A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Our Rich History: Iconic buildings in Covington stand in testimony to the work of the YWCA

By David E. Schroeder
Special to NKyTribune

The Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) has a long tradition of service in Northern Kentucky. The organization constructed two iconic buildings in Covington that still stand on Madison Avenue. The one most area residents are familiar with stands on Madison Avenue at Pike Street. Plans for this building, which replaced a previous structure, began in 1910. YMCA officials set a campaign goal to raise $100,000 for a modern structure including fitness facilities and living quarters. Small donations came flooding in from many residents. These funds, combined with large donations from Richard P. Ernst and the estate of Bradford Shinkle, made the building possible.

Downtown Covington’s YMCA Wade Branch. Courtesy of the Kenton County Public Library, Covington

The Madison Avenue site was preferred because it was located in the heart of Covington’s business district. The old Magnolia Hotel, a Covington landmark, was demolished to make way for the new building in 1911.

The three-story brick building with stone trimmings contained a formal lobby with marble floors, offices, a large reading room complete with a fireplace, a billiards room, a correspondence room for businessmen, a dining hall and kitchen. The third-floor of the building also accommodated 39 private dormitory rooms, each with a bed, dresser, table, two chairs, and closet. This floor also housed a large bathroom with four showers, sinks and toilet facilities. The basement level contained locker rooms and shower facilities, as well as a swimming pool.

The running track at the Covington branch. Courtesy of the Kenton County Public Library, Covington

The facility also featured a large gymnasium complete with an elevated running track. The new YMCA building was officially dedicated on the weekend of January 30, 1913. The principal speaker on the occasion was Richard P. Ernst, the president of the Covington YMCA since 1892. The building quickly became a popular gathering spot.

The United States’ entry in the First World War diminished membership. Until this time, the facilities were only open to men and boys. The war changed many things in society, including Covington’s YMCA. In 1918, YMCA officials voted to open membership to women and girls. Membership rebounded in the 1920s, resulting in a large addition on the east side of the building including additional facilities for women.

An important addition to the personnel came aboard in the 1920s. In 1926, Willard Wade moved to Covington to take the position of physical director of the Covington YMCA. Between 1936 and 1939, Wade left for Greensboro N.C. He returned to Covington in 1939 to take the position of general secretary of the Covington YMCA. Wade remained in this position for many years. In recognition of his many years of service, the board agreed to name the Covington YMCA the Wade Branch.

The post-World War II era was not as kind to the Covington YMCA. Many more opportunities were available to children and adults for social and recreational activities. The five Northern Kentucky YMCA branches met on April 1, 1987 and agreed to merge with the YMCA of Cincinnati and Hamilton County in Ohio. At the same time, the group also agreed to sell the Wade YMCA Branch on Madison Avenue in Covington. The building has been used for various purposes since that time.

Willard Wade. Courtesy of the Kenton County Public Library, Covington

The second iconic YMCA building in Covington also stands on Madison Avenue and was established to serve the men in the community who worked for the local railroads. The Railroad YMCA was established in 1890, with 218 members in an existing building on West 15th Street, The building officially opened on September 29, 1890. The Railroad YMCA offered shower facilities and bathtubs, social activities, educational classes and religious services to its members.

By 1894, classes were being offered at the Railroad YMCA in mechanical and architectural drawing, bookkeeping, business arithmetic, commercial law and history. Membership had increased beyond 200 and the building on 15th had become too small.

In 1906, the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad (C&O) donated a lot to the Railroad YMCA in the 1600 block of Madison Avenue as a site for a new building. The C&O also agreed to donate $7,000 toward the building fund. A successful fundraising drive allowed the group to reach their goal of $12,500. With funds in hand, work on the new Railroad YMCA began.

The Railroad YMCA in Covington. Courtesy of the Kenton County Public Library, Covington.

The structure was officially dedicated on November 26, 1909. The three-story brick structure contained a lobby, meeting room, billiards room, offices, dining room and kitchen on the main floor. The basement of the structure housed seven shower facilities and three bathtubs. The second and third floors contained a large classroom, nine double bedrooms and seven single bedrooms. The fees to rent a room amounted to 10 cents for members and 25 cents for non-members.

In 1940, the Covington Railroad YMCA celebrated its 50th Anniversary. At that time, over $5,000 was spent to improve the physical facilities. The decline of railroad jobs in the post-World War II era played havoc on the membership rolls of the Covington Railroad YMCA. Fewer men were using the facilities, and the age of the building resulted in high maintenance costs. Covington YMCA made a decision to close the Railroad Branch in October 1958. The building still stands today as home to Transitions, Inc.

David E. Schroeder is Director of the Kenton County Public Library, the author of Life Along the Ohio: A Sesquicentennial History of Ludlow, Kentucky (2014), and coeditor of Gateway City: Covington, Kentucky, 1815-2015 (2015).

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