The Forlorn Landmark YMCA Building Turns 90

The old YMCA building was abandoned 50 years ago and the pool behind it 20 years ago.

With the Island closed to the public until May 28, we’ll take a look at some of the history of Governors Island.

Ninety years ago this summer a building opened on the Island to great acclaim and was once one of the most popular on the Island. It has not been in use since President Kennedy was in office and today is boarded-up and closed. This is the Army YMCA, next door to the Fort Jay Theatre, which is also closed to the public. It faces Owasco Road, north of Cartigan Road (N 40.688006 E -74.016971).

The first YMCA was built on Governors Island in 1900 to provide a place for the cultural and social needs of the garrison. The YMCA built Building 324 as a replacement in 1926. It houses a club, offices, and an auditorium-theater. The large stage has a proscenium arch with heavily-decorated plaster designs surrounding it. An outdoor swimming pool was built next door.

YMCA foundation.
The Army stopped using it in the early 1960s—the Coast Guard never used it—and today it’s in a dilapidated state. One of the four front porch columns is missing. The building can still be saved and preserved for future use.

Building 324 is a rectangular structure with a two-story center section flanked by one-story wings. The red brick facing is laid up in Flemish bond. A limestone band course bearing the date “1926” marks the foundation. The center section has an asphalt-covered hipped roof and a projecting two-story wood entrance portico with a gabled pediment. The portico is approached by granite steps. The entrance has a limestone surround and paired paneled wood doors.

The flanking wings have asphalt-covered pyramidal roofs and pedimented doorway surrounds of wood. The window openings have splayed brick lintels; those which have not been boarded up retain six-over-six double-hung sash. On the rear elevation of the central section, the frame second story has been covered with aluminum siding.

This building, constructed to the designs of May and Hillard, New York church architects, was the first large-scale masonry structure erected after World War I. The neo-Georgian style set the pattern for the other buildings which followed.

The YMCA saw much activity in its short life from 1926 to the early 1960s. In the 1930s and 1940s the hotly-contested Metropolitan YMCA basketball teams competed here, bringing teams from across the city. It was also used for court martial proceedings. In the 1940s criminal trials were conducted here.

When the Army opened the swimming pool, there were separate times of the day for officer and enlisted families to use the facilities.

One of the final events in this building was bittersweet. The centennial of the founding of the YMCA was in May 1961. A gala celebration was held at the building, following a guided tour by the Army of the historic Governors Island locales. Representatives from all of the regional YMCA services were in attendance to pay tribute to 100 years of service to the Armed Forces, dating to the Civil War. Army officials awarded citations for service, a dinner was given at the nearby Fort Jay Officer’s Club, and a tea dance was held in the YMCA. One of the sponsors was Gen. Anthony C. McAuliffe; in 1944 as acting commander of the 101st Airborne Division during the siege of Bastogne, Belgium, surrounded and the Nazis demanding surrender, he sent back a one-word reply, “NUTS.”

The YMCA matches the architectural style of many other buildings in the Governors Island Historic District; it is a protected landmark and cannot be demolished. While the McKim, Mead & White designs for Liggett Hall (Building 400) served as the prototype, many plans were redrawn and executed by the Construction Division of the Office of the Quartermaster General. The majority of these structures from the 1920s-early 1930s provided housing for enlisted personnel, officers and their families, and nurses (including Buildings 12, 111, 112, 114, 315, 333, 400, 550, and 555). The other buildings constructed during this period included one administration building (Building 125, the Headquarters for the First Army) and a number of service structures, such as a school (Building 301), a theater (Building 330), and a hospital (Building 515). All were designed in variations of the neo-Georgian style.

What fate holds for this building is unclear, but for it to make to the centennial mark in ten years, it would appear that renovation and restoration are required to bring this landmark back to life.

For more history stories, pick up The Governors Island Explorer’s Guide (Globe Pequot).

Kevin C. Fitzpatrick has written and edited seven books with ties to New York history, including "The Governors Island Explorer's Guide" and "World War I New York: A Guide to the City’s Enduring Ties to the Great War." Kevin is a licensed sightseeing guide and has been leading walking tours since 1999. He resides in Manhattan.