Looking back on... Downey Family YMCA

DOWNEY - It was the late 1930s when Harold Wagner made a persuasive pitch to Hubert C. Noble - bring the YMCA to Downey.Howbeit a simple suggestion, the act would alter Downey history, further defining the emerging city, which would soon welcome an expanding community organization with the modest goal of helping local families develop positive values while striving for peak physical fitness. Hoping to help enlarge the breadth of the Young Men's Christian Association, Wagner, an influential executive of the YMCA of Metropolitan Los Angeles, approached Noble, a former Occidental College classmate, with his idea. Convinced that the young boys of Downey could benefit from such club activities, Noble, a college instructor and early pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Downey, opened up the church basement and invited the community, as well as several church members, to help establish what would eventually become the Downey Family YMCA. With just two small basement rooms at its disposal, the Downey YMCA, first incorporated as an extension of the Y branch in Huntington Park, began establishing clubs for grade school boys around town. By April 29, 1941, plans for a permanent facility were initiated after a group of 29 men and women met in the church basement to discuss the future of the Y in Downey. Their expansion plan estimated that a Downey branch would cost nearly $5000 a year to operate, but nonetheless, the founding members, many of whom were parents, banded together and began the development process. The Y's first office was in the old Downey Paint Center. Later, the small office was moved to the second floor of the Masonic Temple at Third Street and Downey Avenue. By 1947, the new board members had acquired a make-shift office and club room building on the corner of Second and Myrtle streets purchased from Downey's first mayor, James L. Stamps. Pat Kearns, 77, remembers visiting the Y almost every other night as a kid growing up in Downey. "The organization was different then - it was organized for sports. You'd stop by and pick up a basketball or football with guys you knew would be there," said Kearns who now lives in Seal Beach. "It was very social. Everybody I ran around with then was in the Y and there were sub groups of the Y for separate ages. There were girl clubs too." With only a half basketball court and limited space outside for games and recreation, board members soon realized that the small location would not be able to accommodate the growing club much longer. Concerned that prime downtown real estate would soon be developed, several members, lead by Stamps himself, began scouting out potential sites with enough acreage to allow for future development. In the summer of 1955, board members settled on a 2.2 acre plot on the 11500 block of Downey Avenue. The site, which is the present location of the Downey Y, was purchased that August for nearly $67,000 from Dr. W. Ward Altig, a local family practitioner who had lived in the home for six years before the sale. Dick Altig, son of Dr. Altig, remembers living in the home, which he believes his father sold for a considerable discount to help Stamps establish a permanent home for the YMCA. "The house was of colonial architecture, three stories high, painted white with green shutters," recalled Altig. "The property had a lighted tennis court, an in-ground swimming pool, horse stables, a well for irrigation…the grounds were manicured by a resident professional and it was considered the showplace of Downey homes at that time." Soon after the purchase, the Y moved its offices from Second and Myrtle to the Altig mansion, which underwent some minor alterations in order to provide meeting rooms for the expanding Y clubs. Following the transition, Stamps donated the old YMCA property to the Arc of Southeast Los Angeles County to help establish its first office in 1956. For 20 years, the old home served as the operating center for the YMCA, but as more families began moving into Downey neighborhoods, the demand for more space began pressuring Y leadership to replace the aging residence with modern facilities. By February 1962, a well-prepared and organized building campaign had finally launched and a goal of $262,000 was set by board members, who entrusted E.H. Clark Jr. with the task of leading the effort. Along with Board Chairman J. Donald Fisher and an army of 463 campaign volunteers, Clark, who went on to serve as Chairman of the Board of the YMCA of the USA, witnessed firsthand the generosity of the Downey community. A new 20,000-square-foot facility was dedicated in September 1963, built next door to the Altig residence at a cost of $432,000. Following the addition of the new office space, members of the community began to voice their desire for comprehensive health and physical education programs for the entire family at the YMCA. In June 1970, Board Chairman Jim Ply appointed a study committee to assess the Y's role in serving the Downey community going forward. With the help of Clark, the YMCA Board conducted an in-depth study of the feasibility of the Downey Y expanding to a full-service branch with complete physical education facilities for boys, girls, men and women. The results of the study were conclusive and favorable towards further expansion. From the fall of 1973 to spring 1974, a new fundraising campaign was introduced with the goal of raising no less than $2,250,000. Led by Clark and Campaign Chairman Fred Simpson, the campaign would become one of the most successful fundraising efforts in Downey's early history. In 1975, the Altig home was razed and in January 1976, construction began on the YMCA's nearly 44,000-sqaure-foot physical education building. At its conclusion, Downey had one of the largest and most complete YMCA facilities in the western United States. Today, the Downey Family YMCA has nearly 15,000 members, serves more than 2,400 family units and offers dozens of programs for all ages. With a city-wide childcare program, youth sports teams, summer camps, and physical education classes, the Y currently employs 110 staff members and utilizes a large force of nearly 600 volunteers every year. Moreover, the Downey YMCA demonstrates just how vital community organizations can be during the development of a city. Determined to help provide positive extracurricular activities for kids, those 29 founding members of the Y not only created programs to help their own children, but they paved the way for future Downey families who can now depend on the same essential amenities.

********** Published: March 17, 2011 - Volume 9 - Issue 48