Real Estate 2011
Cliff Notes

Another landmark bites the dust: The old Downtown YMCA has memories that can't be replaced

Another landmark bites the dust: The old Downtown YMCA has memories that can't be replaced

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In a June 7 photo, a crane batters a the 10-story Downtown Y building. Photo by Tarra Gaines
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Reduced to rubble, the Downtown Y still holds memories. Photo by Clifford Pugh
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Despite the daily blows, the grand old building has stood tall, like a past-its-prime heavyweight that staggers under a vicious onslaught but refuses to fall until it can no longer withstand the brutal pounding. This photo was taken earlier this month. Photo by Clifford Pugh
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The distinctive letter "Y" in two-toned brick marked the building Photo by Clifford Pugh
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The distinctive entrance to the temporary living quarters Photo by Clifford Pugh
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The back side of the Y near Smith and Pease was among the first to go in May Photo by Clifford Pugh
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Photo by Tarra Gaines
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Photo by Tarra Gaines
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Old buildings die hard.

For weeks now, workers with bulldozers and wrecking balls have been chipping away at the historic Downtown YMCA building on Louisiana and Pease. Despite the daily blows, the grand old building has stood tall, like a past-its-prime heavyweight that staggers under a vicious onslaught but refuses to fall until it can no longer withstand the brutal pounding.

They don't make buildings like they used to.

The Y was special for several reasons. Designed by Kenneth Franzheim, a noted Houston architect who designed a coliseum for the 1928 Democratic National Convention in Houston, the iconic Gulf Building, the downtown Foley's building, and a host of distinctive River Oaks mansions, the 10-story building was a prime example of Renaissance Revival architecture when it opened in 1941.

Its interesting features — variated colors of brick, an Italianate patio, arched entryways, and roundel windows at the top — made it one of downtown Houston's most interesting-looking buildings.

It also served as a beacon for men with big dreams who came to Houston to make their fortune. When they were young, developer Gerald Hines and financier Fayez Sarofim were among those who found temporary lodging at the Downtown Y.

 While nearly every other city finds a way to protect buildings of historical significance, officials in Houston continually say it would cost too much to renovate such structures, so they tear them down and (as in the Y's case) put up a parking garage. 

But when officials decided to abandon the grand-but-faded old building for a gleaming new space a couple of blocks away (with no provision for temporary lodging), hardly anyone made a peep of protest. After all, this is Houston, where no one cares about saving the past.

While nearly every other city finds a way to protect buildings of historical significance, officials in Houston continually say it would cost too much to renovate such structures, so they tear them down and (as in the Y's case) put up a parking garage.

Every day, when I pass what's left of the crumbling building, I get a little sadder.

Granted, the new Y, where I occasionally teach exercise classes, is much more popular than the old building was in recent years. Classes are close to capacity and the rows of new cardio equipment, with individual TVs on each console, are filled with sweating hardbodies every night.

Even so, I hear the old-timers grumbling that the lockers are too small, the jet pressure in the whirlpool isn't nearly as forceful and you can no longer walk into the wet area nude because it's been moved to coed public spaces.

I miss the maze-like walkways of the old building, where it was still possible to make a wrong turn and get lost after two decades. I miss the big national racquetball tournament that took place every Memorial Day, drawing competitors around the nation. (It was dropped upon the move to the new Y because there aren't enough courts for such a big competition.) I miss talking with the temporary residents (some were crazy, some merely had fallen on hard times). But most of all, I miss my friend, Charlotte Fisher.

In the early '90s, I happened into an aerobics class taught by Charlotte on the third floor of the old building and made some of the most enduring friendships of my life. Charlotte dressed like the conservative lawyer she was by day but in the aerobics room she was a disco diva in bell bottom Spandex with more energy than anyone could ever hope to muster. She made exercise fun, executing the latest turns with panache and always bolstering those in the back of the room who were having trouble keeping up.

It's no wonder that she attracted a posse of enthusiastic exercise disciples whose tight bond extended beyond the Y. We partied with her at Numbers on Friday nights and had long brunches together at La Strada on Sundays. We gathered for pool parties in the summer and dance parties throughout the year. We enjoyed the thrill of new friendships, commiserated about lost loves and shared our dreams for the future.

We eventually grew up — Charlotte married attorney Norman Ewart and had two adorable babies, but she didn't really change that much. She was always the most fun person to be around a party and regularly hosted aerobics sessions in the garage of her home near Memorial Park, where she continued to draw an eclectic mix of friends and followers. So you can understand how shocked we were when she died earlier this year after complaining of stomach pains and entering the hospital for what was expected to be routine surgery. She was a week away from her 44th birthday.

When I drive by the old downtown Y and see the rubble of brick growing larger every day, I think of Charlotte and the good times the building represents and can't help but smile. Even though the structure will soon disappear, those memories won't easily be wiped away, although I realize they will fade away over time.

I'm not a lawbreaker by nature, but the other night I snuck into the rubble and took a brick as a tangible reminder of that special place.