Walnut Hills (Melrose) YMCA

With the closing of the Melrose YMCA for a remodeling that will leave most of the space in the hands of other non-profit organizations, we look back at the history of the buildings on that lot – and their occupants – as a reflection of the history of the block and the neighborhood. Known originally as the Walnut Hills YMCA, it is often dated from 1944. The Black community in Walnut Hills accomplished a great deal around that time: it bought and saved the Harriet Beecher Stowe house in the 1940’s and worked to develop it as a center of African-American culture in the city. Horace Sudduth, an African-American real-estate mogul who played a crucial role in the development of Cincinnati’s Black YMCAs, would renovate his Manse Hotel in 1950 into a first-class hotel for the visiting “Royalty” that came to town. The Melrose Y, which opened in 1948, joined Douglass School and its Gilbert Avenue Colony, the Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, and a large number of Black Churches dating back in some cases nearly 100 years as a Black-run institution dedicated to shaping the middle-class Black values near their cultural height in Walnut Hills.

The property at the YMCA site at 2840 Melrose began as the “Cincinnati Club” in 1889, which listed its address as simply “Melrose Av north of Oak.” A contemporary description noted the club was “practically limited to Jewish membership.” The observer claimed that one characteristic of Jewish institutions as distinct from most similar gentile clubs, “is the frequent and general use made by the families of the members. Here on Thanksgiving, New Year’s Eve, Washington’s birthday, early in the fall and spring, grand balls and entertainments are given in which the young ladies and gentlemen take part in operettas and dramatic performances. During the year there are lectures and entertainments of an informal nature.” The Club continued to occupy its building at least in to the 1910’s. By that time, the center of the wealthy Jewish community had move north and east into Avondale.

During the 1920’s, 30’s and early 40’s the building was occupied by the Disabled Veterans of the [First] World War. A single year of American participation in the war produced horrendous suffering including gas attacks, artillery fire on trenches and aerial bombardments. The organization, founded in Cincinnati in 1920, became a national institution with its headquarters in the building at 2840 Melrose. The DAVWW served as an important lobbying agency, urging the federal government to allocate funds and simplify paperwork for injured veterans. The former Cincinnati Club was sometimes referred to at the DAV “Clubhouse.” A large Women’s auxiliary began in 1922, initially composed of wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters of the disabled vets. The auxiliary in Cincinnati hosted dinners, followed by an evening of cards, for the veterans. The longest-lasting disabilities were the psychiatric cases of “shell shock” (now known as PTSD) which accounted for more than half the patients in Veteran’s hospitals in the late 1930’s. After the second World War, the DAV moved its headquarters and the building became available for a new tenant.

At the time, the Cincinnati YMCA had two segregated branches for Black members and services. The ninth Street branch downtown (just a few blocks from the white Central Parkway branch) had been thriving since 1913, thanks in no small part to an initial grant from the Rosenwald Foundation in Chicago and to Sudduth’s ongoing fundraising efforts. A second segregated branch operated in the Mill Creek Valley. “Through the splendid interest and support of the leading industries and the colored people of the community” the Lockland YMCA opened in 1920, with operating support from the Community Chest.

From the early 1920’s the neighborhood surrounding the old Cincinnati Club Building, especially to the north, became increasingly African American. By the 1940’s a significant migration of poorer folks, both Black and white, came into Walnut Hills. The heart of the Black Business District at Lincoln and Gilbert was just a couple of blocks from 2840 Melrose.

The YMCA had some presence in Black Walnut Hills, introduced at the time of the hundredth anniversary of the international organization in 1944. It offered social services in cooperation with neighborhood churches, the Boy Scouts, the YWCA and the city’s Public Recreation Commission in the Nash Recreation Center in the Mt. Zion AME church. White Cincinnati, and the white YMCA management, organized an “Interracial Committee of Management” for a separate Black YMCA in Walnut Hills. (The white Williams Y, located on McMillan at Ashland just a few blocks from Douglass school, had opened in the late 1920’s as the “Eastern Hills” branch, but there is no evidence of any plans to integrate that facility.) Owing in part to efforts from YMCA President Cecil Gamble and attorney Charles P. Taft, the organization bought the Cincinnati Club building in 1946 as the site for a new “Negro” branch.

The financial arrangements are not entirely clear. Different sources quote the total investment in the Y at $100,000 to $125,000. Nationally, the Y had launched a campaign for $70 million in capital expansion and improvements; that ambitious goal undoubtedly pushed all possible expenditures into capital accounts. The building on Melrose cost only $36,200; it is not clear how much of $65,000 or more attributed to the Walnut Hills branch on Melrose went in to renovations, how much to equipment, furnishings and startup operational costs and, indeed, how much the budget of the Black Walnut Hills operations between 1943 and the grand opening of the Melrose branch in 1948 was rolled into the $100,000 plus figure.

The color image shows the building from its days as the Cincinnati Club, the black and white shows it in the 1940’s.

Stay tuned for more information on programming and functions at the old Melrose Y, and the construction of the “new” building in 1967.

References

On the Cincinnati Club, see Charles Theodore Greve, Centennial History of Cincinnati and Representative Citizens, v1 (Cincinnati, 1904) pp. 949 and 1029. The Colorized postcard is from the Cincinnati Public Library. The Black and white original is in Kraemer’s Picturesque Cincinnati (Ohio Bookstore, 1898), p 63.

On the Disabled American Veterans see the Wikipedia article, and an article about its Auxiliary. For examples of events for vets hosted at the facility on Melrose, see The Cincinnati Enquirer (Cincinnati, Ohio), 4 Mar 1934, or 27 Feb 1938, Page 8

On the YMCA, see Harry L. Stenger, The story of the Young Men’s Christian Association of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, 1853-1953 (Pantheon Press, 1953). pp 86-7 on Lockland, 89-94 on Ninth Street, 109-112 on Walnut Hills (Melrose) and 117-125 on Williams.