The Young Men's Christian Association represented a social movement that inspired town boosters, backed by famous supporters President Theodore Roosevelt and William Allen White, to erect the first exercise facilities in Kansas. Only a few of the early Y buildings remain in the state today.
First organized in London in 1844, the Y.M.C.A. came to Kansas in the late 1870s. Topeka formed the state's first organization in 1879. By the time of the first statewide convention in 1882, Kansas was home to eight associations whose membership totaled 410. The principal purpose of the Y.M.C.A. was the "improvement of the spiritual, mental, social and physical condition of young men." During the late 19th century, in what has come to be called the "Era of Reform," the movement focused its efforts in urban centers where it provided social activities, organized athletics, and religious instruction for men of the working class.
Wichita and Marion were the first Kansas associations to construct Y buildings in 1888. Both communities' members took advantage of the decade's economic boom to raise funds for construction expenses. Marion's building was completed at a cost of $17,000. Wichita hired the well-known architecture firm Proudfoot and Bird to design their building at a cost of $60,000. Construction plans halted in the 1890s when the nation suffered a major economic depression. Those who had constructed buildings in the 1880s had difficulty weathering the decade. In fact, Wichita's chapter was forced to sell its three-story building to the Scottish Rite Masons in 1898.
By 1907 statewide membership had grown to 12,416 and 14 Kansas associations owned their own buildings. In 1908 Newton raised $30,000 in 11 days for the construction of its Y building. Early buildings typically housed classrooms for religious instruction and gymnasia. In addition, they often housed the state's first indoor swimming pools. Larger Ys also featured rooms for boarders.
In Topeka the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway donated $20,000 toward the construction of the city's $45,000 railroad association building. The Railroad YMCA movement was started in 1880, but not organized into a department of the state association until 1885. Its object was to "provide a home for employees who were without home privileges," giving them a wholesome home environment, baths, libraries, etc. The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad company appropriated $1,200 per annum for this work, and donated the use of a two-story brick building.
When the United States entered World War I in 1917 the Y.M.C.A. turned its focus toward America's armed servicemen. The Y provided activities for men stationed at Fort Riley and Fort Leavenworth with the aim of protecting soldiers from "social outcasts."
Although some buildings, such as the Atchison Y, remain to interpret the Y's early period of growth, most have been lost over the years. Some succumbed to money woes, others, located on prime downtown real estate, were demolished and replaced. Topeka's downtown Y, constructed 1905 was closed in 1927 and demolished in 1940. Topeka's railroad Y was razed for a parking lot. Emporia's Y was forced to close its doors in 1938. When it finally paid off its mortgage in 1939, William Allen White set fire to the mortgage papers while a crowd of 200 sang the doxology. World War II provided a new use for the Emporia Y building and others. The Emporia Y was used for a Federal Manpower War Production School, and was involved in organizing the U.S.O., which hosted events in Y buildings statewide.
Some historic Y buildings, including those in Fort Scott (built 1908) and Newton (built 1909), were purchased by Urban Renewal in the 1970s and demolished. Coffeyville's Y (built 1902) was demolished in 1974.
Today the Y.M.C.A. is still going strong along with organized exercise. The Y buildings represent an important movement in Kansas history and a testament to the extraordinary feats that can be attained by community cooperation.
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: April 2009
Date Modified: October 2013
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