Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) of Greater Seattle -- Part 2: Expansion, 1900-1930

  • By Cassandra Tate
  • Posted 3/14/2001
  • Essay 3099
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The Seattle Young Men's Christian Association experienced rapid growth between 1900 and 1930, taking on much of the shape it has today, with branches located throughout the city and a wide variety of programs intended to promote spiritual, intellectual, and physical well-being (although most were still for males only). This essay is Part 2 of a four-part HistoryLink essay on the history of the YMCA.

Branching Out

The Seattle YMCA expanded rapidly after 1900, increasing the staff, adding new programs, and branching out from the downtown core into the city's burgeoning neighborhoods.

The organization had 75 full-time employees by 1907, when it moved into new, much larger headquarters at 4th Avenue and Madison Street. The handsome seven-story structure was designed by James Stephen, then head architect for the Seattle Public School District. The programming included English and naturalization classes for recent immigrants; learn-to-swim campaigns for boys; athletic leagues for young men, and clubs for high school students. A popular lecture series called the Star Course, instituted in 1888, brought dozens of nationally prominent speakers to Seattle in the early 1900s, including William Jennings Bryan, Senator Robert M. LaFollette of Wisconsin, and crusading journalist Ida May Tarbell.

The YMCA also operated the Association Institute, a full-fledged college preparatory and vocational education school, founded in 1899. Among the courses of study available after the move into the new building was an Automotive School, for people who wanted to learn how to operate and repair the cars that were just beginning to appear on the city's streets.

"Manly Christianity"

Perhaps the person most responsible for the organization's tremendous growth during this period was Thomas S. Lippy, president of the board of directors from 1901 to 1930, a term far longer than anyone else. Lippy was a muscular, wiry, God-fearing man -- the embodiment of "manly Christianity" -- who came to Seattle in 1891 to work as the Y's first physical education director (Bugle Call). Shortly after arriving, he established a summer camp on the west shore of Green Lake. The next summer, he took a group of boys camping at Alki Point. The Seattle YMCA has been nearly synonymous with camping ever since.

Lippy also introduced basketball to Seattle. He probably saw the game demonstrated at the YMCA training college in Springfield, Massachusetts, where it was invented in 1891. The record shows that he was teaching the game to members of the Seattle YMCA by February 1893. Four months later, Lippy's career as an athlete was cut short during a gymnastics exhibition in Fargo, North Dakota, when his kneecap gave way and broke into four pieces. He served briefly as the general secretary of the Seattle YMCA before quitting in 1896 to take a fling at prospecting for gold in the Klondike. He came back with a fortune, part of which he donated to help build the Downtown YMCA's present home at 4th Avenue and Marion Street.

A key figure during Lippy's tenure as president was Arn S. Allen, a businessman who joined the Y shortly after arriving in Seattle in 1887, became the leader of a Bible study group, and then served as general secretary from 1898 to 1932. Allen was a deeply religious man who used his column in the YMCA's' weekly magazine, Seattle's Young Men, to rail against corrupt politicians, saloons, gambling, prostitution, businesses that opened on Sundays, liberalized divorce laws, movies, dancing, and women in the work force, among other things.

Allen was also a voice for racial tolerance and international peace. He strongly opposed the entry of the United States into World War I, so much that some people -- including his mother-in-law -- accused him of being a German sympathizer. When a reader complained that his "flagrant" attacks on City Hall did not belong in "a supposedly Christian publication," he retorted, "Some men stand for a Christianity that is so 'soft' it runs. I don't" (Seattle's Young Men, February 3, 1911).

During the Lippy and Allen years, the YMCA established branches in Queen Anne, the University District, Green Lake, West Seattle and Fauntleroy. (A branch in Ballard had been established in 1890.) For the first time, the organization expanded into cities outside Seattle, offering swimming, water safety, and other recreational programs in Renton, Kent, Auburn, and Bothell. It also began providing specialized services for men in the military and in the merchant marine, taking over the operation of a Seamen's Branch in 1917 and opening an Army Navy Branch in 1923.

The evolution of each of the community branches followed a common pattern. Representatives of a neighborhood some distance from the city center would request a YMCA program for their area; operations would begin on an outreach basis in rented quarters, often in a house or church; the branch would be given provisional status once an adequate foundation had been laid, followed by full branch status and a building of its own.

The development of the University of Washington YMCA was something of a peculiar case. Founded in 1888 by George Carter, then general secretary of the Seattle YMCA, it never directly affiliated with the central organization. It was, instead, part of a national student YMCA movement. Although initially devoted solely to Christian dialogue and Bible study, the UW YMCA soon became actively involved in progressive social issues. For example, it created a "big brother" program that paired members of the student YMCA with young boys who had been placed on probation by the Juvenile Court.

The student Y also invited controversial speakers to address topics ranging from female suffrage to the rights of labor to the merits of socialism, sometimes leading to strained relations with the more conservative elements in the university community. Officials of the Seattle YMCA may have been privately chagrined by some of the student activities, but they took no steps to interfere.

Changing with Society

By the early 1900s, Seattle had become a city, with a population of more than 80,000 and the usual social problems that accompany urban growth, including those involving the assimilation of new immigrants. The YMCA responded by offering the city's first English as a Second Language classes (initially called "English for the Foreign Born") in 1907; by 1912, it had created a "Foreign Department" to help immigrants find jobs and housing and prepare for citizenship. This was the model for programs offered to subsequent waves of immigrants, including the "displaced persons" who settled in Seattle after World War II and the Vietnam War refugees who arrived in the 1970s.

Chief among the social issues that concerned the Seattle YMCA in the early 1900s were those involving youth, particularly homelessness and delinquency. In an effort to provide safe, affordable housing while also trying to protect the young from "places of evil resort," the organization included a dormitory in its new building. A cafe on the premises served meals at cost, for an average of 18 cents a meal. Young men ages 16 to 21 could join a Triangle Club and receive a full range of social services in addition to room and board.

The YMCA doubled its residential capacity in 1911 by acquiring the Stander Building next door (site of the present downtown branch). A portion of that building was set aside as a group home for "unfortunate" younger boys, ages 12 to 16, who had run away from or been abandoned by their families. The complex included seven bedrooms, each accommodating four boys. Meals were served family style in a large dining room, with a house matron playing the role of mother. Carroll E. Kirk, secretary for boys' work, appealed to the business community to support such programs in the name of "preventive philanthropy." It was cheaper to keep a boy busy and presumably out of trouble at the YMCA, he said, than to send him to the Industrial School on Mercer Island (a work farm for urban miscreants).

The YMCA also attempted to "keep the normal from the whirlpool" (Hinding, 8) with programs aimed at middle-class youth, including a private school for boys in the sixth through eighth grades, established in 1911 (higher grades were added in 1923). The school boasted small classes, individualized instruction ("we fit the course of study to the boy -- not the boy to an ironclad curriculum"), field trips to industries and businesses, overnight hikes, and other outdoor adventures. Students were expected to make regular use of the gymnasium and swimming pool, and to participate in daily Bible classes. A consistent selling point was that the teachers were all men. Tuition was $100 a year -- a hefty tariff at a time when the average family income was about $630 a year -- but scholarships were available. "If the boy really needs the Madison School, the Y.M.C.A. will make every effort to arrange for his attendance," the Y promised (The Madison School for Boys).

Camping Near and Far

Another important element of the YMCA's youth program was camping, which took many guises, including Vacation School (camping combined with summer school); berry camp (camping combined with a job picking berries in the Puyallup Valley), and Alaska cannery camp ("A job, a camp, a trip under leadership").

Most of the camps were aimed at middle-class boys, but one served young working men, ages 16 to 20, who could not leave their jobs during the day. "Camp Hiu Skookum," also called the Lakeside Boarding Camp, operated from 1905 through 1916 on the south end of Lake Washington near Columbia City, with easy access from all parts of the city via the Seattle-Renton interurban railway. Conditions were rustic, as they were in most YMCA camps. The campers slept in large canvas tents. Breakfast and dinner were served in an open-air dining room. For working-class youth, it was a chance to spend summer evenings and weekends out of doors, with access to boats, canoes, games, and other activities, including "straightforward manly Bible Study Groups" (Vacation Plans for Men).

The centerpiece of the YMCA camping program since 1906 has been Camp Orkila on Orcas Island. The Y began camping at Orcas Island on beachfront property owned by the Colman family at the invitation of Laurence J. Colman, and kept coming back year after year on a guest basis. Ruth Norman, the camp's resident nurse and wife of Charles G. Norman (camp director from 1923 to 1946) is credited with coming up with the name "Orcila" in 1924, an abbreviation for Orcas Island, created to fit the rhythm of a camp song. Because so many people who saw the name in print insisted on pronouncing it "or-cill-a," the spelling was finally changed to Orkila, in 1928. A decade later, Kenneth Colman, son of Laurence, officially deeded the property to the YMCA.

The Colman family also invited YMCA campers to the family's summer home at Horsehead Bay, near Gig Harbor. Originally, newsboys and other working-class children were rewarded with a weekend at Horsehead Bay if they achieved perfect Sunday School attendance. This informal program was expanded to four weeks of camping (with two weeks reserved for girls) and its administration turned over to the Fauntleroy YMCA in the 1920s. The YMCA continued to operate what became known as Camp Colman on the family's property until 1965, when the camp was moved to a nearby site purchased by a nonprofit community group. That property was deeded to the YMCA of Greater Seattle in 2000.

Within closer reach of the city was the "Friendly Indian Camp," founded in 1927 for younger boys (nine to eleven). Housed for one summer at Glen Acres, it was moved to Vashon Island for two summers and then, in 1930, to an 18-acre site in Bellevue owned by Seattle attorney James B. Murphy. The site included 700 feet of waterfront on Lake Washington just north of the East Channel Bridge. After Murphy's death and the return of the property to his heirs in 1938, the Friendly Indian Program (with its several hundred participants) was moved to Orcas Island, further strengthening the YMCA's program at Camp Orkila.

By the late 1920s, then, the Seattle YMCA had taken on much of the shape it has today, with branches located throughout the city and a wide variety of programs intended to promote spiritual, intellectual, and physical well-being (although most were still for males only). It had also, once again, outgrown its facilities.

In 1928, the organization undertook a major capital campaign, hoping to raise $1.25 million to build a new eight-story Central Branch at 4th Avenue and Marion Street (retaining the prestigious architectural team of A. H. Albertson, Joseph Wilson, and Paul Richardson), remodel the Seamen's Branch (located in a ramshackle frame structure on Western Avenue), build new homes for the University District, Queen Anne, and West Seattle branches, and construct a building to serve "Asiatics or Colored people. Either (not both)." As a campaign brochure explained, "Both these groups urgently need a type of Y.M.C.A. service which only a building adapted to their requirements can provide. Only one can be served with the funds sought" (Making Men for Seattle, 28).

Thomas S. Lippy contributed $40,000 in cash and land to the project. About $1 million had been raised altogether when the stock market collapsed in October 1929, drying up further donations and making it difficult for the YMCA to collect some of the money already pledged. The board of directors ended up having to borrow money to complete the new Central Branch in 1931. The ambitious plans for the other branches fell victim, at least temporarily, to the Great Depression.

To go to Part 3, click "Next Feature"


Bugle Call, September 1890, 3; Seattle's Young Men, February 3, 1911; Ibid., February 22, 1907; Andrea Hinding, Proud Heritage: A History in Pictures of the YMCA in the United States (Chicago: National Council of the YMCA of the USA, 1988); Seattle YMCA, The Madison School for Boys, 1923-24, pp. 9, 15; YMCA of Seattle, Vacation Plans for Men, unnumbered pamphlet (1907); YMCA of Seattle, Making Men for Seattle (1928); Seattle's Young Men, November 24, 1911. All the original sources are in the YMCA Archives, Seattle.

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