Note: This is the first blog in a series this month for #ThisPlaceMattersHsv. Check back every Friday at 10 a.m. in May for a new feature on City Blog.
Janet Watson will never forget the day she walked into the old Central YMCA on Greene Street.
Although the outside was structurally sound, the interior was a different story.
“Oh my goodness, it was a wreck,” Watson said. “You would not believe it.”
The building was a disaster zone, with pigeons, broken windows and squatters living inside. But as she, her late husband, Buck, and Huntsville realtor Bonnie Hettinger walked around, they saw the building for what it could be.
“Most of it was still in-tact and we could see that,” she said. “Through a lot of stripper and elbow grease, you could reclaim parts of the building.”
Before they left that day, the couple knew they wanted to restore the facility where for decades people swam, played basketball and enjoyed each other’s company.
Central YMCA a ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity
So, in 1999, Buck and an investment group purchased the shuttered building for $400,000. Buck, a longtime attorney, soon began working with Fuqua & Partners Architects to combine historical elements of the property into a workable retrofit for modern use as an office facility.
“It seemed like an opportunity that only comes along once in a lifetime to buy something like that,” Watson said. “Something that you can use and you can renovate.”
The former Central YMCA, originally designed by architect Edgar Love, opened in 1912 and cost $35,000. When the Watson family and partners acquired it 87 years later, they wanted to preserve every historical element possible.
It seemed like an opportunity that only comes along once in a lifetime to buy something like that.”
Using an old color YMCA postcard their receptionist, Marcia Perkins, found at the local library, they began the painstaking process of restoring the building to its original state.
The team uncovered numerous treasures, including historical documents, photos, an old ledger book and a host of basketball trophies. They even found hidden pocket doors within the wall while renovating.
“The hidden pocket doors were a wonderful historic find,” Watson said. “They are huge paneled wooden doors on a track the full width of the rooms, combining two into one, encompassing almost the entire length of the front of the building’s second floor.”
‘Withstood the test of time’
The building, which reopened in 2001, is now home to DealNews and Regenesis Stem Cell Center, both Huntsville-based, cutting-edge technology companies.
Rebekah McKinney, Buck and Janet’s daughter and a shareholder at Watson McKinney LLP, became part owner of the structure shortly after it opened. Although her law office no longer operates there, she’s still in awe of the space.
Looking back, she said, “You would never be able to build that building again.”
“The materials that were used would be unaffordable today,” McKinney said. “The roof would be very difficult to put on another building. It’s withstood the test of time and continues to do so.”
Watson said without Hettinger, the wife of former Huntsville Mayor Steve Hettinger, the future of the old YMCA would be uncertain.
“If it hadn’t been for Bonnie’s quick action, someone else might have scooped up the property, and it might not have been historically rehabilitated,” she said.
Women’s Suffrage Movement
Another unique element of the Central YMCA space is its connection to the Women’s Suffrage Movement, when activists fought for women’s right to vote.
Donna Castellano, executive director of the Historic Huntsville Foundation, recently discovered suffragists held meetings there after it opened in 1912. The group, known as the Huntsville Equal Suffrage Association, promoted subjects that would make Alabama and the nation a better, fairer place to live.
“When you lay out the issues that they were thinking about – sanitation, healthier environments for children, healthcare – these are the issues that build a community,” Castellano said. “They were looking at our civic life and that’s just as important as founding a bank.”
After hosting a couple of meetings there, Castellano said the group wanted to make Central YMCA its permanent meeting space. Unfortunately, the YMCA Board of Directors denied the request because the group was too “political,” Castellano said.
This is a chapter of Huntsville history that needs to be written and needs to be available to the public.”
They went on to temporarily meet at the home of Marie Shelby Pleasants, who lived on Walker Avenue. Ellelee Humes later opened her home on McClung Avenue as a permanent meeting space for the group. Both structures are still standing today.
2020 marks 100 years since the passage of the 19th Amendment allowing women to vote. Despite Huntsville’s preservation efforts, Castellano said the City’s female suffragists are largely unknown.
“This is really an opportunity to right that wrong,” she said. “This is a chapter of Huntsville history that needs to be written and needs to be available to the public.”
When Watson and McKinney learned about the YMCA’s connection to women’s suffrage, they were excited.
“I was very surprised to find out about that,” McKinney said. “I had no idea but it just adds something further that is really neat about the building.”
For the fourth year, Huntsville is celebrating National Historic Preservation Month with a campaign for Rocket City citizens and fans. Called #ThisPlaceMattersHsv, the campaign will spotlight beloved civic buildings, public spaces, businesses, schools and houses of worship in Huntsville.
Anyone who wants a tour of the old Central YMCA may visit the facility on 203 Greene St. during normal business hours. Watson said the guided tours are available all year to visitors at no charge.
Castellano is also organizing, “Remember the Ladies: A Walking Tour of Huntsville’s Suffragist History,” to occur in August. Supported by grants from the Community Foundation of Greater Huntsville and the Huntsville-Madison County Bicentennial Committee, the tour will showcase where Huntsville women made history.
“Many of the sites where these women met that are associated with this history are still standing,” Castellano said. “That wouldn’t have happened without the preservation movement.”
For updates about the tour, visit the HHF’s website.
Although Buck passed away in 2016, Watson said having a stake in the old YMCA has been one of the highlights of her life. She hopes the building stays in her family for generations to come.
“It was a pleasure and a very exciting thing to be involved in restoring the old YMCA building and bringing it back to usefulness,” she said. “All while maintaining its character.”
Join the conversation
Tune in at 2 p.m. Wednesday, May 13, 2020, for a live interview about the YMCA building and women’s suffrage. Can’t make it? No problem. Just follow our Facebook and Instagram accounts to watch it later.
You can also sign up for the Huntsville Historic Preservation Commission’s e-newsletter for weekly updates about the campaign.