YMCA closing for renovations

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Baltimore's only remaining YMCA branch, a long-standing institution in the city's black community, will close for nearly a year starting Thursday so it can be remodeled and expanded.

The Druid Hill Family YMCA, at 1609 Druid Hill Ave., is scheduled to reopen by June 15 after a $2.9 million renovation.

The temporary closure will force hundreds of West Baltimore youngsters to find other places to swim, play basketball and socialize, at a time when parents are looking for ways to keep children off the streets.

It also will mean a change in routine for the branch's adult members, some of whom come to the building several times a week. The branch has 671 memberships, representing more than 1,000 individuals.

Several members this week said they're sorry to see it close even temporarily.

"I guess I will have to find something else to do," said Anthony Lewis, 13, who comes to the Y almost every day to play basketball. "I'll figure out something."

Kevin Forrest, 23, recently joined the center to use the weight training room. "There aren't any other facilities in the inner city," he said. "We don't have anything else."

YMCA managers say they are seeking another city site where they can shift their programs during construction.

Members will be permitted to attend any of the other six YMCA branches in Central Maryland, including those in Catonsville and Ellicott City, at no additional charge during the construction period. They also will be able to use the swimming facilities at the downtown YWCA on Franklin Street at Park Avenue.

Druid Hill's five child care centers, which are all off premises, will remain open.

Lee Jensen, president of the Young Men's Christian Association of Central Maryland, said the organization is committed to reopening the building before the next school year ends.

"Completing this project is our highest priority at the YMCA," he said. "It's a long-term investment . . . in the neighborhood. . . . The project is about giving kids hope and teaching values as well as building a strong foundation for citizenship."

Established in 1885, the Druid Hill branch was for many years the only place where black children could learn to swim, go to camp and use recreational equipment.

Its present building, which dates to 1918, was the first facility in the city with an indoor pool available to the black community. Hundreds of prominent Baltimoreans, from former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, learned to swim there over the years.

During World War II, its gymnasium became the setting for United Service Organizations dances open to black servicemen who couldn't attend the whites-only USO dances in the Central YMCA downtown. Years later, the Harlem Globetrotters played basketball there.

Since 1990, the facility has been the only YMCA branch in the city.

Ellsworth Turner, 72, has been a member at the Druid Hill YMCA since he was 7 -- and told staffers he was 9 so he could meet their minimum age requirement. Back then he came every day to swim and to hang out with his friends, a practice he adheres to except that now he and his friends are all retired.

"It was either play in the streets or play at the Y," Mr. Turner said. "Everybody came here."

These days, Mr. Turner and his friends crowd into a back room to play pinochle and to reminisce. The building, they say, houses the memories of their youth.

"When we were coming up, all black folks lived together," said Edward Watson, 78, a lifelong friend of Mr. Turner's. "There were very few places black people could go, and this was one of them."

On Wednesday, dozens of members and supporters of the Druid Hill branch gathered for ceremonies to herald the renovation effort. Work will begin July 31.

As designed by Brosso, Wilhelm and McWilliams of Towson, the renovation includes modernization of the pool, the locker rooms and two gyms. Areas of the building that have been off limits due to code violations will be refurbished to provide additional space for new programs, including a computer lab, a teen center, a family fitness center and a performing arts center.

The building also will get new windows and insulation, and its original entrance will be reopened.

Mr. Jensen said members asked about the possibility of delaying the start of construction until September, when school resumes.

But he said such a delay would add $65,000 to the project's cost and would mean the YMCA likely would miss the June reopening date. For those reasons, the board members decided to stay with the plan to close by the end of this month, he said.

Mr. Jensen explained that the board was unable to keep the building partially open during construction because the general contractor, Essex Construction, did not want to assume liability. Working in phases also would have prolonged the construction period, he said.

The YMCA initially offered to shift programs to Harlem Park Middle School, about 19 blocks away, Mr. Jensen said. But some adult members have objected to the location and officials are seeking another site more to their liking, he said.

Joseph Fowlkes, 40, said he would prefer a closer site. "It will be a slight inconvenience to me," he said of the proposed Harlem Park location. "I'll be going into a neighborhood that to me is more crime-ridden than this one. I feel safer here."

Robin Jordan, executive director of the Druid Hill branch, said the Y would arrange for a shuttle to take members from Druid Hill Avenue to Harlem Park if the programs are shifted there.

"We know it's going to be an inconvenience," she said. "But it's for a good purpose. This is going to be a brand-spanking new facility."

The closing will be the second in 77 years for the building, which was closed from 1976 to 1980 because of financial difficulties. The city bought the building in 1976 and spent $1.4 million for repairs.

The Schmoke administration has agreed to sell the building back to the YMCA for $1 in conjunction with the current project.

Mr. Jensen said funds for the $2.9 million renovation are coming from a capital campaign launched by the YMCA of Central Maryland. So far, $2.8 million has been secured, leaving $100,000 to be raised, he said.

Chief funding sources include the state, which allocated $1 million; the city of Baltimore, $625,000; the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, $200,000, and the France-Merrick foundations, $100,000.

At one time, the YMCA had four branches in the city. It closed its Central facility at Franklin and Cathedral streets in 1981, its branch on The Alameda in 1982, and its midtown branch inside the Belvedere in 1990.

Pamela Butler, a northwest Baltimore resident who came to Druid Hill yesterday with her two children to get in a quick workout, said she didn't mind following the YMCA to a temporary location. She said she's just happy it's staying in the city.

"It's been an asset for the community," she said. There's "a close-knit band of individuals here."

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