Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) of Greater Seattle -- Part 3: Readjustment, 1930-1980

  • By Cassandra Tate
  • Posted 3/14/2001
  • Essay 3100
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The period 1930 to 1980 brought several major challenges to the Young Men’s Christian Association of Greater Seattle, from Depression to World War to the turmoil of the sixties to the “Boeing Recession” of the seventies. Melding tradition and innovation, the YMCA -- founded in Seattle in 1876 -- emerged from this crucible with renewed confidence and purpose. This file is Part Three of a four-part HistoryLink essay on the history of the YMCA.

Depression Years

The annual reports of the Seattle Young Men's Christian Association vividly reflect the impact of the Depression of the 1930s.

The slick, professionally produced reports of earlier years gave way to mimeographed reports, held together by staples, unenlivened by photos or graphics. The statistics therein were equally stark, showing a decreasing membership (dropping by about 10 percent a year throughout the decade); an increasing number of men applying for jobs through the Employment Service (2,359 applicants in 1932, compared to 1,452 in 1930); fewer employers calling for workers (557 in 1932, compared to 1,179 in 1930), and more demand for free services. While not primarily a relief agency, the YMCA provided free lodgings for 1,904 men in 1932, gave free meals to 874, and handed out 11,061 free passes for the gymnasium and pool.

Year by year, revenue shrank while the need increased. Free memberships were provided to the unemployed, to boys enrolled in certain community groups, and to others with special needs. Of 4,553 total members on December 31, 1934, only about one third had paid the full membership fee, another third had paid a partial fee, and the others had paid nothing at all. Farm youth flooded into the city looking for work; many paid for their rooms at the YMCA with vegetables. Average daily occupancy in the residence halls jumped from 30 percent of capacity in 1932 to 70 percent in 1934 to 95 percent by 1936. Operating deficits accumulated throughout these lean years, forcing reductions in staff and making the Y more reliant on the work of volunteers.

The narratives in the reports were as somber as the statistics. From 1930: “…young men during this period of depression and unemployment have filled to capacity the available Y.M.C.A. class rooms and recreational spaces.” The 1932 report noted that “income has been abnormally small,” necessitating “economies in current operations,” while “The very fact that young men are facing increased difficulty in finding their place in life, that they are confronted with large blocks of enforced leisure with steadily diminishing financial resources, is a challenge.” In an uncommonly candid statement in 1934, the agency admitted to some doubt about its effectiveness: “Turning to an appraisal of general Association program we find no satisfactory instrument for the measurement of results either as to quantity or quality.”

The entry of the United States into World War II ended the Depression but created an even greater set of challenges. The war rearranged the social landscape of the Northwest, beginning with the internment of thousands of local Japanese Americans and the influx of equal numbers of African Americans in uniform or seeking jobs in the booming defense industries. Women moved into the workplace in significant numbers, filling positions vacated by men. The city bulged with thousands of newcomers, needing housing, transportation, and other services.

The Seattle YMCA responded to these changing conditions by looking both to the past, renewing its commitment to the development of “Christian character,” and to the future, liberalizing its policies regarding women and minorities. The organization’s advance toward gender and racial equality was slow and cautious, although once it made the commitment, it did so without reservation.

Women and the Y

Early leaders of the YMCA believed it would succeed only if it focused on work for young men, by young men. The role of women was limited to that of supporting the men, through a Ladies Auxiliary, organized in 1884. The gymnasium and swimming pool were opened to women for one hour twice a week in 1895, but the experiment apparently did not survive for more than a few years. In 1908, when the Young Women’s Christian Association was forced out of its quarters by a street widening project, the YMCA allowed members of the YWCA to use the pool for a few hours each week, but only until they could move into their own building (completed in 1913). Women were permitted to attend the occasional public lectures sponsored by the YMCA, but they had virtually no other presence in the organization until the 1930s.

The YMCA took its first tentative steps toward more inclusive programming in 1930, when it offered swimming and life saving classes to girls and women. Recognizing the increasing strain on family life as a result of the Depression, the YMCA began to sponsor campfires, picnics, and other outings for families; to supervise playground activities for boys and girls, and to conduct parenting classes. By 1936, women and girls were being admitted to the YMCA’s vocational and secondary school programs. The annual reports began to record female membership for the first time in 1937 (when the overall membership of 11,017 included 234 women and girls).

The war accelerated these changes. With defense industries operating 24 hours a day, the YMCA joined the YWCA in hosting “Shift Parties” for “Grace the Graveyard Shifter and Sam the Swing Shifter” (The Y in Seattle, January 1943). With more fathers gone and more mothers working, more children were left unsupervised. The YMCA moved into childcare, creating day camps in each of its six community centers. Women who came into the YMCA as volunteers or as guests soon began to participate in other activities, including the Soc-Ed (Social-Educational) program for young adults, and its successor, the Hobby School. In 1942, women were invited to attend the Annual Meeting for the first time.

The role of women in the YMCA steadily evolved over the next few decades, from enrolling in homemaking and crafts classes, to playing badminton and softball, to working as paid employees, to positions of leadership. By the early 1970s, girls and women had equal access to all YMCA programs, including Camp Orkila, the YMCA camp on Orcas Island. In 1993, Cynthia P. Sonstelie was elected as the first woman to head the YMCA of Greater Seattle’s board of directors. Today (2001), three of the eight YMCA board officers and 75 percent of its employees are female.

An early casualty of gender equity was males-only nude swimming in the downtown pool. Men and boys had been accustomed to swimming au naturel at the YMCA, not only in Seattle but in Ys everywhere, since the 1890s. The practice may have evolved from problems created by the long, wool swimming suits then in fashion, which apparently shed so much they gummed up the pool filters. Later, nude swimming was justified on the grounds of hygiene. A handbook in use at the Seattle Y in the 1920s required that “A good soap bath must be taken before entering the swimming pool” in the same paragraph that specified “The wearing of swimming suits or supporters will not be allowed except by permission from the director” (Information for Members).

In any case, the custom was phased out as co-ed swimming became more common, although the pool continued to be reserved for men from noon to 2 p.m. daily until 1974. At that point, Sonstelie -– then a newcomer to Seattle who wanted to swim during her lunch hour –- fired off a letter asking how an organization supported by the United Way could maintain such a discriminatory policy. “They changed immediately,” she says. “I had never seen an organization move that quickly” (Sonstelie Interview).

The new policy led to what Dick Knapp, the Downtown YMCA’s physical director in the early 1970s, called “interesting times,” since many of the men who regularly used the pool at noon had never had to wear swim suits before (Knapp, "Last Blast"). When the gender barriers fell, it took a while for all the men to get used to the new rules.

Embracing Diversity

Although the YMCA had officially encouraged racial tolerance and a few minorities (chiefly Asian Americans) had participated in its educational programs since the early 1900s, its residence halls, pools, and summer camps were essentially segregated until after World War II. When the Metropolitan Board considered expanding services to minorities, it initially thought in terms of separate facilities, not integration. The board proposed building an International Branch to serve the city’s Asian population as early as 1926. It later decided that both the Asian and the black communities needed buildings of their own, although funds were available only for one. The board was still considering whether the building would go to the “Asiatics” or to the “Colored people” when the Depression brought a temporary halt to further action.

The YMCA’s first venture into the predominately black Central Area came in 1936, when it established the East Madison Branch in a former tennis club donated by the Colman family. The branch was given provisional status but no funding until 1942, when the Metropolitan Board budgeted $8,000 to remodel and expand the building to accommodate the needs of black servicemen. Although it catered largely to servicemen during the war, the branch also operated other programs, including Gra-Y clubs for boys in grade school and a day camp for children of all races.

By 1946, when the National Council of the YMCA urged its members to eliminate racial discrimination, the Seattle YMCA was already making steady, albeit gradual, progress toward integrating its facilities and programs. That year, Howard Redmond, an African American senior at Broadway High School, was elected president of the Seattle Area Hi-Y Council, the governing body of 30 clubs for high school students, with a total of more than 600 members. The Central Branch had been fielding integrated basketball teams for several years by that time. A few blacks were beginning to join the staff, not just at the East Madison Branch but at Camp Orkila and elsewhere.

For many white people growing up in Seattle during the postwar years, their first exposure to people of other races and ethnicities came through the YMCA. Emory Bundy, YMCA board chair from 1985 to 1986, remembers being taught to swim at age nine by Jack Blount, swimming director at Camp Orkila in 1947. “He was the first black man I ever met,” Bundy says, “and by his example, he offset the seeds of prejudice forming in my young mind -- living, as I did, in a segregated, all-white neighborhood. In the Seattle of my youth a black person could not get a job even as a sales clerk in any downtown establishment -– and yet here was Jack Blount, teaching us swimming, an exquisite role model and a person we greatly admired” (Bundy). Bundy also met and became friends with Jewish people at the Seattle YMCA, at a time when Jews, as well as racial minorities, were barred from many private clubs.

Challenging Times

The YMCA went through another cycle of expansion after the war, continuing its advance into the suburbs with branches in Bellevue, Edmonds, Auburn, Highline, and Shoreline. Old programs were jettisoned and new ones added as the social climate changed. One of the most popular additions was the Hobby School, established in 1944 and steadily expanded to help men and women make “more skilled use of leisure time” (Annual Report, 1948). Kenneth Callahan, curator of the Seattle Art Museum and one of the leading Northwest artists of the time, served as the chairman of the school’s board in the late 1940s. The YMCA ended its long association with vocational education in 1956, after years of decreasing enrollment and mounting costs, but remained involved in adult education through the Hobby School.

In the early 1960s, aware of the large number of youth who were not being reached by its programs, the YMCA began using “detached workers” to establish small outposts in disadvantaged urban neighborhoods and, later, at the Youth Services Center of King County Juvenile Court. In 1969, the Y established a Re-entry School, to help school dropouts get back into the educational system –- a precursor of today’s Seattle Rotary Education Center.

These developments were accompanied by increasing tension between the Metropolitan Board and the branch administrators, centering on issues of financing and control; and between those who pushed to implement new programs because “Now is the time,” and those who warned, “We can’t be all things to all people” (Metropolitan Executive Committee minutes). There were other sources of tension as well. Female participation had doubled since the war, presenting special space problems in buildings designed for men and boys. Travelers who stayed in the YMCA residence halls were no longer satisfied with one bathroom for each floor. An earthquake damaged parts of the downtown building in 1965; eight other branches and Camp Orkila showed major signs of wear.

The YMCA was midway through yet another capital campaign to renovate and expand its facilities when the Seattle economy went into a tailspin in 1970, prompted by massive layoffs at Boeing –- then the region’s largest single employer -– and later exacerbated by a national energy crisis. Although nearly $1.5 million had been pledged to the campaign, collections slowed as economic conditions worsened, and the Y ended the year with a deficit of $96,000.

The late 1960s and early 1970s were marked by rapid social change in Seattle, as elsewhere, with blacks challenging whites, students challenging school administrators, women challenging men, and consumers challenging corporations. The concerns of all these groups influenced the development of the Metrocenter YMCA, created in 1973 when the University of Washington YMCA merged with the YMCA of Greater Seattle.

To Jarlath Hume, its first director, Metrocenter was part of a continuum dating to the very beginnings of the YMCA. Just as the YMCA had once helped young men move from a rural to an industrial society, now it would try to ease the transition from an industrial to an information-based society, one with an international rather than a domestic orientation.

In many ways, programs implemented by Metrocenter echoed those in place a generation earlier. The Media Access Guide (“Learn how to promote your organization’s events and activities”), the People’s Yellow Pages (a list of social-service resources), CityFair (promoting self-help solutions for the problems of urban life), and Target Seattle (a nine-day forum on preventing nuclear war) were all at least distantly related to earlier projects. For example, in 1948 the Hobby School was sponsoring lectures and symposia on nuclear war and the Central Branch was operating a speakers’ bureau to promote support for the United Nations.

Still, there were those who thought Metrocenter and the YMCA had veered dangerously close to radicalism, and at least a few were consequently less inclined to open their wallets when the YMCA came calling for donations. “Some of my friends in business said they weren’t going to contribute anymore to the Y because they didn’t like what Metrocenter was doing,” says Frank Pritchard, a longtime volunteer, recalling the difficulties of raising money in the early 1980s. “But if an organization doesn’t flirt with a little controversy, people stop paying attention to it. If you only please the guys who give money, pretty soon you’re going to lose the teenagers” (Pritchard Interview).

Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, the YMCA struggled to remain relevant and economically viable in a swiftly changing world. Fewer young people were interested in the organization. Expenses exceeded income at most of the branches. Operating deficits accumulated year by year. The Y dipped into maintenance funds, then into capital funds and finally borrowed from its endowment funds to cover basic expenses -- and even then sometimes had trouble meeting its payroll.

The Queen Anne-Magnolia Branch was closed and its building sold; the Armed Services Branch was closed and its space given over to other programs downtown; the East Madison Branch teetered on the edge of closure; the staff was reduced, and still the deficits grew. Attendance at Camp Orkila dropped to the point that there was serious talk of selling the camp. In one reflection of the financial challenges of this period, the Metropolitan Executive Committee went so far as to consider leasing space in the downtown flagship building to a restaurateur with a Class H liquor license. However, the committee decided that not even the promise of greater revenue would compensate for the damage to be done by selling liquor in the YMCA.

The Y entered this period as an organization that was, as Board President Joe O. Ellis put it in 1970, “beset with problems, seeking new challenges and opportunities, striving to be ‘with it…’” (Annual Report, 1970). It was also an organization with a long history of reinventing itself in response to changing conditions. The Y would weather these hard times in the same way it had survived those of the 1930s, melding tradition and innovation in a way that would allow it to emerge from the crucible with renewed confidence and purpose.

To go to Part 4, click "Next Feature"


Young Men's Christian Association, Seattle, Annual Reports, 1930, 1932, 1934, YMCA Archives, Seattle, Washington; The Y in Seattle, Annual Report Number, January 1943, 3; Young Men’s Christian Association, Seattle, Information for Members, undated brochure, YMCA Archives; Cassandra Tate interview with Cindy Sonstelie, January 22, 2001, Seattle, Washington; Dick Knapp comment in “Last Blast” folder commemorating the renovation of the Downtown YMCA, 2000, YMCA Archives; Emory Bundy, “Goodbye to the Old Y,” The Letter, Summer 1999; YMCA of Seattle, Annual Report, 1948; YMCA Metropolitan Executive Committee minutes, 1969-72, YMCA Archives; Cassandra Tate Interview with Frank Pritchard, January 16, 2001; YMCA of Seattle, Annual Report, 1970.

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