The History of Peterborough’s YMCA

Since it opened in the mid 1890s, the Peterborough YMCA at George and Murray Streets has become an historic landmark. But much more than bricks and mortar, it embodies the memories and stories of the municipality’s citizenry. The much loved institution was the place where children learned to swim and play games, young people joined clubs, lifelong friendships were forged, and people, in need of a hot meal and overnight accommodation, particularly when times were tough, found doors open.

CONSTRUCTION AND ADDITIONS

Formally recognized as a heritage structure, Peterborough’s downtown YMCA was built in 1895, an imposing red brick structure with the rounded arches and solid demeanour of the Romanesque Revival style. It was designed by local architect William Blackwell. Over the years, the building has expanded and changed to meet the needs of a growing number of patrons.

Peterborough YMCA 1896-1930
“The Y was a physical presence in their lives at the time, and years later, still very much a presence in their souls. The term the corner of ‘George and Murray’… was an affectionate reference to the cornerstone of daily life in the community, a sanctuary, a bulwark against the ravages of the Depression and two World Wars. Located, then as now, at the northern edge of downtown, the intersection dominated by the YMCA building was for many, the outer limit of their world experience.”

— Mollie Cartmell, in The Corner of George and Murray

1930s

In the 1930s, the first addition incorporated a 60- by 25-foot pool. It was well-used for diving events, swim competitions, lessons and more. The project also included a handball court, a club room and three more dormitories. This phase was designed by William Blackwell’s son Walter Blackwell.

Peterborough YMCA 1930s
Peterborough YMCA 1967

1969

In 1969, the second expansion, designed by prominent Toronto architects Craig and Zeidler, added a second pool, this time Olympic-sized, and a youth centre. The plans for the 1969 addition were created some years before the board of directors were able to move forward with construction.

1978

The final addition to the YMCA building was completed in 1978 and was designed by Allen, Brown and Sheriff, also of Toronto. An Olympic gymnasium, new handball and squash courts were created, and some improvements made to existing facilities.

YMCA Peterborough Facelift

PRESENT DAY

Atria Development is proud to have the opportunity to bring new uses to this historically important building and make it again an active part of Peterborough’s downtown. Construction has been underway since April 2017 on the new Y-Lofts project. The early Romanesque façade will be preserved, and where possible, the concrete structural elements of later additions will be reused where possible so as not to waste resources. It is an honour for Atria to be able to maintain the YMCA’s landmark presence and its place in the city’s collective memory.

PAYING TRIBUTE

The Young Men’s Christian Association was founded by George Williams, a London draper, in 1844, during the industrial revolution. The purpose: to offer safe accommodation and recreational activities for young men moving to cities. From there, the association spread across Europe, to North America and even to Asia.

Local philanthropist Charlotte Nicholls, the widow of a successful dry-goods merchant, helped bring the YMCA to Peterborough. She set aside $20,000 in her will, enough at the time to buy land and construct the building in 1895 at the corner of George and Murray Streets. William Blackwell, a prominent local architect, designed the structure. Archie McIntyre and his younger brother, Malcolm McIntyre, served as master carpenter and contractor.

But it was the commitment over the years of YMCA members and volunteers that made the Y a special place for the community. One such volunteer, Mollie Cartmell, who chronicled the Peterborough Y’s history in her book, The Corner of George and Murray, became its first woman president in 1986. A teacher dedicated to promoting athletics and serving her community, Cartmell provided an impressive role model for young women.

YMCA staff and board members, honouring the association’s original mission to promote healthy bodies, minds and souls, have also been key to making the organization so important over the years for so many Peterborough residents.

Mollie Cartmell - Peterborough YMCA First Woman President

ACTIVITIES

Up until it closed in the early 2000s, the downtown Peterborough Y was home to a wide range of activities. It was a place to meet, get exercise, take part in various clubs and activities or go for a swim on a hot day.

In the 1920s, the YMCA gym featured rings hung from the ceiling, which young boys used to swing from one end of the gym to the other. Up three flights of stairs in the tower, you’d find the popular handball court; one gentleman recalls that you got most of your exercise just climbing up there! In those days, too, Saturday mornings at the YMCA often saw an excited group of young boys gathered to watch Charlie Chaplin movies. In the afternoon, they could enjoy hobbies, such as wood working, model airplane building and more.

In 1955 the Y introduced a swim club, and in 1956, a Judo club, while the 1960s and 1970s saw more exotic options introduced, including personalized fitness and aerobic classes, not to mention belly dancing.

Controversy dogged some early activities. In 1908, the YMCA opened a bowling alley, which many board members felt was not an appropriate activity for a Young Men’s Christian Association. The board declared that the Ladies Auxiliary could not be expected to complete their inspection tours in such a place. As the years passed, attitudes changed, and by 1927, the club introduced bowling hours for ladies.

Some youngsters made pocket money as pinboys at the bowling alley, resetting the pins after each round. Although unconfirmed, it is widely suspected that future Prime Minister of Canada Lester B. Pearson set pins at the Y; his family lived close by, and most young boys in the community performed that task at some point.

The bowling alley also generated funds, which helped support other projects, such as the camp on Clear Lake where many boys got their first taste of outdoor camping.

Peterborough YMCA Swim Team Records

CLUBS

Over the years, Peterborough’s YMCA community offered dozens of clubs, including:

  • The Peterborough YMCA Chess and Checkers Club, founded in 1958 and still active;
  • The Triangle Club, a group of 12 young men who met on Tuesdays to educate themselves on “various aspects of the local government;”
  • The Friday Night Supper Club;
  • The Ladies Auxiliary.

The Ladies Auxiliary played an important role at the Peterborough YMCA. The women would meet monthly to discuss matters, such as the allocation of donations and fundraising, as well as to inspect the YMCA amenities and supplies, particularly for the dormitories and kitchen.

The Friday night Supper Club was, for many years, something of an institution. On Friday evenings, young men would pay 25 cents to enjoy dinner, musical acts prepared by the girls, and speakers. Club members grew close over the years, creating annual traditions, including dances, Christmas tree decorating, golf tournaments and much more. World War II brought tragedy, however: about 100 club members enlisted, and 25 never returned. The fighting in Europe aged the veterans beyond their years, it is said, and the post-war Friday Night Supper Club was never the same.

Jim Wallace Founder of YMCA Peterborough Supper Club

Thanks to the Peterborough museum and archives, as well as Mollie Cartmell and her book, The Corner of George and Murray for providing all of the information for this page.