Lower Merion Historical Society

The Lower Merion Historical Society

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The Main Line’s YMCA has filled community needs for 95 years

YMCA changes the services it offers as community needs change to remain an important part of people’s lives

by David Schmidt
Special to Main Line Life

For the second half of the nineteenth century the Industrial Revolution was completely changing America. The agrarian economy — much like those that had existed in Western Civilization for almost 1,000 years was dying. Previous changes had taken generations. Now, within a period of 20 years, Americans were being swept into a world centered on urban industrial centers. In a push and pull situation, farming grew less labor intensive, eliminating the need for so many “farm hands,” and industry was desperate for workers they could train to work in factories. Support services were expanding equally as fast.

In 1844 George Williams, a drapery clerk founded the Young Men’s Christian Association. He wanted to counteract what he considered the sinful urban influences confronting rural young men who went to work in London and other cities. The YMCA protected them and supplied them with the guidance and structure they’d left behind in their farming villages. A similar need was perceived in the U. S., and the first YMCA opened in Boston in 1851. Philadelphia followed in 1854, when Businessman George H. Stuart founded a “Y”. John Wanamaker was the first paid director before he eventually started a dry goods business.

Early YMCAs focused on evangelism. By 1863 they began teaching self-improvement skills and fostering social gatherings — acting as the parental influence that was missing in the “big city.” According to Darrell E. Johnson, executive director of the Main Line YMCA, the “Y” has been functioning in Ardmore since 1904. Our branch was a product of the efforts of Norman J. Smith and Newton Boyd. These two businessmen had a year-old Bible study group that had become so popular that the Pennsylvania State YMCA issued a charter to the new “YMCA of Lower Merion”.
Its first headquarters and reading room in 1904 were in the Merion Title and Trust Building in Ardmore. The organization soon purchased Dirigo Hall for $14,000 in 1906 and moved into the site at 116 W Lancaster Avenue after a year of renovations.

“The Ardmore “Y” was “very much a community based ‘YMCA’,” Johnson said. “It boasted 14 dormitory rooms (rented for $2 per week), a pool, gymnasium, bowling alleys, tennis courts next door and many meeting and reading rooms. From what I understand, it was the place to go in the community in the 1920s and 1930s. At various times the post office, free library, police department, Boy Scouts and Women’s Club, among other organizations were located within the “Y.” In 1920, the less successful Narberth YMCA merged with the Ardmore organization and became the “Main Line YMCA”. It continued to flourish until 1929, when, along with the rest of the country, it was struck by the Great Depression. Except for the dormitory rooms, all services were curtailed until 1935.

In order to survive, the organization had to combine with the Philadelphia chapter. Lower Merion Police Superintendent, Howard Wayne Smith, and the Ardmore Rotary Club joined forces with the Philadelphia YMCA to renovate and reopen the Ardmore facility in order to provide activities for young boys. The reborn “Y” membership grew to over 5,000 by 1945, but the Lancaster Ave. building that had served it so well for so long had declined. In 1949, the organization moved into temporary quarters in the Autocar Company., at 63 W. Lancaster Ave., until the community could build today’s facility.

“It was built on the old Anderson property, originally a coach house from as far back as the Revolutionary War,” Johnson said. It was owned by a family known for its long line of doctors. The house was called as “St. George’s”, located on the comer of Mill Creek Rd. It was purchased by a Dr. James Anderson in 1811, He called the surrounding area “Athensville”, a name used until 1873 when the Pennsylvania RR changed it to Ardmore.

“It’s my understanding that the widow of the last Dr. Anderson wanted to give the property to the YMCA, but wasn’t affluent enough to do so. Apparently they had been supporters,” he said. The YMCA was only able to purchase 3.2 acres of the gardens of the estate bordering St. George’s Rd., “The land was bought in 1950, but lost a zoning battle to build the facility in what was a residential area,” he said. “The local zoning board was finally overruled, and, after a building campaign, today’s facility opened in 1956.

During the years, the idea that the YMCA existed to serve the community has been steadfast, although the type of service and the group it serves — reflected changes in society. Originally only for men of a certain age, the organization is now open to people of all ages.

In the 1950s and 1960s the organization provided training and facilities as a community youth center, but times change. The next trend was the fitness center, but that has evolved as well. While people are still using facilities for fitness, there are other equally important uses. “Today the most important of our functions is child care. We have programs before and after school, so parents who work can know their children are well cared for,” he said. “In the Philadelphia area, probably 35 percent of revenues come from child care.”

The YMCA has made the adjustment and pays attention to the community’s needs to anticipate trends. “One of the fastest growing groups of our membership is older people.,” said Johnson. “People in their 60s and even older are more active and are exercising, creating an entirely new group of members,” he said.