514 East Main Street
Architects, Cope and Stewardson
The Romanesque home of the Christian buff.
In the 1880s, the interests of the Richmond YMCA, the association’s national building program and muscular Christianity combined to create the first Y facility here.
The process began on January 4, 1885, when evangelist Dwight Moody spoke at a large religious meeting in Armory Hall. Following his appearance, enthusiasm grew for constructing a local YMCA building. Association leaders and members saw, as did their counterparts across the nation, that such a facility could achieve tremendous good.
“Our aim, in brief, is to have the very best building, and do the very best for young men that is done anywhere—a work that shall grow as our city grows and as the work of the Young Men’s Christian Association develops,” a member wrote in a letter to the Richmond Dispatch.
Strong local support facilitated a speedy start. Within a year of Moody’s appearance, the Richmond YMCA had raised $30,000, selected an architect, approved plans, acquired a lot at the northwest corner of Sixth and Main Streets, and solicited bids from builders. Work formally began on June 10, 1886, after the ceremonial laying of a cornerstone. The building was dedicated on May 19, 1887.
The new Richmond YMCA shared many traits with the 23rd Street YMCA in New York, including a gym. Like the New York Y, Richmond’s had a solid appearance. The Richmond building had a rough granite exterior at the first floor level. Brick was above that. Stone was used for windowsills. The entrance was on Main Street, and a large corner tower stood at Main and Sixth.
“The architecture is to the fullest extent free, yet based chiefly on motives derived from the vigorous styles prevailing in Southern France and Northern Italy during the eleventh and twelfth centuries,” the Richmond Dispatch reported. “Its prototypes, if it can be said to have any, are to be found among the grand old markets or town halls of Lombardy, as well as with the massive churches of Auvergne. In this sense, the style may be roughly classed as Romanesque.”
The gym was in the basement. It measured 50 by 50 by 20 feet and extended into the second floor. A bowling alley and locker room were next to the gym. Anybody wishing to use the gym paid a $7 annual fee. For that, they got a well-equipped facility.
“Our equipment is the finest in the state,” a period circular reported. “It includes the latest appliances in developing apparatus—the celebrated Murphy Pulley Weight, a new Hydraulic Rowing Machine, Iron and Wooden Dumb Bells, Wands and Indian Clubs. The equipment in heavy apparatus is of the latest pattern, and consists of Horizontal and Parallel bars, German Horse and Buck, with a bountiful supply of well-padded Floor Mats—Baths: Shower, Needle and Sponge Baths are supplied with hot and cold water.”
The new YMCA quickly became a busy place. It remained one for the next 25 years. One measure of this was the usage. By 1893, 92,608 people came to the facility annually. Some came for spiritual reasons. The Y offered Bible study, prayer meetings and referred members to local churches.
Library visitation was high. Classes proved popular, too. Young men could learn about a variety of subjects at the Y. The best attended courses were those applicable to work. These included bookkeeping, commercial law, telegraphy and commercial arithmetic. The value of professional classes for hardworking, ambitious young men cannot be over-estimated. Testimonials confirming this appeared frequently in newsletters of the period. For example, in 1902, a new Richmond YMCA member told how night school classes at the 23rd Street YMCA in New York had allowed him to succeed in industry after previously being unemployed.
The most popular activities at the Richmond YMCA were those associated with sports and fitness. Y members enthusiastically embraced “muscular Christianity” on the baseball diamond, tennis court and floor. Workouts in the latter were executed under the careful eye of the new gymnasium superintendent, Thomas Cornelius, formerly of the Baltimore YMCA. Apparently, Cornelius was a firm advocate of bodybuilding, a term that originated at the Boston YMCA. Cornelius even encouraged members to skip learning gymnastic routines, a much-promoted pathway to fitness in the nineteenth century.
In the realm of sports, though, the warmest enthusiasm existed for the recently invented game of basketball. James Naismith, a physical education instructor, created basketball under the guidance of Luther Gulick, then director of the International YMCA Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts. Gulick wanted a fast-paced indoor game for winter. Naismith began work on the project in December 1891. Naismith’s early experiments involved mounting peach baskets in the gym. Initially, basketball had just 13 rules. Students loved the game. Naismith developed more detailed rules and published them on January 15, 1892. The first formal basketball game occurred five days later at Springfield College.
It is unclear when basketball arrived at the Richmond YMCA. However, by 1898, documents show basketball was a centerpiece of local Y sports programs. Leagues and championship play were permanent features by the early 1900s. The Richmond YMCA’s first home was thoroughly a product of its time, the movement and its community. For the better part of three decades, it would serve well the needs of Richmonders’ spirits, minds and bodies.
Boy, it’d be interesting to see today’s NCAA basketball getting by on just 13 rules. How different the game is with the shot clock violation, the 10-second rule, the 5-second rule, and the 3-point shot.
The original YMCA was replaced the by Central YMCA in 1909 when it relocated to Seventh & Grace Streets. The old building was demolished in 1912 when the Eskimo Pie Building was constructed. This was a pity; a true loss to Richmond’s architectural portfolio.
Even though the Sanborn map shows the old Y’s address as 514 East Main Street, the Eskimo Pie Building is at 530 East Main Street, and it says so right on the entrance. It even says so on the Sixth Street entrance, which is a little confusing, but let’s just roll with it.
(Original YMCA is part of the Atlas RVA! Project)
- [RVCJ93] Richmond, Virginia: The City on the James: The Book of Its Chamber of Commerce and Principal Business Interests. G. W. Engelhardt. 1893.
- [RYMCA] The Richmond YMCA 1854 – 2004. Edward R. Crews. 2004.
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