116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Swimming through history of the Y’s in Cedar Rapids
By Jessica and Rob Cline, - The History Center
Jun. 21, 2022 6:00 am, Updated: Jun. 21, 2022 7:59 am
The swimming pool at the Helen G. Nassif YMCA in downtown Cedar Rapids was recently closed indefinitely after a contractor accidentally dropped an industrial light bulb on the pool deck during scheduled maintenance and repairs.
At the time, we were already engaged in researching the history of the YMCA and YWCA in Linn County — a broad topic to be sure, and one we cannot possible cover thoroughly in a single column.
One approach, though, involves a metaphorical swim through the Y pools. For example, the very first YMCA building in Cedar Rapids, built in 1888 at First Avenue and First Street NE (now the location of the Tree of Five Seasons) featured a pool.
In his book, “Lost Cedar Rapids,” author Peter D. Looney writes of that first pool: “The marble swimming pool was beautiful, but the water temperature was notoriously frigid due to its source — the Cedar River flowing past its back door.”
The building itself was a masterpiece, Looney told us in a phone conversation, “but the pool was never clean,” given that water from the river would seep directly into the swimming pool.
Beulah Detwiler Gundling, eventual popularizer of synchronized swimming, learned to swim at the second YMCA, buillt in 1918 at First Avenue and Fifth Street NE, though her first effort resulted in a rapid descent to the bottom of the pool.
The Ellis YMCA
Young people cited the pool in the Ellis Park YMCA as one reason to keep that facility open in 1990. Michele Lynn Bell, a student at Grant Wood School, was one of many children who wrote to The Gazette to make her case:
“I do not think the Ellis YMCA should be closed down. None of us kids will be able to stay out of trouble. And the people who are on drugs will be able to get those children to use drugs. And we will not be able to learn how to swim or play basketball.”
Her argument was not enough to carry the day, however, and the facility was closed.
Similarly, officials believed the addition of a pool at the Stoney Point YMCA would cause memberships to “go boom,” according to a Gazette article, but it wasn’t enough to keep that location open past July of last year.
‘C’ is for Christian
But, of course, both the YMCA and the YWCA have been more than locations for swimming pools. The “C” in both organizations’ names stands for “Christian,” and in the early days of the Y's that connection could not have been more clear.
For example, when the cornerstone was laid in 1911 for the YWCA building at 318 Fifth St. SE, it was reported:
“Mrs. Hubbard then laid the cornerstone with the words: ‘I lay this cornerstone of the Young Women’s Christian Association building, in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.’ The consecration prayer was offered by Dr. Burkhalter, the response was by the Imperial quartet, and Rev. A.R. Paul pronounced the benediction.”
We should note that the Cedar Rapids YWCA disaffiliated from the national organization in 2001 and became the Waypoint Services for Women, Children and Families.
Clubs for teens
We also were struck by a period in the 1950s and 1960s when the area Y’s hosted clubs for teenagers — the Y Teen’s Club at the YWCA in 1950s and the Keen Teen Club at the YMCA in the 1960s.
“Parents saw both Y’s as a safe place,” Looney told us. “Kids wanted activities, and parents wanted their kids off of the streets.”
We can’t help but notice the connection to the Grant Wood student’s argument about the importance of the Ellis YMCA.
Our research also turned up plenty of social events for adults in the early years of the Y’s. We were struck by this, given the emphasis on health and fitness that seems to define YMCA activity in more recent times.
Take, for example, a Gazette headline from 1993 that read, “Boxing to aerobics: ‘Y’ marks 125 years.”
We think it is fair to say that it’s not a very long swim from boxing to aerobics. And we hope the pool at the Helen G. Nassif YMCA can reopen soon.
High school senior Jessica Cline wins awards for historical research and presentation. Her dad, writer Rob Cline, does not. They write this monthly column for The History Center. Comments: HistoricalClines@gmail.com