Historic Detroit

Every building in Detroit has a story — we're here to share it

YWCA Central Branch

This building, designed by architect Albert Kahn, stood on the corner of Witherell and Montcalm streets. It was built as the Central Branch of the YWCA, or Young Women's Christian Association. It also served as administrative offices for the organization.

The Detroit branch was founded in February 1893 as the International Committee of the YWCA with Grace Whitney Evans Hoff as its first president. For its first 11 years, the Detroit YWCA operated out of the University Building on Wilcox street, until that building was destroyed in a fire. It relocated to the Philharmonic Hall at Lafayette Boulevard and Shelby Street. Having grown with the city itself, the organization bought the Tabernacle Baptist Church site at Washington Boulevard and Clifford Street, and opened a new, larger YWCA designed by Donaldson & Meier there in 1904. But after the Book Estate announced its intention to buy and raze that structure in order to build a 32-story skyscraper that was never erected, efforts began to build a new one on the other side of Woodward. The organization moved to 2312 Woodward Ave., at Montcalm, in the interim.

The funds for the project were raised in 1927 through the Women's Building Campaign. The structure cost $1.5 million to build, the equivalent of about $22 million today, when adjusted for inflation.

Ground was broken June 20, 1928, during a ceremony at which the wives of John MacKay and Roscoe B. Jackson operated the steam shovel for the ceremonial first scoop. On 3 p.m., Oct. 20, 1928, the cornerstone-laying ceremony was held. By that time, the framework for the building had already risen to the eighth level. The cornerstone was swung into place while a "chorus of girls' voices softly chanting a hymn" provided the soundtrack, according to the Detroit Free Press the following morning. The cornerstone was mortared into place by Louise Webber Jackson, president of the Detroit Young Women's Christian Association, niece of department store magnate J.L. Hudson and wife of Hudson Motor Car Co. President Roscoe B. Jackson. Inside the cornerstone were sealed the organization's "old records and historical treasures," the Detroit Free Press wrote Oct. 14, 1928, in a preview of the event. The paper went on to note that the moment would mean "the dream of more than 10,000 Detroit girls for an adequate YWCA building will have become a reality."

"A great deal has been done for young men," the Rev. Chester B. Emerson said during the cornerstone ceremonies. "But today, we are doing things for young women, putting them on a 50-50 basis. We are working for fit womanhood as well as for fit manhood. So your association builds characters which conform to the highest standards of personality. Your three-fold principle is to develop in young women physical fitness, mental resourcefulness and spiritual preparedness."

The building opened in 1929. It featured social rooms, a swimming pool, gyms, cafeteria, coffee shop, and club and residential rooms.

For 60 years, Detroit women found more than just shelter. They learned etiquette, swimming and tennis, how to dance and how to make crafts. In 1989, the building was closed and sold to developer Chuck Forbes, who said he planned to renovate it, but the City would have other plans.

"The 60-year-old building has seen better days," the Detroit Free Press wrote May 5, 1989, about the YWCA's pending closure. "Its elegant main entrance is locked. A hand-printed sign barely visible through dirty glass directs visitors to a side door."

Then-branch director Vanessa Brooks told the Free Press of the reason for selling the building and moving to the U.S. Mortgage Bond Building: "This building is so big, and it's running on the original equipment, which makes it quiet expensive."

A furnishings sale was held May 6, 1989, in which everything from eight pianos to dressers and credenzas to the building's silverware and lace tablecloths were sold off. The lights were turned out after the sale, and the building waited for a renovation that would never come.

The old building stood until 1998, when it was sold by Forbes and demolished to make way for Comerica Park. It is unclear whether the cornerstone was salvaged and the "historical treasures" saved or whether they, too, went to the landfill.

Last updated 24/05/2019