CHARACTER PLANT

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Membership billing statement from 1916, $230 in 2016 dollars

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Photos taken during construction in 1914

We are a small group of artists and signmakers who came to Astoria in 2013. We bought Astoria’s old YMCA building and are slowly renovating it, both inside and out. Our goal is to restore the original facade and maintain the gymnasium as a contemporary arts space. The name for the arts space is “Character Plant” after the transom window above the 12th street entrance which once read “Astoria’s Character Building Plant”.

It soon became clear to us that the old Y held a lot of memories for folks who grew up in Astoria. People regularly stop by to tell stories they remember about the space. We also had the good fortune to find photos and scrapbooks enabling us to piece together the building’s early history.

From the earliest newspaper articles, all the way up to stories we heard from the 1980’s, there is an overarching thread of positive memories about the building. We heard a story about playing basketball each afternoon in the building, going home for dinner, and then running back down the hill to the Y for another few hours.

We have included some highlights in this publication as an historical record, but also as a show of gratitude to the city for its welcoming spirit. Hopefully these pictures inspire more Astorians to come and tell us about the shenanigans they got themselves into while growing up at the Y.

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The Y.M.C.A. in the 1920s

The Astoria Y.M.C.A. was designed by Portland architects MacNaughton and Raymond and built in 1914. It survived the great downtown fire in 1922 and served as a place of recreation and education for Astorians until the Y closed in the 1980’s. The building has functioned as a private school and an artist studio in the years since.

The Y.M.C.A. was vital to kids and teenagers, specifically because it was a place outside of home and school where they discovered a sense of autonomy. And although there were adults around, kids were allowed to be there without parental supervision.

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The Y.M.C.A. in the 1950s

The Y.M.C.A. also had an outsized influence on Astoria because from the time it started operating the population consistently hovered around 10,000 people, notwithstanding wartime fluctuations. The small size of the city made it all the more significant.

By the 1960’s membership at the Y was equal to ten percent of Astoria’s population. Additionally, kids without the means for a membership were welcomed, both through official policies and with the help of empathetic front desk workers, who turned a blind eye.

It would seem that an organization called the “Young Men’s Christian Association” might exclude half the population. It turns out that girls and women played a large part at the Astoria Y.M.C.A. By 1961 women and girls made up almost half of the membership rolls.

It is true that girls did not have some opportunities afforded to the boys when the building first opened; they were not invited on the early annual camping trips.

That being said, the earliest gymnasium records from 1915 have ladies in attendance. An article from 1922 mentions girls taking part in life-saving swim classes. And a Y.W.C.A. lodging house for young women was just up the street at 12th and Franklin until the 1950’s.

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The Y.M.C.A. in the 1970s

Looking through the clippings in the scrapbooks maintained by the Y, one senses a near-constant need for fundraising. That included the solicitation of private donations as well as regularly organized membership drives. On the one hand, this feels like a natural state of financial affairs for an organization like the Y. But it also created the type of situation where unexpected maintenance could easily turn into a minor crisis.

In August of 1940 the heating plant was condemned by government officials and the Y had to scramble to get a new heating system installed. Colder weather made dormitories miserable and swimming in the pool a frigid affair. By November’s end, a $4,500 boiler was installed and the heat restored, but only after a lengthy fundraising campaign.

Continued financial strain took it’s toll. In 1965 Christine Landry, then a student at Clatsop College wrote, “the facilities of the local chapter of the Y.M.C.A. are inadequate. This is a sad situation. The activity centers are cramped and lack equipment. The gymnasium is the size of grade school gym. No spectator stands are provided; the basketball nets need mending and the floors need refinishing. The swimming pool is too small and is inefficiently heated. The chlorine regulating machine is old and operates poorly. Often the concentration of chlorine is too great and the swimming classes must be suspended… the handball court is poorly lighted and heated. What is even worse, the basketballs and volleyballs are old and improperly inflated. The trampoline is unsafe… the ping pong rackets are old and cracked, and so are the balls.”

Decades later, Ken Erickson remembers bringing his own speed bag to the weight room. He kept an eye on his equipment to be sure it was properly used. One day, during the filming of “The Goonies” a teenager ran into the weight room and attempted a flying karate kick at his speed bag. Ken chewed out the kid as he laid flat out on his back. Only later did Ken find out the kid was Josh Brolin, one of the movie’s principal stars.

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Membership logs from 1915, one year after construction

In the 1970’s a major fundraising push led to the construction of another building next to the original Y.M.C.A. This addition was built to house a newer, larger swimming pool. Aquatics director Jim Krattler personally raised the final payment. He garnered $17,000 in pledges for his 100 mile Columbia River swim from Portland to Astoria.

Despite the new construction, many of the Y.M.C.A.’s facilities remained in the original building. Realistically, the Y still needed more space. In the early 1980’s the Astoria Armory building was up for auction. Much ado was made over the Y purchasing the Armory, but the funds never materialized.

In retrospect, the Armory doesn’t seem like the modern facility that would have carried the Y into a new millennium. Nevertheless, it has been used for family rollerskating and other community events since the Y closed it’s doors at the end of the 1980’s.

In the late 1990’s the city built an aquatic center with a swimming pool many times the size of the original Y.M.C.A. tank. Maintenance of the new facility is accomplished with a combination of memberships and taxpayer dollars. As Astoria’s economy transitions from industry to tourism, public/private partnerships have the ability to financially sustain our recreational facilities.

The loss of the Y as a place for young people to explore their independence is a theme often repeated by people who came to the building in their youth. It also seems to echo a larger societal shift in the lives of young people. As we develop the gymnasium into a contemporary arts center we won’t be able to fill that void, but we hope to add something new and positive to our community.

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Gymnasium records from 1915

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Photo from the 1920s in front of a large billboard advertising the Y.M.C.A.

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Articles from 1922, with some historical context for the larger Y.M.C.A. organization

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Blueprint for second floor dormitories

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Log books of dormitory guests from 1947

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Photo by Frank Woodfield, from a vantage point west of downtown, in a residential neighborhood high on the hill

On a chilly day in December of 1922, a blaze went up at 12th and Commercial, just two streets away from the Y building. The fire quickly grew out of control and destroyed thirty square blocks – a majority of Astoria’s business district.

As the inferno swept through town, the Y.M.C.A.’s janitor – C. A. Page, otherwise known as “Dad” – organized a bucket brigade. Young members of the Y carried water from the swimming pool to the roof, where they doused the burning embers falling from the sky. Their efforts saved the building.

In the month that followed, all athletic activities were suspended. The Y.M.C.A. operated as headquarters for welfare agencies, with local Boy Scouts staffing the front desk. Businesses in need of space moved into the basement, the Boy’s Division club room and the reading room.

In the wake of the fire, revenues fell, but a nationwide call to Y.M.C.A.’s across the country brought in $5,500 in relief, more than a third of the previous year’s annual budget. By May of 1923 many recreational and educational activities had already resumed.

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Photo taken after the 1922 fire, from present day Commercial and 8th Street, the arrow indicates the Y.M.C.A. building

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The YMCA building, at the left, a few years after the fire of 1922. A sign on the roof indicates businesses that moved into the basement during Astoria’s reconstruction.

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Article from 1922, Photos from 1938

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Swim team in 1940

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Kids swimming class from 1958

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A posed photo from 1972 to show the need for a larger pool

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Jim Krattler, aquatics instructor in the new pool, 1976

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Carla Oja, teaching kids to float in 1982

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West elevation

Photos and articles found in the scrapbooks kept by the Astoria Y.M.C.A. Newspaper clippings were taken from The Daily Astorian, Morning Astorian, and The Astoria Budget. Additional sources include the Clatsop County Historical Society, Astoria Public Library, The Historic Oregon Newspaper Archive maintained by the University of Oregon, Sarah’s Old Photos, and the community members who have come in so far to share their personal stories about growing up coming to the Y.

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CHARACTER PLANT