It started with a steep climb. Up, up, up multiple flights of blue metal temporary stairs, rising inside the scaffolding and cloak of blue mesh that surround the YMCA of Greenwich.
On Wednesday a small group loyal to the YMCA got see firsthand the work on a $1.6 Million project that includes restoration of the YMCA’s facade and cupola, a new slate roof and improvements to the gymnasium.
On the way to the cupola, it was possible to put a hand on the etched words that serve as a reminder of the YMCA’s mission: Health, Knowledge, Character, Work, Play.
With the YMCA of Greenwich marking its 100th anniversary this year, executive director Bob DeAngelo said the words are as valid as ever. “The words are timeless. These are the words we’re still talking about today.”
“When you get close to the craftsmanship, you appreciate the passion, dedication and spirit that went into the building – and the generosity that would make great moments for so many people,” he continued.
Bob DeAngelo said he was delighted when the decision was made not to rebuild the facade with plastic or wood, but rather to restore it to its original beauty and craftsmanship.
“It’s a full-scale restoration,” he said. “This is the first phase of a lot of deferred maintenance. The YMCA is adamant about preserving this for the next 100 years.”
DeAngelo said that while most members are mostly interested in the YMCA’s programming, keeping the building viable and safe is also important.
“Of the YMCA’s built in a certain era – if they don’t get fixed, and you don’t have the resources – it can be prohibitively expensive. Then you stand a chance of going out of business,” he said, acknowledging that many YMCA’s have shuttered.
Facilities Manager Wesley Chang said that during the facade project, workers came across some structural challenges that were hidden. “There is always human error,” he acknowledged.
“Just imagine some of the patch jobs that were done in the 1930s,” Rende added.
Gene Martine, a daily visitor to the YMCA of Greenwich, made the climb to the cupola on Wednesday. “It’s the heart of the whole town,” he said of the YMCA. “It is such a shame that it hasn’t been better preserved.”
Lifelong resident of Greenwich, Angela Rende, who serves as marketing and PR manager for the YMCA, learned to swim at the YMCA herself. She said that for decades, children rushed up the stairs to the original entrance of the building to get to their swimming lesson on time, and that when work is fiished, the original entrance will reopen.
Rende said that the goal of the restoration work is to preserve the iconic structure for another century. “This place is so special, we asked what can we do to guarantee it’s here for another 100 years?”
“It helps that it’s at the cross-roads of Greenwich,” said DeAngelo, of the YMCA’s location at the intersection of Putnam Ave and Mason Street.
“It’s the gem of the town,” said local architect Aris Crist, who joined the group in Wednesday’s climb.
The building had its groundbreaking in 1915. On the day of its completed on Nov. 14, 1916, the Greenwich News and Graphic reported on the building’s dedication. According to the report, a weekend open house drew hundreds of people of Greenwich and nearby towns to inspect the beautiful structure.
“Exclamations of amazement and admiration were common with parents who visited the building for the first time, the great beauty of the interior and the richness of the furnishings providing a pleasant surprise.
The wonderful swimming pool with its glass bottom, lighted by electric lights, is a thing of great beauty, besides being an indoor swimming place…Everyone who visited the pool was very favorably impressed and is destined to prove the most popular feature of the building,” the article said. “The gymnasium and running track took the eye of the younger people, who visited the building and well it might.” – Greenwich News and Graphic, Nov. 14, 1916
With this being the YMCA’s 100th year anniversary, many residents – past and present – have been offering mementos such as swimming lesson certificates from the 1950s to the YMCA’s archives.
According to Rende, there is a plan for a time capsule in the works, and some of the donated keepsakes will make their way into the time capsule. (To contact Rende call her at (203) 869-1630 ext 283 or email [email protected])
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