By KATIE MOEN
For The Westfield Leader
WESTFIELD — In the spring of 1927, a group of Westfield residents took to the streets in celebration of a job well done. They paraded through town by torch light, reveling in their success. In just 10 days, they had managed to raise enough money and community support to build a state-of-the-art recreation center that would, according to historical documentation, “discourage Westfield boys from hanging out on street corners by providing them with a place for constructive activities.”
Workers broke ground on the new project just a few months later. The Westfield Area YMCA officially opened its doors in 1929 to a plethora of community support. The facility, comprised of 36 dormitory rooms, a bowling alley, a large gymnasium, an indoor swimming pool, assembly rooms and other various amenities, served 325 members in its first year.
And while the town may have changed considerably over the course of the past century, Westfield remains as dedicated to its local Y as ever.
Last week, the Westfield Area YMCA, which now serves more than 9,000 members from Westfield, Cranford, Garwood and Mountainside, celebrated the 100th anniversary of the organization’s official incorporation with a festive dinner and a walk down memory lane.
“The Westfield Area Y nurtures everyone’s potential, improves our community’s health and well-being and gives back to our neighbors. Through the decades, we have been fortunate to have strong and dedicated Y board and staff leadership who have strived to meet and anticipate the needs of our growing and ever-changing community,” Board Chair Dominic DiGiorgio said.
Preparations for the centennial celebration have been underway for some time, said Marla Itzkin, the Y’s associate director of communications and development.
“Our heritage as a cause-driven organization has always made us proud, and we couldn’t wait to celebrate and commemorate 100 years of service to the community. We began discussions early last year as part of our long-term strategic-planning process and then held brainstorming sessions with our staff and volunteer committee members,” Ms. Itzkin said. “We felt it was important, with so many constituents of every age and life stage, that this theme be woven into classes, programs, events, and everything that we do throughout the year.”
Two time capsules (one dating back to the building’s groundbreaking ceremony in the late 1920s and another that was sealed up in commemoration of the organization’s 50th anniversary) were unearthed in honor of this year’s milestone.
The small metal boxes, which contained everything from photographs and mementos to old copies of The Westfield Leader and early promotional materials, were found by the YMCA grounds crew behind two of the building’s cornerstones.
“Everyone was so excited to see these boxes,” Ms. Itzkin said. “We’re planning to re-seal them and add a few new memories of our own.”
According to information provided by the Y, the organization first took root in Westfield in 1868 when a group of Christian laymen established a YMCA as a haven for men under the age of 40 who were “of good standing of an Evangelical church.”
The organization continued to grow in popularity until the 1890s, when a group of its members banded together to build the town’s first recreation center. The building, located on Elm Street and dubbed “The Old Gale Clubhouse,” quickly proved inadequate, however, and it was ultimately demolished just a few years after it was built.
Then, in 1923, a board of directors and a board of trustees were established to oversee development of the present organization, marking the formal beginning of today’s Westfield Area YMCA. An annual budget of $5,225 was approved and the association’s Finance Committee organized a fund-raising campaign. In November 1924, the board of directors authorized the purchase of the Trevenen property, formerly the Clark Homestead. The land was acquired for $18,000, contributed by members of the board and other supporters.
According to information provided by the Westfield Area Y, “a memorable, 10-day Building Campaign” was held in 1927. Daily fundraiser tallies were recorded on a 60-foot scoreboard, carefully positioned on the south side of the railroad tracks so as to attract extra attention from passing commuters.
The drive netted a total of $304,512 — which equates to roughly $5,309,061.72 today. The community celebrated its achievements with an impromptu parade through town, the events of which were chronicled in the same 1929 edition of The Westfield Leader that was pulled from the organization’s inaugural time capsule earlier this month.
Membership and interest in the project soared. It was, as representatives from the organization stated on their website, “an auspicious beginning.”
Just one year later, however, the country found itself grappling with the onset of the Great Depression.
Membership renewals and contributions declined, single-room occupancy dormitory rooms were vacant, operating deficits piled up, and fund-raising efforts failed. According to historical information provided by the Y, the directors considered closing the building but determined it would be an “irreparable loss” to the community. After several challenging years, the organization pulled through and went on to leave its impact on generations of local families.
“Should I start with the fact that I learned to swim there? Maybe I should mention that during the Summer of 1963, before starting college, I had my first job as a counselor in the day camp program,” said Westfield resident and longtime YMCA member Thomas Phelan, whose father occupied one of the building’s original dormitories back in 1929. Mr. Phelan, whose children and grandchildren also have grown up with the organization, shared his story as part of the centennial festivities.
To hit a few of the organization’s other big highlights, the board of directors approved the creation of a provisional Young Women’s Christian Association in Westfield for women and girls in 1930. The Wallace Pool (the facility’s second indoor pool) opened in 1960. In 1968, the Y took swimming on the road with the Westfield “Y” Swimmobile making rounds at local playgrounds. The 50th anniversary was celebrated in 1973 and the first woman joined the board of directors in 1975. The Y opened its first preschool class in 1982, after-school programs began in 1983, and the first full-day child-care class started in 1987 with 16 children. Single-room occupancy facilities, available since 1929, were phased out by the early 1990s and replaced with an upper-floor fitness studio.
The organization remains committed to the greater Westfield community to this day.
“We offer programs, services and facilities that reflect the changing needs of our community — generation after generation. We have a caring and dedicated group of staff, volunteers, members, donors and community partners,” said Westfield Area YMCA CEO Mark Elsasser. “Our mission and long-term strategic plan keep us focused as a cause-driven, non-profit organization. We are proud of the impact we have and are humbled by the continued support of the community.”
To learn more about the Westfield Area YMCA or to participate in any of this summer’s upcoming events, visit: westfieldynj.org.
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