City of Frankfort Seeks Demolition of Old YMCA

At the Old YMCA in Frankfort. Franklin County Trust for Historic Preservation.

Young man, there’s no need to feel down.
I said, young man, pick yourself off the ground.
I said, young man, ’cause you’re in a new town
There’s no need to be unhappy.

If the Village People’s young man is a historic preservationist, then he might be unhappy. Especially if his new town is Frankfort, Kentucky.

That’s because nearly a week ago, on August 24, the city issued a letter to the owner of the Old YMCA on Bridge Street that the property owner had one week to either demolish the structure or to appeal the city’s decision. If neither occurs by the deadline, the city may take action to demolish the structure on its own.

The city is acting under its nuisance ordinance which provides for immediate demolition if the structure is viewed as being an “imminent danger.” Especially convenient is that such a designation eliminates the role and review conducted by the local Architectural Review Board.

If you don’t like the idea of a demolition of a historic structure occurring under the cover of darkness, this story is of importance to you.

The Old YMCA in the 1970s.  Franklin County Trust for Historic Preservation.

A City’s Repeated Attempt at Demolition

Now, this isn’t the first time the historic circa 1911 structure has faced the prospect of the wrecking ball. In 1971, the new YMCA opened in downtown Frankfort leaving the old location vacant for the first time in sixty years. The building served as office space for a number of years, but then it sat empty for many years as well.

In 2007, the structure faced demolition. The city went so far as to obtain bids for demolition. The low bid came in at $186,000, but city commissioners halted demolition and instead sold the property to preservationist John Gray. Gray’s company, Old Y, LLC, for $1. Old Y had 2 years to revitalize the project. Of course, the economic of collapse of 2008 intervened and development could not timely occur.

The State Journal reported that the fate of the building was “in question again” in 2011, while the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation included the Old YMCA in 2015 on its endangered list. In 2015, the BGT wrote of the property

The 1911 Old YMCA at 104 Bridge Street in Frankfort, designed in the Beaux Arts style by a a Frankfort architect, was a state-of-the-art facility featuring a gymnasium, indoor swimming pool, bowling alley, meeting rooms and guest quarters. While a local developer is hoping to transform it into a boutique hotel, there is also a push by the city of Frankfort to demolish this structure. If saved, this could be a transformative project in our capital city.

Old Frankfort YMCA. Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation

A Historic Structure

At over 100 years old, the Old YMCA is more than just ‘old’. It is historic. The building’s importance and its unique position was best described by Eric Whisman, the President of the Franklin County Trust for Historic Preservation in an opinion piece published in the State Journal. So well stated, much of Eric’s text is included below:

The Old YMCA was designed by someone significant to the history of Frankfort. This is part of the additional criteria used to determine whether a building has historic significance. The work of Frankfort’s architect, Leo Oberwarth, as well as that of his son, Julian, is important to our community and is much of what makes our City special and unique. … Leo Oberwarth was a personal friend of Paul Sawyier, another person of historic significance to our community. One could argue that they both provided us with the “sense of place” that we call home.

The Old YMCA has architectural integrity. Despite decades of neglect, much of its original architectural character remains. Its Beaux Arts design is evident and someone with training would be able to look at this building and tell you the approximate construction date which was 1910. That means it provides an opportunity to teach us something about our past, and it should be considered a cultural resource. This is yet another reason it meets the definition of a “historic” structure. The front portion of the structure is solidly intact with interior features of arches, moulding, trim, and re-lights that were visible to the public as recently as the ‘Designer Showcase,’ in 2011. For the temporary use application permitting that event, structural assessments were done and validated by licensed engineers. The gymnasium space and third floor guest rooms to the rear are not stable for access as they have experienced the most deterioration due to a failure of the roof deck. But the masonry walls remain intact, which is a testament to the quality of the original construction.

The Old Y, with two other public facilities, including the Governor’s Mansion and the downtown train depot, were part of a capital construction campaign spurred by the building of the new Capital’s. These public facilities have defined and served our community for generations. Many still recall utilizing the Old YMCA before its replacement by a modern ‘new Y’ which was developed as a part of the Edward Durell Stone Capital Plaza development.

While unfortunate that the flood wall was placed where it was, it allows the building, which has already withstood seven significant floods (over 40’ major flood stage), to continue to offer the rare amenity of a water side terrace and a riverside landing area with a designed stairway to communicate up the steep bank. And it is a privilege of the historic structure to be able to place these amenities back in service, as new construction would not be allowed within the flood plain. This offers another important opportunity for the downtown Commercial district to connect to the potential of the riverfront.

A Call to Action

The Old YMCA remains, for now. As noted, the existing structure is the highest and best use for the site given its location in a flood plain — new construction is simply not an option. The city would be better served by spending $200,000 in improving the structure rather than demolishing it which can provide no return on investment and no increased future tax revenues. Economics favors preservation, especially with regard to this project.

So what can you do? A few things, really.

  1. Stay tuned for updates. On Facebook, follow the KaintuckeeanBlue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation, the Franklin County Trust for Historic Preservation, and the Kentucky Heritage Council. (There are others to follow as well, but this is a good start!)
  2. Share the updates with those you know who share a passion for history and historic preservation. Rinse and repeat.
  3. Especially if you’re a Frankforter, contact your city commissioners. Encourage them to save the  Old YMCA. 
  4. If you’re not a Frankforter, contact any Frankforter you know about #3. Then repeat #s 1 and 2.

Old YMCA Building in the 1970s. Franklin County Trust for Historic Preservation.