" 'Our veteran 'Y' Secretary of the Ninth Street Branch, T.A. Greene had to grow an architect before Los Angeles could have an adequate building for men and boys of the colored race,' jokingly declared General Secretary Henderson in announcing the awarding of a $125,000 structure in Los Angeles, replacing the present huts." (Association Men. March, 1926) The home-grown architect who impressed the Architectural Bureau of the National Council of the Y.M.C.A. was a young Paul R. Williams.
By 1920 Los Angeles was the center of California’s black population, politics and business even though African Americans numbered only 15,579 of the city’s total inhabitants. (1920 U.S. Census) Central Avenue formed their cultural, spiritual and social core of life with the nearby streets and neighborhoods providing a cohesive sense of place for the community. Important black institutions—office of the California Eagle newspaper, insurance/legal businesses, variety stores, a cigar stand and ice cream shop, the Dreamland roller rink, and scores of other black-owned businesses—were located along or near Central Avenue in a 1.5-square mile radius. Within a few years of establishing his architectural firm, Paul R. Williams had already designed two of the most important buildings in the Central Avenue area, the Second Baptist Church in 1924 and the 28th Street YMCA in 1926 (1006 East 28th Street), the city’s first club founded by and for “colored boys and young men.”
Washington, D.C. was the site of the first YMCA for African Americans in the United States (1853). The idea of building a “Y” for Black men and youth began in Los Angeles in 1906 and by the 1920s the community needed larger facilities to meet the growing need for recreational activities as well as the numerous social, charitable and political clubs and organizations existing near Central Avenue. Building a modern "Y" for $200,000 became an important fundraising cause for the community as most other venues in Los Angeles excluded African Americans. On November 19, 1926 the California Eagle described the successful community campaign as an example of "a unity of purpose as to make such a building possible ... reflecting the greatest credit on our citizens." The newspaper noted with pride that "at last the fondest dream of the local membership...will be realized." (November 12, 1926) The Rosenwald Fund provided part of the construction funding for the building. (Rosenwald was a well-known philanthropist whose special concern was for African American institutions and organizations.)
A generous gift of $25,000 from Aaron and Annie Malone of St. Louis was the last bit of funding needed to make the building a reality for the community. Annie Malone, the owner/inventor of an ethnic hair care line, Poro Products, was an important American entrepreneurial pioneer. By creating the distribution system to sell her products door-to-door, she believed the combination of her specialized personal care products designed for the Black woman along with the method to sell them, would enable women to improve themselves economically and physically leading to greater self-respect in all areas of their lives. The YMCA’s aim to improve the physical and social lives of its members and the community fit with Annie Malone’s vision of self-improvement through individual effort. It also corresponded with the personal philosophy Paul R. Williams advocated in his 1937 essay I Am A Negro published in The American Magazine. He too believed that great progress was possible for the African American community through education, personal accountability and hard work.
Williams selection as architect for the new YMCA building was a source of pride for Los Angeles' African American community. He was also a natural choice, as his relationship with the organization was life-long. In 1907 Williams became one of the first "cadets" admitted to the original Colored Y on 9th Street and he had participated as a youth in a wide range of programs offered by that branch. In an interview published in a contemporary issue of Association Men (March, 1926) he stated,"I went after the job purely on the stand-point of merit, rather than from a sentimental angle, which I think is the only real way to meet competition ... that I had designed several large residences the committee felt that an architect who specialized in this type of work would probably give the men a more homelike building rather than a building of a commercial type."
Originally designed in a configuration of four building blocks, the Spanish Colonial Revival-style 28th Street YMCA was a multipurpose complex. Members of the “Y” entered the main four-story building through one of two identical entrances marked by an engraved panel, Men’s Entrance or Boy’s Entrance. (image 3) This building held meeting space, administrative offices and 52 "cozy, airy and sanitary bedrooms" for single men on its two top floors. The two-story building on the east housed a large white tiled swimming pool. A gymnasium with a separate entrance completed the group. (A two-story rear annex no longer exists.)
The building’s design included characteristic Spanish Colonial red clay Granada roofing tiles, a row of arched windows on the second-floor and smooth stucco finish. In place of the ornate floral churrigueresque detail Williams would later use on the face of the Edwin Building, the architect’s design included more masculine terra cotta vines, scrolls and bas-relief panels depicting busts of African American heroes such as Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass. (image 5) Always sensitive to the physical location of his buildings, Williams’ design fit harmoniously with the largely single-family residential nature of the neighborhood. This aesthetic sensitivity was important in an ethnic community that W.E.B. Du Bois described in 1913 as “the most beautifully housed group of colored people in the United States.”
In 2006 the 28th Street YMCA was added to the City of Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monuments List and in 2009 the building was added to the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places.
Recently (2011) the nonprofit organization Coalition Responsible Community Development began a repurposing makeover for the 28th Street Y. Their goal is to bring "new life" to the aging building and return it to the community as an important resource. By creating 49 new apartments within the existing building, the group hopes to provide affordable housing opportunitues for underserved groups in LA's minority population: the low-income, mental health patients and emancipated youth. During her remarks at the groundbreaking, co-sponsor Councilwoman Jan Perry said that the goals for this new building use were similar to Williams' original goal of providing healthful/safe housing for the community's youth and would resonate with the architect. "It's almost as if he (Williams) is here with us today." (www.intersectionssouthla.org)
The repurposed 28th Street Y.M.C.A. was dedicated in June 2012.
A more detailed discussion of the design for the 28th Street YMCA can be found in Wesley Henderson's 1992 PhD dissertation, Two Case Studies of African American Architects' Careers in Los Angeles 1890-1945.