Gtown YWCA: It's not just bricks and mortar [entry-title permalink="0"] By

 Theresa Freeman stood on the sidewalk in Germantown’s business district one recent afternoon and looked down at the dilapidated three-story redbrick building that was once the Germantown YWCA. “It’ll bring Germantown back,” she said. “One simple building.”

After years of neglect and a recent near-death experience, the iconic building at 5820 Germantown Ave. has  been saved from the wrecking ball, fulfilling the dreams of seniors like Freeman who have fought to preserve the structure in which so many memories were made.

The old Gtown YWCA was more than bricks and mortar in its day. It was a place where women made friends across racial lines, learned and had fun,

The old Gtown YWCA was more than bricks and mortar in its day. It was a place where women made friends across racial lines, learned and had fun,

Under a deal announced by City Councilwoman Cindy Bass, whose district includes Germantown, the city will spend $2.2 million to renovate and weatherize the building.

The Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority, which owns the property, will contribute another $4 million to secure it.

Soon, the city will ask developers to submit proposals to renovate the building for uses that have not yet been specified. “The prayer is that it will be used in the functional manner that the community can take advantage of,” said Germantown author Victoria Huggins-Peurifoy.

The historic building, built in Georgian Revival style in 1915, has been empty for nearly a decade. Its windows are now broken, the fence has fallen in, and weeds are growing up the side. Over the years, it has suffered fires and vandalism.

Learning to swim

But for many long-time residents of Germantown, the YWCA building is more than bricks and mortar. It is a place where skills were learned, where friendships were forged, where the racial divide was bridged — and where people learned to swim.

“I learned how to swim there when I had my children,” recalled Peurifoy. “You learned there.”

Author Victoria Huggins-Peurifoy, like hundreds of others in Germantown, learned to swim at the YWCA.

Author Victoria Huggins-Peurifoy, like hundreds of others in Germantown, learned to swim at the YWCA.

Bass’ surprise announcement to save the building, made in March, ended a standoff between her and developer Ken Weinstein, who wanted to construct low-income senior housing on the site. Bass opposed that move, pushing instead for market-rate housing that might attract more middle-class people to the neighborhood.

With Weinstein’s proposed development stymied and the building continuing to deteriorate, the property faced demolition as a safety hazard.

That suddenly changed when Bass announced that a new inspection had determined the building was not in imminent danger of collapse and could be saved and renovated.

“I am happy to announce the YWCA is not imminently dangerous,” Bass said in a March 8 press release. “I am committing to this (renovation) project; it will help make the site more attractive to developers while protecting a vital part of our city’s history.”

At first, a hotel

Opened a century ago as a residential hotel, the building sits adjacent to Vernon Park near the business hub of Germantown and Chelten Avenues.

It became home to the YWCA in 1917. In 1946, it was the first social service agency in Philadelphia to open its doors to people of all races. In 1968 Clarice Gamble Herbert, an African-American resident of Germantown, became its first black director.

Clarice Gamble Herbert, who became the Y's first African-American director, is one of the women featured on the Y's mural, painted by Dave McShane, La Salle University art teacher.

Clarice Gamble Herbert, who became the Y’s first African-American director, is one of the women featured on the Y’s mural, painted by Dave McShane, La Salle University art teacher.

“At one time it was a wonderful place for women to be able to come and participate in all types of activities, learn different skills, take exercise classes, learn how to sew or crochet, or do whatever else they wanted to do,” Peurifoy recalled.

She is a member of Center in the Park, an award-winning senior center located a stone’s throw from the YWCA. The center had supported Weinstein’s proposal to turn “the Y” into housing for low-income seniors and members were distraught when it appeared that the building would have to be demolished.

But now that the building will be saved, Peurifoy and others at Center in the Park are relieved, though still nervous about its planned use.

Peurifoy’s eyes light up as she remembers the friendship she forged 30 years ago with Ernestine Singleton at the YWCA. The two women were brought together by programs at the Y, especially swimming.

Today, that friendship is still alive and the two have taken trips together to Orlando, Fla.  “It had a good effect on me because I had a new friend and friends I could talk to on a regular basis,” Peurifoy recalled.

Said Singleton: “I met Vicky there because I wanted to learn how to swim. She was raised in one part of the city, and I was raised in another. We went to different high schools and we just clicked. I just remember us just having fun. We encouraged each other to keep with the classes and we were very happy that we successfully stayed in the program. We went for a whole year, we took level one and level two. Level two was like a lifeguard. We completed the whole class. That was through encouragement and we formed a friendship.”

Although it was founded by white women, the Germantown YWCA was ahead of its time in reaching out to African-American women. As the organization began to integrate, it became a place where inter-racial friendships were made and where black women, not just white, had the opportunity to progress within the organization.

The first black executive director

Clarice Gamble Herbert, the first black executive director, worked for the Germantown YWCA for a quarter century – from 1954 to 1979. She is one of the women depicted on a huge mural that decorates one side of the Y. Painted by Dave McShane, a professor at La Salle University, the mural is called “Women of Germantown.”

Maggie Kuhn (left) Germantown resident and founder of the Gray Panthers, celebrated the achievements of women with Clarice Gamble Herbert, the YWCA's executive director.

Maggie Kuhn (left) Germantown resident and founder of the Gray Panthers, celebrated the achievements of women with Clarice Gamble Herbert, the YWCA’s executive director.

Herbert died in 2006, but her daughter, Ann Perrone, has kept the memories of her mother’s accomplishments at the YWCA alive.

“The YWCA was all about the empowerment of women to take on the challenges of their own lives and choosing from many available paths to success,” said Perrone, who works as a technology coordinator at Germantown Friends School. “My mom and her peers were a good fit for this mission because they came of age during WWII when so many men were away, or killed in the fighting.”

Perrone noted that, during the war and after, women had to engage in decision-making and take on leadership roles that were new to them. Some, she explained, had to do so as single parents in an era when there was no welfare safety net.

“In the fifties, being a single parent was unimaginably difficult,” she said. “The stigma of divorce, of having a child ‘out of wedlock,’ even of being a full-time working woman, as well as the lack of a safety net for dependent children made it very hard for women like my mom to be respected as a full person. Banding together with other women, especially well-to-do ladies who wanted to make a difference for the less fortunate, was one of the few safe zones young women had.”

Not looking for racial bias

Perrone said her mother, who was divorced and never remarried, formed many interracial relationships while guiding the YWCA over the years. “Mom rarely ascribed racist motives to the actions of other people unless it was blatant,” she recalled. “I learned not to look for racial bias, but to recognize it when it presented itself.

In the seventies, the YWCA adopted an initiative called “The One Imperative” which was to ‘to thrust our collective power toward the elimination of racism, wherever it exists and by any means necessary.’ Mom was hugely excited by this.”

As she was growing up, Perrone spent a lot of time at her mother’s side at the YWCA. “For me the building at 5820 Germantown Ave was a playground, a study hall, and an activity center,” she recalled. But the building was also something else. “The Y brought together diverse women who were excited about making positive change in their world and neighborhood,” Perrone said. “I was surrounded by strong and nurturing female role models.”

(Mike McLeod, La Salle University ’15, also contributed to this article.)