Historic Detroit

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

YMCA (Downtown Branch)

The city's grand old YMCA was the home for countless young Detroit athletes, and ended up being demolished for the home of some of its best-known ones.

It stood at Witherell and East Adams streets and was designed by the firm Donaldson & Meier.

Origins of the Detroit Y

The Detroit Young Men’s Christian Association’s origins go back to 1851, when efforts began in the interest of bettering “the spiritual and mental condition of young men” led to the organization’s founding here. Detroit was a city of just 27,000 souls at the time, and things didn’t really take off. Following the Civil War, however, the YMCA saw a boost nationally, and Detroit was no exception. The Detroit YMCA was re-established in 1867, and set out to expand. At the time, the pre-motor Motor City had just shy of 80,000 residents.

But the automobile changed everything, and would lead to an ever-surging demand for places for the workers flocking into the city for employment to stay.

The growing city had outgrown the old Y at Grand River Avenue and Griswold Street, so J.L. Hudson and other benefactors set out to raise a small fortune to build something a little bigger.

On April 12, 1908, Hudson was giving the honor of laying the cornerstone for the new building.

By the time 1909 rolled around, the YMCA had a total membership of more than 446,000 nationally, an increase of 9,000 members from a year earlier, and had 1,939 buildings - 84 of which were built in 1908 alone. There was a new ‘Y’ opening almost every week somewhere in the U.S. On Jan. 1, 1909, Detroit informally opened what was then the largest YMCA in the world downtown on Grand Circus Park with living quarters to accommodate 160 men. It cost $400,000 to build, or about $13.4 million in 2023 dollars, when adjusted for inflation.

Following the national trend, membership in the Detroit YMCA jumped from around 4,000 men in 1910 to some 14,000 in 1930. The nine-story Downtown main branch was simply not going to be enough. In 1925, a $5 million expansion fund was announced by the YMCA, which sought to build seven new branches in areas across the city. There would eventually be nine YMCAs sprinkled across the city and Hamtramck from 1925 to 1931.

It would serve Detroiters for 88 years, offering a spot for sport and to lay their heads. It had about 250 residential rooms, a 75-foot swimming pool, courts for handball, squash and paddleball, an indoor track and health services.

The Downtown Y wasn't just for the common man. Supreme Court Justice, Mayor and Gov. Frank Murphy was a member, as were U.S. Sen. Carl Levin and Mayors Roman Gribbs and Coleman Young, among many others. It was also where Mayor Albert Cobo got pumped lifting weights.

But when the Ilitch family decided to ask the City to help it build a new stadium for the Detroit Tigers downtown, the YMCA found itself in the way of progress.

Members left asking, 'Y?'

It was sold in October 1996 for $5 million, more than five times its assessed value of $990,800, but close to the fair market value set by an appraiser for the Stadium Authority. When it closed Jan. 30, 1997 -- a 88 years and 29 days after it opened -- it had 1,000 members and 60 residents living in its 120 rooms.

"In the Y's last days, it wasn't the exercise that kept them coming back," the Detroit Free Press wrote the morning after the closure. "It was the camaraderie."

Though the YMCA pledged to build a new facility downtown, those plans weren't unveiled at the time of the closure. The board was blasted by members. As it would take just shy of nine years for its replacement to open.

"This was their fellowship," Jerry Miller, a retired Detroit police sergeant and Downtown Y member for 26 years, told the Free Press. "Now a part of their lives is being cut out."

Some of the longtime members suspended or canceled their memberships in protest. But all of those who called it home had to find a new place to stay.

Jimmy Pappas, who had become a member at the Y in 1928, told the Free Press: "I got a lifetime membership at Fitness Center USA in 1969. I think I'm going to start using it."

The YMCA fell to the wrecking ball in late 1997 and early 1998. Comerica Park opened in 2000.

The long-awaited replacement for the Downtown Y - known as the Boll Family YMCA - was dedicated on Sept. 8, 2005, but did not open to the public until that Dec. 5. The $32 million, 100,000-square-foot facility at Broadway and John R is named after the Boll family of suburban Grosse Pointe Shores, who donated $4 million for the project. John "Jay" Boll was a retired contractor and developer who founded Chateau Estates and Lakeview Construction Co. who had died Feb. 7, 1996.

More on this building coming soon.