In the 1850s, Grace Van Vorst Church members established the beginnings of the Jersey City branch of the Young Men's Christian Association (Y.M.C.A.). Located in rooms at the corner of Gregory and Henderson streets (now the Gregory Apartments), the "Y" strove to provide inexpensive housing in a Christian environment for young men, both immigrant and native-born, who came to the city to work in Jersey City's waterfront industries during the nation's era of industrialization. The Y.M.C.A.'s purpose was the same as the first "Y" founded in Boston, MA, in 1851: a dedication to the spiritual, mental, and physical development of individuals, who in turn will contribute to their communities. Also, the purpose of the "Y" was to socialize and "Americanize" immigrant workers in the nation's social values.
By the 1860s, "Y" members gathered in rooms at Franklin Hall, which had a reading room and library containing 200 books, magazines, and newspapers. Lectures and prayer meetings were also held there. Ministers of the local churches, such as North Baptist, First Presbyterian, and Dutch Reformed, were active participants. According to the "Y" publication, The Journal (1867-68), Y.M.C.A. members debated moral and political issues, ranging from the enforcement of Sunday observance laws to the purchase of Alaska, Bible reading in public schools, and capital punishment. One such debater was Z.K. Pangborn, who founded the Jersey Journal. The "Y" also sponsored classes for young men in mechanical drawing, nature study, and the German language and held evening classes for businessmen.
After moving to several locations in the city, the "Y" settled at Montgomery and Greene streets in 1909. Here the Pennsylvania Railroad participated in a residence program called the Bergenview Village for its employees and those of the Railroad Express service "To help make Pennsylvania Railroad men better father, sons and employees." In an annual report for 1909-1910, the dormitory facility was described as "A home for the man away from home, the homeless . . . to keep them from the evils of the saloon and other places of vice. To render the best service, employees must be sober." Other companies that sent their new workers, needing housing, to live at the "Y" were Western Electric, Public Service, American Can Co., and the State Highway Department.
After a five-year fundraising campaign following World War I, plans were made to build a new structure on Bergen Avenue, where land was purchased for $35,000. Completed in 1924, the Y.M.C.A. building in Jersey City was the work of architect John F. Jackson, who designed "Y" buildings nationally. The Renaissance Revival structure is topped by an engraved stone parapet showing the "Young Men's Christian Association." One entered the building through a stone portico with columns in front of the entrance that was eventually removed. Today, steps lead to the rectangular entrance with glass doors. The six-story building with a basement of brick and stone is constructed in a reverse L-shaped design. Above the ground story of rusticated stone, the main feature of the facade is a second story with seven central bays of rectangular windows. They have pediment window heads that are alternately triangular or arched and have stone grill decorations below each window. The window over the doorway is set against a background formed by arched stone. Stone quoins line the corners of the building.
The interior of the Y.M.C.A. building was noted for its grand arched gothic ceilings and detailed tile work. Besides the 220 dormitory rooms, there was a reading room, billiard rooms, a bowling alley, and a four-lane, 25-yard indoor swimming pool that was an elegant natatorium. An addition at the "Y" building opened in 1934 with handball courts and an exercise room.
Over the decades, the Y.M.C.A. made accommodations to meet the community's interests with various services. It operated as a private, nonprofit agency and received assistance from Jersey City through its Community Development Block Grant funds. Its athletic facilities were upgraded with features such as a Nautilus Center, free-weight room, indoor running track, sauna, and whirlpool. Its education program included courses in public speaking, foreign languages, American literature, dance, and business courses. Its religious programs offered Bible classes on Sunday mornings. Residents at the "Y" paid for their housing by the week or the month and enjoyed the convenience of an on-site cafeteria and meal plan; there were special student rates.
The Y.M.C.A. ran an after-school program, summer camp, and mentor program for children. It also provided space for the Hudson Repertory Dance Theater Company, the Jersey City Child Development Care Corps (Head Start), and the Hudson County Catholic Youth Organization (CYO). In 1978, the five residential floors became coed to relieve the need for reasonable housing for single young women in the city.
The "Y" almost closed after 1992, having declared bankruptcy, and it ceased to be a Y.M.C.A. affiliate in 1995. New Hope Housing, a subsidiary of The Community Builders, a nonprofit group that now owns the building. It renovated the residence with assistance from Jersey City into a total of 131 housing units consisting of affordable 73-efficiency apartments and 58 single-room apartments with provisions for the homeless and those at-risk. Space is available for the Jersey City Head Start program, church groups, and the municipal recreation department. A new entrance separates the recreational and residential areas.
Jackson, John F. The Bergen Building of the Jersey City, N.J. YMCA (illustrated by architect). Joan D. Lovero Collection, New Jersey Room. Jersey City Free Public Library.
"Old YMCA Begins to Move to New Life." Jersey Journal 27 August 1996.
Roberts, Jeff. "YMCA Waits Approval as State Historic Site." Jersey Journal 7 July 1999.
"Y to Observe Centennial at Fete," Hudson Dispatch 28 October 1954.
"Y.M.C.A. in Early Days." Joan D. Lovero Collection, New Jersey Room. Jersey City Free Public Library.
Y.M.C.A. of Jersey City, N.J. Fifth Annual Report of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Jersey City, NJ: May 1, 1909, to April 19, 1910.