Huntsville has had an interesting journey through time as many of its old historic buildings were leveled to make way for “the city that space built” during the 60s and Wernher von Braun’s golden age of space exploration.
(Cue sad violin music over the loss of our original court house here.)
However, for those who are curious enough to venture off the beaten path and beyond the main streets of downtown Huntsville, visitors will be rewarded with some of the most beautifully preserved historic buildings in the city. Including the old YMCA building on the corner of Greene and Randolph.
Mary Virginia McCormick
It was the year 1900 and the daughter of famed American inventor and industrialist Cyrus McCormick (creator of the mechanical reaper), Mary Virginia McCormick, had recently taken up residence in the then newly built Kildare Mansion near central Huntsville.
Mary, who suffered from mental illness most of her life, spent her winters at Kildare from the year 1900-1931 with her caretaker, Grace Walker. During the time she spent in Huntsville, the city was introduced to an air of luxury that most citizens at the time had never seen before.
When Mary would arrive for the winter, children would be let out of school just to see the procession of her belongings being taken into the mansion.
But more than anything, Mary McCormick and Grace Walker were both best known for their philanthropic efforts in the area, especially in regards to caring for children. Of their many philanthropic pursuits was the building and funding of local YMCAs.
After funding two other YMCAs for the mill communities that had grown up around the town, Mary wired her eldest brother Cyrus McCormick Jr. in the year 1909 to wire funds for the creation of a third central YMCA that was to be located on Greene street. He quickly responded by sending two wire transfers, one for $5,000 and another for $7,500.
Edgar Lee Love
The man behind the design for the new YMCA building was budding local architect Edgar Lee Love, who began life as a carpenter, but after a short stint working under the architect Herbert Cowell, struck out on his own.
Renowned as the first Huntsville architectural historian, Love was obsessed with the documentation and preservation of historical buildings. He was most famous for what we now call adaptive reuse of existing buildings, a concept that most architects during the period had not even considered.
This love of traditional architecture is self evident in the elegant four-story Renaissance Revival-Style building he designed for the central YMCA.
Facing west toward Greene Street, the building features a T-shaped floor plan with a four-story front wing and a three-story rear wing, a hipped roof covered with green colored tiles, deep overhanging eaves with exposed rafter tails, brick veneer wall, stone foundation, and interior end brick chimneys.
Over the main entrance, flanked by two doric pilasters “Y.M.C.A.” is inscribed in the concrete arched entrance. And the cornerstone of the building holds the inscription “Jesus Christ Himself Being the Chief Cornerstone – 1910” on the north side, and the YMCA “Spirit, Mind Body” crest on the west side of the stone.
Life As The Central YMCA
From the moment its doors opened in 1912 the “Young Men’s Christian Association” on Greene Street was a central hub for families in Huntsville. Children could swim in the indoor basement pool, one of the first of its kind in the area, play basketball on the indoor court and adults could find rooming accommodations on the fourth floor for $1 a night.
For 86 years, children laughed, played, swam, shot hoops and found a sense of community at the central YMCA.
Then in 1998, after 86 long years of use, the YMCA knew that the organization had simply outgrown its long held space. Parking has become a difficulty, and there simply wasn’t room for them to expand and grow to meet the needs of the community anymore.
Buck Watson and WJGM, LLC.
After being scooped up from the YMCA by local realtor John Blue, Buck Watson remembers getting a phone call one day that Blue might be interested in selling. “We were looking for a new office space at the time and our realtor called and said, Buck we’ve got to go look at this building and we’ve got to look at it today. So we did and basically bought the building sight unseen.” Commented Buck Watson. Built originally for $35,000 in 1912 Watson and an investment group called WJGM, LLC. purchased the building in 1999 for $400,000 (which was a steal since adjusting for time and inflation $35,000 in 1912 works out to around $829,825 today!).
However, 86 years of children can be rough on a building and in the time since the building had been vacated by the YMCA, the upstair windows had been knocked out, pigeons had begun to roost in the building and homeless people had been sneaking in to sleep in the rooms. “When I walked in here when I bought the place, I went up to the third floor and there was a man in there asleep under a bunch of stuff so I couldn’t even see him and all of a sudden he turned over while I was standing there.”
Working from an old postcard that showed the original 1912 interior of the building, Buck Watson set to work restoring the building to its original state, fighting architects at every turn to preserve as many historical details from the building as possible, like the original wooden staircase in the lobby and the old wooden gym floor.
During the renovations Watson also discovered numerous artifacts from the YMCAs long history within the building, including various trophies in a large barrel upstairs dating back as far as 1915 which adorn a glass display cabinet in his office along with other historical documents from the old YMCA. The items displayed include objects such as the old lodging ledger book for guests who stayed overnight in the fourth-floor rooms, old photographs, postcards that guests had written home while staying at the Y, and even the original wire money cables from Cyrus McCormick for the funding of the building of the YMCA in 1909.
A further discovery was made during renovations when, while removing a wall on the third floor, they found hidden pocket doors within the wall. Delighted by the discovery they restored the doors and left them in place.
In fact, at every turn in the building you can see where restoration and modernization has met heart-felt preservation, whether it be keeping elements of the old observation balcony in the gym, or preserving part of the original center court floor.
All totaled, Buck Watson and WJGM, LLC. spent roughly $2 million during a little more than a year, lovingly and painstakingly, restoring the building back to its original 1912 design.
Today the building functions as a home for more than six different firms including attorneys, court reporters and investment bankers, some of whom grew up playing basketball in the very same building as a child.
While various tenants have come and gone from the building over the last 16 years since the renovations were completed, Buck Watson is still there, ready and waiting with his trophy case of history to share the story of the building he loves so much with anyone who inquires.
Take a tour of what the building looks like today by looking through the images below. To learn more about an image, click on it to reveal the caption.
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