Thursday, January 26, 2012

100th Post: Downtown Dreams

Someone caught a big time fish.
Over the course of the last three years and 99 posts, I've been to a lot of forlorn places. I've seen broken windows, fallen bricks, crumbling mortar, long-dead dreams, ghost signs, signs of ghosts, signs of future ghosts. Whole buildings missing like teeth. Parking lots put in their places. Main Streets empty of the souls they were built for.

Lots of forlorn places.
This isn't one of them.

Today, we're going to talk about a YMCA. I'm surprised I haven't spoken about them before, actually. The Young Men's Christian Association started in 1844 and established activity centers in the hearts of American cities great and small. Their buildings were usually multistory and grand - here's a good example from Norfolk, Virginia. And another here.

Google Map
Today, Ys look like that (above), if they still exist. In a lot of places, Little Rock included, the YMCA is a dying breed. Actually the above Y was the last one in Little Rock and it closed in December.

Google Map
The Y first showed up in Little Rock in 1885. Downtown went through three buildings since then, with the first one burning around 1915, the second built not far from there, and a third built in 1928 a few blocks from the second. We're talking about the third one.

If you squint, you can read the letters.
It was a fixture of downtown Little Rock. When Bill Clinton was governor, he would jog on the roof. In the 80s a TV movie was filmed inside. But by then white flight had bled downtown of all of its residents, and the Y was forced to close the building due to lack of interest.

It sat like that for 20 years.

Until 2010, that is, when Brad and Shellie Barnett bought the building from a holding company that hadn't put it to any good use. The roof was leaking, the paint was chipping, etc., etc. But that didn't matter to them. To them, the YMCA was a spark of life for a downtown Little Rock that desperately needed it.

So the Barnetts are repairing the YMCA. They live inside. Brad has an insurance agency on the first floor, and some businesses will be moving in later this year. I called the Barnetts, and they graciously gave me a tour of the building. It's really like nothing you've ever seen before.

The mission-style elements are everywhere, mixed in with fanciful Greek reliefs and columns. It feels like a hybrid of an Italian palazzo, a Spanish mission and the palace at Minos.

Oh. And the tile work.

It's amazing, and it's everywhere, absolutely everywhere. Just look at that staircase, where every step has a different design. (By an odd quirk, Shellie told me, the city still technically owns the tile work.) And check out this gem:

This would have meant something entirely different in 1928 than it does now. Besides that, the floor tiles are covered with symbols like the fleur de lis and others. All different. Everywhere.

There's a plaza in the center with a fountain:

The fountain looks like this
You can walk on some of the rooftops:

Work in progress, of course.
The above shot was formerly walled in and covered with cheap, 1970s materials. When it was taken out the Barnetts were surprised to find the beautiful floor tiles you can see there. (The 1970s addition looked like this.)

Did I mention there's a pool?

It's tough to see by looking at the pictures, but the whole thing is made of tile. The floor, the sides, everything. Shellie told me some of the pool experts she had visit were completely dumbfounded by that detail. Interestingly, one stipulation of the Barnetts using the building was that they must only use the pool for personal purposes. I know, right?

There's a bunch more that I didn't get to see, like an old basketball court and the rooms where people would spend the night (It's fun to stay at the YMCA, remember?). Here are some more exterior shots:

Bricks and Gutters

The plans call this a "balcony," but I wouldn't stand on it

You can see Regions Bank photobombing there

Left bars are original, right are near-perfect reconstruction

A new lantern, hand-made

More ornate bars


Ahh. I could go on and on. The Barnetts are really doing something wonderful here, and I love their enthusiasm for something that is greatly in need of enthusiasm. The YMCA might be dying, but the built legacy it left behind won't be dead anytime soon. I hope more people go downtown because of their efforts.

For some more (awesome) pictures of the old building, check out this gallery. They were taken by Paul Henry, chairman of the Little Rock YMCA board, in 2009, long before the Barnett's work began.


1 comment:

Barbara Duncan said...

Great blog, Luke. Too bad little biddy towns like I grew up in didn't have places like this.