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.