The Story Behind the Historic Hollywood YMCA
April 12, 2017
The YMCA in Hollywood is a huge deal for a number of reasons, but here are two big ones. Firstly, as a Class A building it has major curb appeal. And secondly, it was designed by the legendary and prolific architect Paul R. Williams, a trailblazer in all senses.
Paul Revere Williams, born in Los Angeles on February 18, 1894, became the first black member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) in 1923. “I cannot stress enough how important Paul Williams is to the history of architecture in the country let alone the history of architecture in Los Angeles,” explains Hollywood Heritage co-founder Christy McAvoy. “His career in the national history rivals that of people like Frank Lloyd Wright,” she continues.
Tenacity, charm, self-confidence, talent: these four traits served him well in dealing with his well-heeled clientele. Although he built homes for celebrities including (deep breath) Barbara Stanwyck, Bert Lahr, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Charles Correll, Danny Thomas, Frank Sinatra, Grace Moore, Julie London, Leon Errol, Lon Chaney, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Tyrone Power, Will Hays, and Zasu Pitts; Williams supposedly rarely discussed his wealthy clients and his real sympathies were with the poor.
“He was a very community-minded architect,” says McAvoy. “He took commissions that would help the people of Los Angeles, not just the rich and famous. He designed a lot of celebrity houses and houses for very rich people but he also in his own community designed banks and insurance buildings and schools and funeral homes. This is a man who was giving back even as he was climbing the ladder, despite racial prejudice.”
The Hollywood Y was one of many popular men’s clubs built in 1920s Los Angeles that encouraged social, moral and physical development through physical fitness (this group also included the Athletic Club on Sunset Boulevard). Built in 1921 on the undeveloped Thomas Hudson property, the original much smaller Hollywood YMCA building was designed by the Los Angeles architectural firm Hunt and Burns.
Unable to serve its growing membership, the Hollywood YMCA raised funds by appealing to important members of the entertainment industry stressing the value of the organization as a “wholesome alternative to the young’s wild and out-of-control” interest in the violent sport of boxing. Even the local clergy touted the need for the Y in their Sunday sermons saying, “Hollywood would be better off with the YMCA than a fire department.” (Gregory Paul Williams. The Story of Hollywood: An Illustrated History, 2011)
In 1927 Paul R. Williams’ firm was hired to expand and improve on the Hunt and Burns original design. The Williams’ building opened in 1928. “This building is important to Hollywood because it’s a significant community institution built when Hollywood was coming into its own as a Golden Age,” explains McAvoy. “So you have this major community institution being built by the players in Hollywood who were funding it. But in any community a building of this size and this type would be a major endeavor.”
By the mid 1920s, the film industry was starting to contribute to the community’s welfare. “There was a lot of money for civic endeavors fueled by the new infusion of capital,” says McAvoy. There was another building down the street—the Hollywood Athletic Club—that was being built concurrently. “The fact that two institutions are going up at the same time across the street from each other just shows that people were thinking about the community and where the recreational spaces were going to be and who was going to be able to participate,” explains McAvoy.
The addition of the YMCA was a signal that Hollywood had arrived. “You needed a critical mass to have a building of this size. They were strategically placing their institutions to serve the community of Los Angeles,” explains McAvoy. “As their buildings went into major neighborhoods, it’s a mark of a community institution that has a lot of pull and is doing a lot of good work. In Hollywood in those years, they were looking to establish themselves as a premier community among many in Los Angeles,” McAvoy explains.
In designing this newer and bigger facility, Williams built on his earlier success with the African American 28th Street YMCA. “While Paul Williams did other YMCAs in Los Angeles this was a signature statement for everyone that was involved: the promoters of the building, the architects, the contractors, everybody did their best work here,” explains McAvoy. “The materials are superior, the architects are superior, the layout is superior, what it did for the community is superior. That’s the reason it’s on the National Register of Historic Places, not just as a contributor to a district, but as a standalone building. It has significance in and of itself for its architecture and its community cultural resources. This is a star,” continues McAvoy.
Though both buildings shared the same popular Spanish Colonial Revival-style, served like purposes, and had similar ceramic and terra-cotta interior decorative details, there was one major difference. While the 28th Street branch had two main entries, the Hollywood Y had only one. Williams reconsidered how and why users circulate in a building allowing him to create a more useful design. “What he did was that he figured out what the population of who the user was,” explains McAvoy. “So you have good public spaces in this building: the recreational and residential spaces, the pool and the running track, the basketball court—those were all major spaces that were very well designed.”
Back then, the Hollywood Y used to be strictly a men’s hangout. For working class (male) Angelenos, part of the Y’s appeal was that it catered to everyone, especially those short on dough. And there were a lot of working class families in Hollywood: not everyone was a star. “A lot of workers in the film industry were working class families in small bungalows whose children went to Hollywood High with the elite families that lived in the hills. Not everybody was famous,” explains McAvoy. “And even people that became famous later, like Carol Burnett, those are people that didn’t have anything when they were here. She became a star later.”
No YMCA is the same, each adapting to the particular needs of the local community—and the realities of the era. As the demographic of the neighborhood changed so did the Y. “I think that’s really important because the Y has widened its clientele—it moved with the times by allowing women and men,” explains McAvoy. These days, while the night-lighted rooftop jogging track is no longer, the Hollywood Y has expanded beyond being just a gym. It now offers a range of adult and youth programs and services—from various spinning, Pilates, yoga and swim classes to child care services and day camps, along with family-focused events on the front lawn, slap bang in the heart of Hollywood.
Williams, who had several types of practice, displayed a similar versatility. “He had the celebrity clientele and they liked him because the houses were beautiful and had gorgeous details. They had good construction and he was a nice guy to deal with and so on, but he also did a lot of commercial and institutional work. He gave the same fine detail to that. He also was someone who was very collaborative. He had a very long career and worked into the 60s and 70s, often with several architects on municipal projects, and was still moving with the times,” says McAvoy.
The architect’s granddaughter, Karen Hudson, estimates that Williams was involved in 3,000 projects. In addition to his many residential projects, he is credited with the design of the LAX Theme Building. “Because there are thousands of Williams buildings, some people say that denigrates his significance, but it doesn’t. He was just a very prolific architect of extraordinarily high quality,” says McAvoy. It’s also worth remembering that the private homes he designed in Hollywood, Midtown, The Verdugos, San Gabriel Valley, and the Westside were in areas effectively off-limits to would-be black homeowners. And he rode to them on Los Angeles’s segregated streetcars. Paul Williams left more than elegant buildings as his legacy: his quiet, unspoken struggle against racism continues to inspire today.
1553 Schrader Blvd.
Los Angeles is both muse and home for British-born culture journalist Richard Bence. His mission is to chronicle and unearth the hidden stories of Hollywood with a special focus on its heritage. He has a passion for preservation, loves all things midcentury and enjoys getting close to nature on a canyon hike or lapping up the architectural riches of the city he calls home. He contributes to Monocle, Monocle 24 and United’s Rhapsody magazine. richard-bence.com