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Partnership sees historic YMCA in Fairmont’s future

Community group plans to redevelop, preserve building

By Jana Mackin

What sublime ruin the old Fairmont YMCA: A Neoclassical, tripartite temple on Fairmont Avenue, once dedicated to the glory of God, country and fitness, now decaying from apathy and time.

Wild sapling and weeds grow out of the elegant portico over a central symmetrical entrance flanked by paired, Doric columns. The Beaux Arts letters “YMCA” above are gone as well as a wooden frieze with modillions. 

The windows are boarded up, and the building sealed. However, some homeless have occasionally found their way in to wander the 40,000 square foot, four-story structure. 

More than a century ago, it featured a gymnasium, basketball court, gallery and indoor running track,  library, dining room, kitchen, billiard room, classrooms and upstairs dormitories. A bowling alley and swimming pool graced the basement.

A grand carved and ornamented curvilinear staircase ascends through the building toward a spacious skylight. Old paint as well as clods of plaster and acoustic ceiling tiles adorn the stairway steps.

The building has always been grandiose and had a “presence,” architect Adam Rohaly said. He is a principal architect with Omni Associations, overseeing the building’s renovation plans and designs.

“The grandiose form and designs speak. Although it has elaborate ornamentation, the architecture has a very masculine design,” Rohaly said.

The historic building was designed by Baltimore architects Ephraim Francis Baldwin and Josias Pennington from 1906 to 1908, when Fairmont’s coal barons and businessmen were flush with money and philanthropy. The architects also designed the local Masonic Temple. Both buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places among nearly 100  buildings in historic Fairmont. 

“This architectural design is symbolic of the celebration of American democracy and exceptionalism that came out of the Chicago Columbian Exhibition of 1893,” said Sandra Scaffidi, local preservationist.

“This Neoclassical design also subtly reiterates the early American ideal that young men … could rise above their birth status and improve their lives, if they are virtuous, hardworking, sober and frugal,” Scaffidi said.

A grand carved and ornamented curvilinear staircase ascends through the building toward a spacious skylight. Fairmont Community Development Partnership plans to preserve and redevelop it as a downtown reinvestment catalyst and market contributor.

On Christmas Eve 1893, W.B. McGregor and other church and community leaders met at the Presbyterian Church to organize Fairmont’s Young Men’s Christian Association to “promote the social and intellectual as well as the spiritual interest of young men.” The following month, they rented second-floor rooms from J.C. Beeson of Unionstown at the corner of Bridge and Adams streets. It was located over the storeroom occupied by Lee Rheinheimer shoe store and had housed the G.A.R. The association was housed there for three years, until it disbanded in Dec. 19, 1896.

A few years later, the YMCA reorganized and was housed over Christie’s Drug Store (later Holt Drug Co.) at 300 Adams St. Here, the YMCA offered a reading room, office, game room, gymnasium and bath apartment to serve area young men.

In 1906, the local chapter embarked on a six-month fundraising campaign, where they raised more than $80,000 for new building construction. Architects estimated an additional $10,000 to $15,000 in project costs. More funds were sought. The Masons laid a cornerstone on June 11, 1907, and construction continued through 1908, when association officials secured a $35,000 mortgage to pay for completed construction.

Around the turn of the century, prominent residents, such as the Clarks, the Flemings, the Watsons and  the Hutchinsons were supporting  city beautification efforts such as the Grand Opera House, dubbed West Virginia’s “thespian temple” in 1902. 

That, along with the Fairmont Normal School, the Y, Masonic Temple and other buildings added cultural, social and social enrichment to downtown. 

As early as 1905, Fairmont Normal had men and women athletic teams, and yearbooks show photos of YMCA and YWCA members, said Dr. Raymond Alvarez, local historian and professor in healthcare management at Fairmont State University.

The YMCA had a big influence with the nearby Normal School. Alvarez cites a YMCA group at the Normal School that sponsored roundtable discussions of the problems that affected student life in 1915. He said members taught Bible study classes in the YMCA building, with a goal of leading “clean, upright, Christian lives.”

“It was another jewel in the crown of the city,” Alvarez said.

The national YMCA and its member associations played a major part in helping during the Great War in a wide range of services in America and abroad, from running canteens and R&R to humanitarian aid for prisoners of war on both sides. The national YMCA estimates some 35,000 unpaid volunteers and 26,000 paid staff served in the YMCA during the First World War, assisting the needs of the 4.8 million troops. 

The Great War’s devastating costs were felt nationally as well as locally, in many ways. One example was how the local Y was impacted financially. In 1923, association members had to secure an $80,000 mortgage for debts. There also appears to have been a local chapter reorganization at the time. 

In 1928, a chapter financial report said, “It would be useless to trace the fortunes of the association (during the war) … there was a general failure to take care of local finances of all institutions in order to provide fully and generously for all war needs.” 

Despite such financial problems, YMCA membership and community involvement thrived during the 1920s, when membership nearly doubled from 564 in 1924 to 1,004 in 1928. The local Y was a major force in the formation of young lives, with activities that ranged from swimming lessons, bowling, basketball, baseball, summer camps, gymnasium classes, Bible lessons and educational classes.

However, the impacts of the Great War, decline of coal, labor strikes, tightening money, the Great Crash of 1929, the Great Depression, along with the association’s large debt and declining revenue, finally bankrupted the association. In 1933, the board unanimously decided to discontinue operations during the middle of the Great Depression.

In December 1940, the Loyal Order of the Moose, Lodge No. 9, purchased the YMCA building for a mere $18,000. They renovated and repurposed it for decades, when it was also known as the Moose Building. 

Finally, they sold it to Fairmont Community Development Partnership in 2009. The  building is sound and retains many of its remarkable features. The Partnership plans to preserve and redevelop it as a downtown reinvestment catalyst and market contributor.

Now the building houses a promise for Fairmont’s downtown future. 

“We’ve lost so much of Fairmont’s heritage of splendor,” Alvarez said. “Any time we can repurpose a historic building, it is a blessing.”

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