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A fond goodbye to an old Y

A 1927 landmark that hosted nude swimming, teen parties and, of course, sports and fitness will largely close.

By JON WILSON

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 12, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- You can buy some exercise equipment cheap.

The natatorium -- a swimming pool to most folks -- awaits its last drip-drying stroker.

The old gym and its squeaky wooden floor already has turned eerily quiet.

After 74 years as a recreation hub for generations of St. Petersburg residents, the downtown YMCA will close at 9 p.m. Friday.

Soon to take its place is the new Jim and Heather Gills Family YMCA, 3200 First Ave. S, scheduled to open for current Y members on Oct. 1. The general opening is Oct. 8.

The Spanish-style building, constructed for $550,000 during the city's 1920s boom, remains for sale. It has not been an easy sell because any prospective purchaser faces extensive renovations.

But buyers are interested and a deal is expected soon, said Doug Linder, the Y's chief executive officer. One suitor, whom Linder declined to identify early this week, is particularly interested.

In a sense, the old Y's programs are tapering off rather than coming to a dead stop.

Starting Oct. 1, part of the building at 116 Fifth St. S will open temporarily so handball and racquetball players can use the courts. Cost is $50 per month for individuals, $65 for families. Non-members will be charged $15 per visit.

Thirty days' notice will be given when the old Y is ready to close completely, Linder said.

When it opened on June 20, 1927, after nearly two years of construction, it offered the pool, gymnastics classes, a baseball league, boxing and wrestling. It also rented rooms, typical of YMCAs worldwide, and continued to do so until 1989.

The four-wall handball courts, built in 1953, were said to be the first such courts on Florida's west coast.

The Young Men's Christian Association's name implied that the programs were mostly for males, and such was the case for years.

"That was our boys club, so to speak," said Bob Bamond, a retired St. Petersburg lawyer who joined the Y in 1932. "I grew up in the Y. Back in the Depression, it was our home away from home.

Bamond recalled one of his youthful escapades, climbing out on the Y's roof and scuttling clear over to the roof of the Tramor Cafeteria, which faced Fourth Street S on the other side of the block.

"There was a gym, a track upstairs, and we swam in the pool with no clothes on," Bamond said.

Nude swimming was common for years in YMCAs everywhere, Linder said. In the national organization's early days, usual swimming attire meant a wool suit for males. The lint clogged the pool's water filters.

The Y experienced some tight moments during the Great Depression, and the building went up for public auction in 1938 because of debt. Boomtime pledges a decade earlier couldn't be collected and New York Life Insurance Co., a lender, foreclosed. But trustees saved the day when they pooled resources to buy the building on the courthouse steps for $130,000, according to newspaper reports of the day.

Bamond served during World War II, went to law school and eventually re-joined the Y about 1960. He became part of a group of downtown businessmen, lawyers and judges that have played badminton in the Y since the 1950s.

That tradition will continue at the new building. Program officials and the players met to determine the color of the walls "so we could see the bird," Bamond said.

"Lots of the old guys just kicked off. I'm probably one of the older ones still left," said Bamond, 78.

Activities for women and girls were added over the years. By the early 1960s, fitness, dancing and trampoline classes were a regular part of the Y's program.

Judo was a staple for years, taught by Taizo Sone, whose family also owned an Asian gift shop downtown. Dewey Mitchell, who was captain of the United States judo team at the 1984 Olympics, worked out at the Y.

One of the Y's prouder moments came in 1960 when the gymnastics team was a surprise winner of the state championship, upsetting former national champion Florida State University.

Sometimes activities branched away from sports. Oil painting classes and ballroom dancing had their day.

And as rock 'n' roll began sweeping St. Petersburg during the mid 1950s, Saturday night "platter parties" became a regular destination for the city's teens. In 1956, the year Elvis Presley made his first appearance in St. Petersburg, an estimated 30,000 youngsters attended hops at the Y.

In 1991, the building, which has five stories including the tower, served as one of the settings in the movie Hidden Fears.

Producers thoughts its age and atmosphere would play well on film, but it was that same antiquity that made a real-life move to new quarters necessary.

"The maintenance is out of sight. You can't meet the needs of a YMCA that needs to thrive. The gym's too small, the pool's too small. It's just past its prime in terms of rehabilitation," Linder said.

There appears to be no danger -- at least for now -- that the Y will be torn down, although such talk surfaced a few weeks ago. The 46,000-square-foot building was granted a local historic designation in 1991.

"There's no question it should be preserved," Linder said.

Dates to remember

Friday: Downtown YMCA closes most operations at 9 p.m.

Oct. 1: New YMCA at 3200 First Ave. S holds its "soft" opening for current members. Also, the old Y at 116 Fifth St. S will reopen temporarily to accommodate handball and racquetball players.

Oct. 8: New YMCA holds its general opening for the rest of the public.

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