Former Downtown Tulsa YMCA Leaves Memories

GTR Media Group photo
TRANSFORMATIONAL LANDMARK: The former downtown Tulsa YMCA is being transformed into an apartment complex. In the background to the right is the ONEOK Plaza building.

For those of us who have lived in the same city for many years, it is not unusual to have more than one connection with the same building. So it is for my life in Tulsa and the downtown YMCA.
In the pre World War I years when oil strikes like Glenpool were happening, there were hundreds of oil field workers, migrant roustabouts who needed a place to live. Tulsa, with a population that was less than 30,000, under the leadership of YMCA secretary C. E. Buchner, raised $100,000 to build the first permanent YMCA building at Fourth Street and Cincinnati Avenue. It was a solid masonry structure, which included a cafeteria, meeting rooms, a health facility and a dormitory for a membership of 500 men. The original YMCA board of directors was composed of early Tulsa business leaders including my grandfather, C. C. Cole.
By 1951, the original building had reached its life expectancy and with 6,500 members had outgrown its space capacity. John E. Mabee headed a new building fund drive for the site at the northeast corner of Sixth Street and Denver Avenue. Well-known architect Leon Senter was selected to do the project. Senter was probably best known for his Philcade Building, which he had designed in the 1930’s for Waite Phillips and his work on St. John’s Hospital. This was to be one of Senter’s last projects and the only one he designed in the new “mid century modern” style. The building opened with strong community fanfare in 1953.
From its entrances on Denver Avenue and Sixth Street to the main lobby, extensive athletic facilities were accessed. These included a regulation indoor pool, a large basketball gym, locker rooms and hand ball/racquetball courts. The large lobby also served as a lounge with a reception desk and at one end, elevators that accessed six floors of resident rooms above. Each floor had eight to 10 single person rooms on either side of a center corridor with one shared bathroom facility per floor.
The exterior street level was sheathed in a maroon/rust glazed ceramic material with entrances from Denver Avenue and Sixth Street. The low tower at six floors was faced in a blond brick with a fenestration pattern of four horizontal louvered aluminum windows per room with a one-half round projecting ceramic rust colored frame. With ten rooms at the west elevation, there are ten of these.
In 1953 as a young boy, I developed a fear of swimming in water over my head. My parents immediately enrolled me in a YMCA youth swimming class. Thanks to the Y, I lost my fear of deep water and in my teenage years even worked one summer as a lifeguard.
The Y building was used heavily for many years and by the 1990s was looking shabby. A shared lobby for access to transient and low-income housing combined with athletic facilities which tried to be upscale for downtown office workers was a continuous problem. With the aid of various grants, my architectural firm upgraded the lobby reception desk and some of the upper floors. But eventually, the building closed and has been replaced downtown by a smaller facility at 415 S. Main St. and elsewhere such as the Tandy Family YMCA, located on East 51st Street across from LaFortune Park. The Tandy Family YMCA, which opened in 2017, houses more than 110,000 square feet. It was built on the grounds of the 50-year old Thornton Family YMCA.
Fortunately, the John Snyder family has come to the rescue of the former downtown YMCA and repurposed the building for small urban apartments soon after securing its listing on the National Register in 2016. Another piece of Tulsa’s history has been saved for future generations.

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