THROWBACK THURSDAY: Meriden YMCA celebrates long history in downtown

THROWBACK THURSDAY: Meriden YMCA celebrates long history in downtown

Record-Journal


MERIDEN — The Meriden YMCA has been rebuilt and reinvented several times in its 150 years in downtown.

The YMCA will mark its anniversary on the Meriden Green with the Record-Journal on Sept. 17 with a host of family activities and entertainment. The event runs from 1 to 5 p.m. The newspaper is also celebrating its 150th anniversary.

The YMCA dates back to 1866, but its organization was probably influenced by the presence of the Meriden Young Men’s Institute established in 1853, according to “150 years of Meriden.”

The first meetings of the YMCA were held in the rooms of a local church. About $7,000 was raised to make it possible to obtain permanent quarters.

In 1877, the association raised more than $20,000 from prominent citizens, such as Welcome E. Benham. to build 21-23 Colony St. The property was converted to commercial use in the 1920s and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In 1885, the first general secretary was hired and a telephone installed. Later, bath facilities were added, although the board feared they might overflow, causing damage to the building. In 1895, the first petition was presented for bowling alleys. The Lincoln Street tennis courts were added to the association’s facilities in 1901.

According to newspaper accounts, it was the first Y in Connecticut to occupy a building constructed specifically for its own use. It housed recreational facilities for young men, a reading room, a library and residential units.

During the 1920s, the YMCA raised $450,000 to build a new home at 110 W. Main St. At the time, it was considered one of the country’s finest.

“The structure is four stories, built of brown variegated brick, trimmed with granite,” the Meriden Daily Republican reported. “It is adequately supplied with fire escapes and is as fireproof as its inside furnishings will permit.”

It contained a homelike lobby and the fully equipped gymnasium generated much excitement. There was also a modern auditorium with a stage, motion picture machine and a kitchen. The two upper floors had 92-dormitory rooms to rent to the public. In the 1950s, there was already talk of expansion as the YMCA was increasing membership.

In 1982, city redevelopment plans called for the YMCA to remain downtown after a consultant’s report stated the YMCA was a community asset that “unfortunately is in physical disrepair in a debased environment.”

The plan called for a private firm to develop 100,000 square feet of office retail space on the south side of West Main Street from Grove Street. It would allow an opportunity to reconstruct its recreational and health facility in an improved setting, according to newspaper reports.

The plan did not provide support for the Y’s residential program, which had 90 percent occupancy at $30 a week. A shooting, a strangulation, and a rape at the Y residential facility within a few years had organizers concerned that the residential program was hurting the overall organization.

The city planned to raze the YMCA building as part of the downtown renovation plan. But city officials balked at the idea of including the housing program.

Several options were discussed, including the YMCA finding space outside the downtown area.

In 1991, the YMCA faced a decision: with its old building being torn down, would it watch the 90 residents who called the Y their home return to the streets, or would it offer an alternative?

Executive Director Bruce Miller worked to relocate the 90 residents, including the 18 who had lived there for more than five years. The organization bought 10 Carriage Crossings condominiums with a $570,000 state grant to house the displaced occupants. The new YMCA building, completed in 1996 at 110 W. Main St., did not have a residential component.

Throughout the 1990s and into the 21st Century, the YMCA branched out into offering child care, before and after school care and other programs, some in partnership with Meriden Public Schools.

The YMCA also began acquiring and leasing more property to house different services, including a building at 2 W. Main St. that houses its art and theater programs. It also leased property on Cambridge Street to house its gymnastics and CrossFit programs.

In the last five years, it has assumed management and direction of the Berlin, New Britain YMCA, and the Augusta Curtis Cultural Center.

Executive Director John Benigni said he’s proud of the Y’s 150 years serving the community.

“It is my goal to keep this YMCA around for another 150 years,” he said.


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