Friday, February 12, 2010

The Junius Ward Johnson YMCA, Vicksburg, Mississippi

In the early 1920s, Mrs. Fannie Vick Willis Ward donated funds to the Young Men's Christian Association to build a new YMCA facility in Vicksburg. The Junius Ward Johnson YMCA at 821 Clay St. was dedicated in 1923. Fannie, a modest and generous lady, sat in the audience. The new building, a handsome brick structure with a red clay roof, was located at the intersection of Clay and Monroe Streets and in what was then the bustling heart of a thriving commercial and industrial city. Originally the building had only three floors, but in 1925, the roof was removed and a fourth floor with 33 more residence rooms was added.

The new building was state-of the art at that time and featured steam radiator heat, bathrooms on each of the residence floors, a gymnasium/theater, and a swimming pool in the basement. The pool was tiled and of the most modern, sanitary construction according to standards of the 1920s.


When I moved to Vicksburg in the 1980s, the lower two floors were still regularly used for civic functions. The swimming pool was the only one in town with heat for winter use. I do not know the original configuration of the locker room. A ladies changing room had been added, but this would not have existed in the 1920s.

The 3rd and 4th floors were the residence floors, where young gentlemen could rent a modest and clean room for weeks or months. This was a common practice in the early-mid-20th century and was less expensive than staying in a hotel. My father lived in YMCAs in the 1930s and 1940s in Providence, Boston, New York, and other cities for periods of weeks at a time.


Up through the 1970s, it was still common practice for single males newly-hired at the Waterways Experiment Station to live in the "Y" for months or sometimes years. They had to dine somewhere else, a service that was fulfilled by boarding houses in the vicinity. The normal pattern was for the young gent to eventually meet a young lady via church, sports, or club activity, get married, and then move to a suburban house. The gentleman in the photograph below is a former resident.

Another friend and coworker said when he moved to the "Y" in 1968, the rent was $30/month. For breakfast, many of the gents went to Crawley's Pool Hall, which put on a generous spread for $1. In the evening, they ate at the Glass kitchen for a home-style $1 dinner or at other downtown eateries. Every night from 7-9 pm, a basketball game was open to anyone, after which the guys would go out to a bar for a beer. At that time, there were numerous bars downtown.


On our contemporary standards, the residence rooms are tiny, cramped monk's cells with a narrow bed and one electric outlet. The one tiny closet would barely hold our clothes, let alone all the other junk we drag around as part of our modern lifestyle. The rooms were not air-conditioned, but the doors had wood louvers. In hot weather, hall fans provided a constant breeze, and by leaving a window open, a breeze would keep the rooms bearable (on pre-1970s standards).


The Junius Ward residence floors ceased operation between 1978 and 1980. First the upper 33 rooms on the fourth floor were closed and then finally the third floor, the result of increasing competition from apartments around town. With lack of use, this part of the building deteriorated steadily thereafter.


Vicksburg YMCA moved to a new location in 2002 and sold their historic Clay Street building to a Nashville developer, who planned to convert the space to condominiums. The plans never materialized and the building remained unoccupied until about 2003 or 2004, when Keystone Ministries moved in. Pastor James Hartley kindly let me take photographs at that time. The ministry did some renovations but the building needed too many repairs for them to be able to continue. Since about 2006, the building has been unused. Several potential developers have looked, but the cost of renovations has scared them off. Before it could be reoccupied, it would need fireproof stairs, major roof repair and other significant upgrades. It languishes empty, slowly crumbling.



Photography technical notes:
  • Rectangle black white photographs: Taken in 1994 with Kodak Tri-X Professional film in a Tachihara 4x5" camera.
  • Square black and white: Kodak Panatomic-X film in a Rolleiflex 3.5E camera (Xenotar lens)
  • Square color: Kodak Ektar 25 Professional film in a Rolleiflex 3.5F camera (Planar lens)
  • Rectangle color: Kodak Kodachrome 25 film in a Leica rangefinder camera

Thank you to many friends who provided information and history.

2 comments:

  1. It's a shame that the city doesn't step in and subsidize some of the renovation. It would be a good gesture, and it would show the people that the city government actually cares about the city's image.

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