- Manhood Factories: YMCA Architecture and the Making of Modern Culture
This very interesting book shows how YMCA buildings played a prominent role in the development of small and large cities across the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But more, it is a book about how the YMCA both fitted into and helped to create the culture of modern urban life. In five chapters and an epilogue, Lupkin takes an American studies approach that looks to architectural history but goes well beyond its traditional limits.
In the first chapter, Lupkin describes the motivations of the YMCA’s founders. The organization dates from before the Civil War, when it attempted to draw young men from “rowdy concerts . . . and other commercial entertainments” to obey the strictures of a Christian life. YMCA organizers wanted to provide alternatives to the lure of billiard rooms, bowling alleys, oyster cellars, and drinking shops and to dissuade young men from engaging with prostitutes, drinking alcohol, or enjoying the concert-saloon with its pretty “waiter girls” (9). The sporting life was also attractive to young men, but the entertainments that most drew their attention were events like dogfights and other occasions for gambling.
After the Civil War, the YMCA was reborn and in New York asserted its presence with a grand new Christian clubhouse for young men at East 23rd Street and Fourth Avenue. Protestants understood the power of architectural space from their experiences with church buildings, Sunday schools, and camp meeting grounds and thus believed that the architecture of YMCA buildings could be influential in bringing young men to a new sense of Christian responsibility. The Y “spatially and conceptually restructured male identity, respectability, and leisure when it built its new headquarters within the emerging culture of corporate capitalism” (2).
Lupkin then investigates the architectural ideas that supported this Christian regime. Called by a contemporary critic “one of our finest modern erections,” the YMCA building in New York was opened in 1869. It had a Second Empire façade, elaborate circulation that connected public and private spaces on five floors, a library, a gymnasium, classrooms, a large lecture hall, an art gallery, and artists’ studios (37). This new type of building seemed to have no precedents; contemporaries noted that it was not a charity, not a hospital or college, not a church, yet [End Page 101] combined almost all the ideas that were represented by such buildings.
The YMCA became a site for religious purposes put to practical needs. The building would socialize the city’s growing population of clerks in a clubhouse for Christians. Lupkin argues that earlier evangelicals had found their relationship with the material world to be problematic and tried to separate morals and religion from the commercial space of the city. The new Y, however, incorporated moral principles into the commercial landscape. Instead of a landscape of vice that Protestants had previously seen in the sporting life of the city, the organizers of the YMCA tried to create a male environment in which leisure pleasures and physical culture could be respectable activities for young men. Lupkin traces the building process in the thinking of the Y’s building committee and the ideas of James Renwick, the designer, who had a history of working on architectural reform projects like hospitals and educational facilities. YMCA organizer Robert McBurney conceptualized the program for the YMCA along with William E. Dodge Jr. and J. P. Morgan.
Paula Lupkin has painstakingly reconstructed the history of YMCA architecture in the absence of any centralized institutional records of the numerous buildings that were erected. Sometimes earlier buildings were designed in a popular historicizing style such as the 1869 New York YMCA. But by the turn of the century YMCA buildings were rectilinear red-brick blocks with horizontal cornices and regular rows of windows that made them fit easily into small cities’ streetscapes. For example...