YMCA of Metro Chicago History

A Past as Rich as Our Present

Our story begins in 1840. Chicago’s population had barely reached 5,000 just twenty years later, the city’s census recorded more than 109,000 Chicagoans. Most of the increase was due to an influx of young men, and the city was in need of a place for these young men to socialize and improve themselves. 

Several societies were founded: Chicago Lyceum, the Mechanical Institute, and the Young Men’s Association, among others. Most notable of these groups was the Young Men’s Association, which was created as a place for leisure and amusement away from the vices of gambling halls and saloons. Despite their good intentions, none of these organizations were able to provide answers to the problems young men faced. They served as refuges for their constituents, but little more.

Then, in 1853, after learning of Young Men's Christian Associations (YMCA) in cities such as Boston, New York, and Buffalo, Reverend Luther Stone published a series of articles calling for the creation of a YMCA in Chicago! Unfortunately, Chicago faced a cholera epidemic in the summer of 1854 that left more than 1,400 people dead, and this turned church officials’ attention away from the possible creation of a YMCA and, rightfully so, toward the tragedy at hand. 

Still in recovery from the cholera epidemic, Chicago soon faced a new crisis —this time, a financial one. A great recession swept the country, crippling the railroad and other previously booming industries. In response, the city experienced a religious and spiritual revival. Laymen and YMCA members in cities such as New York met to discuss ways of lessening the poverty that so many faced during the country’s recession.

On March 22, 1858, Chicagoans again gathered in an attempt to form a YMCA. After a series of meetings, a constitution was written and the first YMCA of Chicago was officially formed!

The YMCA soon established itself as an important part of Chicago’s growing metropolitan area. The 1860s and '70s proved a time of expansion for the Y as it departed from its initial mission to help young men and began more evangelical work. Chicago’s first Y building opened in 1867 and was named Farwell Hall after its benefactor, John V. Farwell. The building, erected on Madison Street between LaSalle and Clark Street, housed a library, parlor, and gymnasium. Although officials at the national YMCA convention several years earlier had encouraged the opening of gym facilities at regional Ys, board members decided to lease the gymnasium to the Metropolitan Gymnastic Club.

As bad luck would have it, Farwell Hall burned down only a year after its opening. It was soon rebuilt, but because raising funds proved far more difficult than with the previous building, it housed only meeting rooms and a large library. Two years later, the Y was lost again to the great fire of 1871. In 1874, the third incarnation of Farwell Hall was erected, again without gym facilities.

In the late 1800s, the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago continued to expand courtesy of funds raised through lectures, private donations, and local business owners. Cyrus Bentley, an active Baptist layman who was one of the two delegates sent to the YMCA national conference in 1854, became the first president of YMCA Chicago.

The 20th Century Arrives & Wabash YMCA Opens

The turn of the century marked continued growth and expansion of the Y’s programs and facilities. In 1910, the Y partnered with Sears, Roebuck and Co. to offer recreational facilities for its workers. English classes were offered for the city’s immigrants, and the first welcome center for Chicago newcomers was established in the African-American community with support from Sears executive Julius Rosenwald. Later, this welcome center became the Wabash YMCA. 

Five years after its inception, the Wabash Avenue YMCA organized the first Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, which eventually led to the 1926 inauguration of Black History Month.

By the 1920s, the Y expanded to include camps such as Camp Duncan, Camp Hastings Lake, Camp Nawakwa and Camp Pinewood. New centers were built in Roseland, Irving Park, and Lincoln-Belmont.

In 1931, a donation from the publisher of the Chicago Daily News helped build the Lawson Hotel. At the time, it was not only the tallest building in Chicago—topping off at 25 floors—but it was also the most luxurious. It boasted two gyms, an auditorium, rooftop garden, swimming pool, barber shop, and four restaurants!

During this time, the Y’s business education programs blossomed into a formalized program known as the Central YMCA College. This college later became Roosevelt University.

The Great Depression underlined Chicago’s need for associations like the Y that could aid the thousands of Chicagoans left jobless and poverty-stricken. When “Family Programming” was created in 1933, it offered full memberships for women and girls at Chicago YMCAs. Some of the early family programs included mothers’ clubs, parenting and fitness classes, and many other family activities. In years to come, YMCAs across the United States would model their own programs after the Chicago Y’s family programming.

As war raged overseas in the 1940s, the Chicago Y supported United States soldiers by allowing free membership to those in uniform. As emotionally and physically wounded soldiers trickled back to the States, the Chicago Y began offering aid to prisoners of war, cots for servicemen, and after the war ended, free memberships and counseling bureaus for veterans.

The 1940s also marked the Chicago Y’s move toward youth services. In an effort to deter delinquent behavior, the Y expanded its educational programs such as tutoring and mentoring.

Post-war, the Chicago Y renamed itself the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago. The Y began to examine potential anti-discrimination policies, and for the first time, women were allowed on the board.

The baby-boom years led to unparalleled expansion in the towns surrounding Chicago. As the economy flourished, so too did demand for additional, well-equipped Ys. To meet these demands, 13 centers were established, including Elmhurst, Buehler, and Northwest Suburban.

At the start of the 1960s, more than 300 Ys across the country remained racially segregated. At the 1967 national convention, the National Council required local associations to certify that both policies and practices for membership and program participation were made without regard to race, sex, or ethnic origin.

The 1960s also marked incredible growth in the number and scope of Y programs. In 1961, the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago introduced the first large-scale program serving disadvantaged youth, known as the Youth Outreach Services (YOS). Affiliated with the Mont-Clare Y, the program used federal funds to help unemployed youth undergo a basic, work-oriented education focusing on human relations training, vocational skills, and pre-employment training.

The YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago also established its first child care program, which evolved from the Y’s gang prevention programs. Staff members noticed that teenagers were bringing younger siblings to classes and realized that the older siblings were the families' only form of child care. Soon, formal child care programs were created. These programs were expanded in the early 1980s.

In the 1970s, more programs were established. Seniors Home Help, later known as Third Age YMCA, provided cleaning services for seniors and helped them remain in their homes despite loss of hearing, sight, or mobility.The YMCA Youth Justice program was also created as an alternative to juvenile imprisonment. It allowed for the placement of young delinquents in YMCA group homes where programs, activities and education provided support and reform assistance.

Unemployment also became a key platform for the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago in the 1970s. The YMCA Training Alliance and the New City YMCA’s Local Economic & Employment Development Council teamed with local businesses and agencies to provide Chicagoans with training and job placement, while working to  keep unemployment at the forefront of public policy and debate.

The first afterschool program was created in the 1980s. The Y had begun to see an increase in unsupervised children between the time the school bell rang in the afternoon and the time parents arrived home from work. In addition, the child care programs that were originally created in the 1960s were expanded. The Y began offering child care to multiple age groups.

Through specialized programs, the Y worked to meet each parent's needs by offering Early Head Start, Head Start, Preschool, State Pre-K, and School Age care. By the 1990s, half a million children in the United States received care from a YMCA. This service continues to be made available to all families through government subsidies and generous donations. Today, the YMCA is one of the largest licensed childcare providers in the city and the largest non-profit provider nationwide.

The Y was not only working to serve the children it cared for in its centers, but also those in the community. In the 1980s there were serious concerns over the growing infant mortality rate on the Near West Side of Chicago. The area had a well-documented history of elevated infant mortality, often reaching numbers comparable to Third World countries. The YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago launched the West Side Future program, and through government aid began intervening in neighborhoods by providing prenatal and infant care. The West Side Future program strove to save lives in an area where health warnings and advice often take a backseat amid poverty and other urban struggles. Despite the program’s tremendous successes and national acclaim, the battle against infant mortality continues in many communities to this day.

The 1980s further marked the opening of additional centers such as the South Side YMCA and the expansion of childcare and youth programs at the Duncan YMCA.

In 2002, the National Trust for Historic Preservation announced that the Wabash YMCA in Chicago's Bronzeville neighborhood would receive a National Preservation Honor Award. When the Wabash YMCA closed its doors in 1969 due to lack of funding, Chicago's Bronzeville neighborhood lost an institution that had been a center of activity for more than half of a century. After extensive renovation by neighborhood churches and with the financial support of the city, this landmark stands today as a center of the community.

Today, the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago has 14 centers in Chicagoland, five camps throughout the Midwest, and nearly 100 extension sites, making the Y one of the largest charitable organizations in Chicago. More than 200,000 YMCA members and over a half million Chicagoans rely on the Y for social guidance and individual empowerment. 

The YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago was founded on a community’s dream to create an organization where residents would be nurtured and supported—this is the realization of that dream. The Y remains at the heart and soul of personal growth and development in Chicagoland and plans to fill that same role  for many years to come.

Teens at the Capitol in Washington DC

Key Milestones Throughout Our History