Filed Under Pond Street

1889: YMCA and YWCA

Evangelical Organizations Sought to Meet the Needs of the Young Laboring Men and Women of 19th Century Providence and Changed with the City and its People

In 1889, the Young Men's Christian Association opened a grand new Romanesque Revival building on a prominent corner of Westminster Street in Cathedral Square. The building contained a gymnasium, auditorium, classrooms, libraries, parlors, and reception areas. The Y, which had been formed in 1853, the second in the United States, had been born out of anxieties around industrialization and urbanization. Young men coming from the country were vulnerable to the temptations of the corrupt city, so a group of evangelical churches created a space for white Christian men. In the 35 years from the creation of the YMCA to the construction of this grand new building, the organization adapted--and would continue to adapt--to the changing needs of the growing city. The YMCA had been formed to provide moral instruction, but this new Y also offered professional and language classes, skills training, an employment bureau, as well as a gymnasium. The library was open to all--men and women--as were the lectures and events. Over time, the organization opened its doors wider, dropping its religious requirements. Confronted with accusations of racism and segregation around World War I, the Providence YMCA affirmed that its open-to-all policy included Black residents of the city.

Similarly, an evangelical Christian organization for women was established in 1867, initially focusing on boarding houses for single women who worked in the city. The Young Women's Christian Association, along with a similar organization that was formed in 1889, the Providence Evangelical Young Women's Christian Association (the two merged in 1902), also offered lectures and classes, including some focused on technical skills like telegraphy, typewriting, and stenography. In 1906, the YWCA opened a brick building on the corner of Jackson and Washington Streets, which still stands today, offering more rooms for women to meet the continuing demand for good housing. A YWCA gymnasium was opened on the top floor of the Columbia Bicycle Building on Snow Street in 1898.

As the city's population peaked at close to 250,000 around World War I, both organizations continued to expand and adapt. Unfortunately, the grand YMCA building was obsolete within 25 years. The Stone, Carpenter and Willson building was demolished to make way for an office block in the transformed square. A new, larger building with accommodations was built on Broad Street, where it still stands today, now adapted to providing support and services to the city's homeless. Both the YMCA and YWCA today focus on mind, body, and spirit. Each organization also focuses on social justice and open doors, reflecting the evolution of these organizations as well as the city and communities they serve.


The 1889 YMCA Building in Cathedral Square
The 1889 YMCA Building in Cathedral Square This building, designed by prominent local architects Stone, Carpenter, and Willson, opened as the new home of the Young Men's Christian Association in 1889. The YMCA was formed in Providence in 1853, the second in the country after Boston, and became an important resource to men and women of the city. The YMCA offered lectures, classes, a gymnasium, a library that was open to the public, and other services. The building was demolished in 1913 to make way for an office block. A new YMCA building was completed in 1915 on Broad Street and still stands today, now the home of Crossroads Rhode Island. Date: c. 1900
Cathedral Square
Cathedral Square This view of Cathedral Square, taken from a nearby rooftop, gives a sense of the busy intersection that was once Cathedral Square. Westminster Street rises straight up the hill to the left, while Weybosset Street comes into the square at an angle on the right. A memorial statue to Mayor Thomas Doyle by H.H. Kitson is the centerpiece of the commercial space, while Orray Taft's brick Federal-style home on the left, shaded by trees, gives a sense of the old aspect of the square. Date: c. 1900
Reception Room of the Providence YMCA
Reception Room of the Providence YMCA This postcard view of the reception room of the 1889 YMCA building shows the detailed wood paneling of the building's formal entry. Date: c. 1890
A Parlor in the Providence YMCA
A Parlor in the Providence YMCA This postcard view of a parlor shows a comfortable room with armchairs and a piano. The YMCA offered classes, lectures, a library, and social spaces such as this. Date: 1907
The New YMCA Building of 1915
The New YMCA Building of 1915 The need for housing for single men was met with a new YMCA building, completed in 1915, and offered studio rooms like this for rent. The YWCA also began as an evangelical charitable organization that focused on providing safe housing for working women in the city. Date: c. 1920
The YWCA Building in Providence
The YWCA Building in Providence Like its counterpart for men, the Young Women's Christian Association focused on classes, health, and sociability, as well as investing in buildings that offered safe, clean housing for single working women. This building, at the corner of Washington and Jackson Streets, was completed in 1906 and still stands today. Date: c. 1900
The YWCA Advertises
The YWCA Advertises This advertisement from the November 26, 1896 issue of the Providence Journal shows the types of technical and employment-related classes offered by the Evangelical Young Women's Christian Association, which merged with the YWCA in 1902. Classes included bookkeeping, stenography, French, German, sewing and dressmaking, millinery, embroidery, and singing. Date: 1896


80-58 Jackson Wlkwy, Providence, RI 02903


Taylor M. Polites, “1889: YMCA and YWCA,” Rhode Tour, accessed July 22, 2024,