recreational facilities at the downtown Y.
The Syracuse YMCA was a multi-purpose organization by 1920, filling a variety of needs and serving different levels of society. Its recreational and social facilities were a primary attraction, but it never abandoned its social-welfare activities and offered educational classes in business and trade skills, plus outreach programs conducted in area factories.
The Great Depression hit Syracuse hard, and many local industrial plants closed or cut back. Between 1929 and 1933, Syracuse lost almost 50 percent of its industrial jobs, impacting 13,000 workers and increasing the numbers of unemployed men.
Despite facing its own financial pressures, the Syracuse YMCA created an “Industrial Club” in 1932 to offer productive alternatives for this idle time. The club featured low fees that allowed its members use of recreational facilities in the old Warren Street building. Employment counseling was also offered. More than 4,500 men joined it during the 1930s.
During the 1920s and 1930s, the YMCA expanded its outreach to youth. The grand Assembly Hall in the 1907 building, once used for services of religious interest, was converted into a new boy’s gymnasium in 1932. The growth of church facilities throughout Syracuse reduced the need for structured Christian programming at the Y.
In 1934, the Y added a Camp Iroquois, for younger boys in 1934 at Evergreen Lake in Manlius, on lands provided by Solvay Process Company. In 2021, the co-ed day camp was renamed Camp Evergreen. Camp Adventure, a second day camp that used facilities at Green Lakes State Park and the downtown Y, started in 1937.
Nationally, the YMCA had provided aid to servicemen since the Civil War. When the U.S. entered World War II in 1941, the Y was one of six civilian agencies that organized the USO, to help provide social comforts to GIs during the war. Syracuse, like many other U.S. cities, saw hundreds of soldiers and sailors passing through on a daily basis. They were traveling to camps, training facilities, going on furlough, or heading overseas. The downtown Syracuse Y opened its facilities to these men for recreation, socializing, refreshments, and even overnight sleeping quarters.
Following the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, the YMCA prioritized reaching impoverished urban areas and minority populations. The Syracuse Y developed an Urban Action Department in 1971 and a youth center on the city’s South Side. Downtown building renovations in 1981 and 1995 created new options for low-income senior citizens and for disadvantaged men. At the same time, a growing suburban population sought expanded recreational centers outside the city.
Lifestyle changes in the 1970s and 1980s created other opportunities. The women’s movement advocated equal access to traditionally male institutions. More working mothers meant increased day care needs. The emphasis on healthier living expanded audiences for exercise facilities and fitness classes. These factors led the YMCA to redirect its focus toward serving the entire family, from preschoolers to grandparents. Girls were enrolled in the Youth Division and Camp Tousey for the first time in 1971. Downtown recreational facilities were opened to women in 1976. New suburban “Family YMCA” facilities were built in 1979 and 2004.
The Syracuse YMCA faced a creeping financial problem that reached a crisis in 1991. The annual budget passed $3 million but its accumulated deficit was more than $600,000. Members complained that the downtown facility was deteriorating. National dues went unpaid. Memberships were dropping. Changes had to come.
A new executive director, Hal Welsh, arrived in 1993. Programs were reduced or restructured, and some layoffs occurred. There was fear that the downtown Y might have to close. But slowly, maintenance, membership levels, and finances improved. Suburban facilities boosted interest and support. By the beginning of the 21st century, the Syracuse YMCA had entered a new era of growth and success, with plans to improve facilities.
The new millennium brought significant changes and growth, as well as the challenge of COVID-19. The Y opened new branches at OCC (Southwest YMCA) in 2012 and in Lysander (Northwest Family YMCA) in 2015. The Fayetteville Y was renamed the Hal Welsh East Area Family YMCA in 2018.
In 2018, the Downtown YMCA began a $6.8 million renovation project on the Men’s Residence. The Y underwent a complete rebranding, to become the YMCA of Central New York to reflect its expanded footprint.
The COVID-19 pandemic provided another opportunity for the YMCA of Central New York to serve the community by providing childcare for essential workers, housing for seniors and male residents in transition.
In early 2021, Bertram L. Lawson II was named president and CEO of the YMCA of Central New York, making history as the first Black leader of the organization. Lawson previously served as the chief operating officer for Mastery Charter Schools Network (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Camden, New Jersey), a $250 million nonprofit organization, overseeing all aspects of non-instructional school operations, school budgets, sports/extra-curricular programming, and student enrollment for 24 campuses. Prior to this role, the Y in Central Maryland recruited him to serve as its senior VP of operations providing leadership to three health/wellness centers, 20 camping (day & resident) locations, youth development, 20 community schools and mentoring programs while supervising two VPs and a district executive director. Lawson also served the Y for more than 21 years, including in Philadelphia, with significant operational, membership, grant delivery, partnership, fundraising and program experience.
The YMCA of Central New York continues to act as an anchor for philanthropy, assistance, and community service, never closing its doors to those in need.
Robert J. Searing is curator of history at the Onondaga Historical Association (OHA) (www.cnyhistory.org), located at 321 Montgomery St. in Syracuse.