Do you remember the Bay View YMCA? It was created 136 years ago: The Bay View Compass
By Anna Passante
Have you ever wondered about the Oklahoma building with the plunging pagoda-shaped roof? Did you know it once served as a YMCA?
Although it closed 47 years ago, many still have fond memories of the Bay View “Y”.
Village People’s YMCA song from 1978 pretty much sums up the original purpose of the YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association).
“Young man, there is no need to feel depressed,
I said, young man, get up off the groundI said, young man, because you’re in a new town
There is no need to be unhappy
Young man, there’s a place you can go
I said, young man, when you run out of moneyYou can stay there, and I’m sure you will find
Many ways to have a good time …
You can clean yourself up, you can have a good meal,
You can do what you feel
It’s fun to stay at the YMCA
It’s fun to stay at the YMCA ”
In addition to providing young men with food, shelter and healthy activities, the Y promoted Christian values.
George Williams, a sheet seller, founded the YMCA in London in 1844 during the Industrial Revolution. Young men were migrating from rural areas to the city and according to the YMCA website, “William sought to create a supportive community to help young men like himself (a former farmer) with urgent social challenges.” Often impoverished, Williams wanted his organization to provide “a refuge for young men seeking to escape the dangers of the streets.” He wanted to provide them with healthier religious activities and recreation.
YMCA in the United States
The first American YMCA opened in Boston on December 29, 1851.
The first Y in Milwaukee opened in 1858 and operated for years in rented rooms.
The YMCA of Metropolitan Milwaukee website states that “Local Protestant church leaders founded the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) of Milwaukee in 1858 at a meeting at the Plymouth Congregational Church. Reflecting the mission of the founder of Y Williams, “The YMCA of Milwaukee served young men migrating to the rapidly industrializing city. In the beginning, the association’s program included fellowship and prayer meetings, educational conferences, recreational activities, and affordable accommodation, while relying on membership dues to stay solvent.
In 1887, the organization built a corporate headquarters in 4th and Wisconsin that included a bowling alley, swimming pool, gymnasium, and conference rooms.
In 1957, the organization moved to a new 18-story building at 915 W. Wisconsin Avenue. This building is now a Marquette university residence.
Y from Bay View
A meeting was held at Puddler’s Hall in April 1885 for those interested in establishing a YMCA branch in the village of Bay View. Plans for the branch were progressing rapidly, and in May William Francis was appointed general secretary. A reading room was opened in June 1885, and “a lot of interest was shown”, reports the Milwaukee Daily Sentry. Members could use a room at Puddler’s Hall to visit with other members, read or enjoy a program. A newly formed social committee looked after and organized literary, musical and social events. In November 1885, the Bay View branch observed a week of prayer meetings. Free lectures were offered. In November 1885, the Reverend JL Dudley DD presented a series of lectures entitled “Constantinople”. Dr. HP Merville’s lecture, “A Plain Talk to Young Men” was held in February 1886 and was advertised as “for men only”.
The Bay View YMCA offered receptions, including the 1886 New Year’s Day reception for the ladies in the village, who apparently did much of the work that day. The newspaper reported that the ladies tastefully decorated the rooms and distributed refreshments.
The last newspaper to mention this first branch of the Bay View YMCA dates from January 1888, although it may have been suspended after that date. Another branch of Bay View was established in 1919 and appears in the city directories from 1920. From 1920 to 1956, the branch was housed in many different rented neighborhoods. (See box.)
In 1945, it was planned to spend $ 50,000 on a new YMCA building in Bay View, but that didn’t materialize until 1956. Built at 1320 E. Oklahoma Avenue, the cost of the building was around 175 $ 000. Designed in a modern style by local architectural firm Grassold-Johnson, the building is one-and-a-half storeys high with an unusual pagoda-shaped roof. There is also a one-story rear spoiler.
Like the Milwaukee Y, the Bay View branch focused on delivering four programs involving small group work. Known as “four fronts” or “four platforms,” the programs were aimed at young people of all ages and included a father-son program called Y-Indian Guides, which began in 1929. There were three clubs for boys, Gra-Y for school children, Hi-Y junior boys and Hi-Y boys for high school students. Later there were also all-female and mixed groups.
A photograph from the time shows fathers and sons wearing Indian headdresses, a practice that today would be considered offensive. Indian guides fostered the company of children aged 6 to 9 with their fathers. A YMCA brochure stated that they had done “exciting things, be friends in many projects and [had] adventures together.
The Indian Princesses program, started in 1946, recognized the interests of little girls and resembled the Indian Girl Guides program for boys.
Bay View Y’s summer programs and day camps were popular. In 1966, Bay View held three two-week day camps at Camp Hidden Valley near Wind Lake, WI, for children ages 6 to 12. A Summer Fun Club included trips out of town for ages 11 to 15. The YMCA sleepovers with an evening of movies, games and food were a lot of fun. A special December holiday program included songs, games and hikes to end the year.
In response to my Facebook post asking for memories of the Y, the majority of comments recalled teenage dances from the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Local live bands provided the music for a busy evening. A post on Facebook noted: “I think it was early [1950s] dances, all the girls would take off one shoe and put them in a pile in the middle of the dance floor, the boys would all take a shoe, find the girl and dance with her. They called it the Cinderella dance. I was probably 12 or 14 years old.
Cart rides, horseback riding, sleepovers and seasonal parties were also remembered. Some of those who posted recalled attending Tot Time Kindergarten at Y.
The Bay View Y branch closed in 1974. Faith Baptist Church occupied the building from 1974 to 1977, followed by Christian Day School from 1977 to the 1980s. In 1989, the Bay View Community Center moved from the Avalon Theater in the building where it continues to provide programs and services. BVCC director Mike Mortell said the organization had purchased the building and the mortgage would be paid off in September 2022.
The Bay View Neighborhood Historic Survey, conducted by the City of Milwaukee Historical Commission, lists the following addresses for the Bay View Y from 1920 to 1974.
1920-1924 2510 S. Kinnickinnic Ave. Now Bay View Laundromat Maytag
1925-1931 2654-2656 avenue S. Kinnickinnic Now art school
1932-1934 2394 S. Kinnickinnic Ave. Now Café Corazon
1935-1936 2560 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., Razed. Now Bay View Library website
1937-1938 2687 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., now Joyce Parker Productions
1942-1947 2270 S. Kinnickinnic Ave. Shaved. Stone Creek Coffee garden and outdoor patio
1949 2320 S. Kinnickinnic Ave. Formerly known as the Grange Building, now Highbury Pub
Early 1950-1956 2125 E. Rusk Ave (razed) A new building on this site housed Jim Smith’s Market, the Gallery Theater. Now, advance electrical contractors.
1956-1974 1320 E. Oklahoma Ave. Now Bay View Community Center