The YMCA of Greater New York currently operates 24 branches throughout the 5 boroughs of New York City, with 6 locations in Manhattan. Since 1852, the Y has been providing services to build the spirit, mind and body through on-site and summer camp programs. As a child I learned to ride a horse, canoe down the Delaware River and commune with nature at Camp Talcott, a sleep-away camp in Huguenot, New York that has been operating since the early 1900’s. I also often accompanied my father to the West Side Y where I remember a beautiful yet somewhat run down pool with gorgeous Spanish tile where my brothers and I swam while my father played handball. The exterior of the building was enchanting and reminded me of a castle from a fairy tale.
The West Side Y, originally located on West 57th Street, opened in 1896 and was the first YMCA branch to house a dormitory. In the 1920's, the architect, Dwight James Baum, who had an excellent reputation for building houses primarily in Riverdale’s prestigious Fieldston section of the Bronx, but little experience in high-rise urban projects was commissioned to design a new and much larger branch at 5 West 63rd Street. Completed in 1930, at a cost of about $3.5 million, it was and still remains the largest YMCA in the world with a capacity to serve 10,000 members. Standing 14 stories tall, it’s distinctive medieval-like features include polychrome tile work, towers, battlements and irregular balconies spaced to resemble an Italian fortified town. The dormitory space was expanded to accommodate as many as 600 visitors with rooms renting for as low as $5.50 a week. Over the years, it has served as a temporary home to the likes of John Barrymore; Montgomery Clift; Kirk Douglas; Douglas Fairbanks; Bob Hope; Elia Kazan; Jack Kerouac; Martin Luther King, Jr.; Dan Rather; Norman Rockwell; Andy Rooney; Robert Penn Warren; Johnny Weissmuller; Malcolm X; and Tennessee Williams.
Although the main entrance on West 63rd street, with all its terraces, arches, towers and figurative details receives the most attention, the building extends all the way through to 64th Street. On this side, Baum lit the gymnasium with three giant arcaded leaded glass windows. High above the windows and not fully visible from the street, a group of odd looking figures project out from the brick. Colorful terra-cotta tile figures of young men engaged in sports activities like baseball, tennis, football and golf along with a group of religious figures embellish the arched entry on this side of the building. Take a virtual tour of the facilities by visiting http://www.ymcanyc.org/westside/pages/west-side-ymca-virtual-tour or better yet, sign up for a guest pass and try the Y for free.
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