Archives and Special Collections
92 Snell Library
360 Huntington Ave.
Boston, MA 02115
(617) 373-2351

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Historical Note

Scope and Content Note


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Title:Young Men's Christian Association of Greater Boston records
Dates:n.d., 1833-2015 (bulk 1851-1980)
Call Number:M13

Historical Note

The Young Men's Christian Association of Greater Boston (Boston YMCA) was the first YMCA chapter in North America. It was founded in 1851 by Captain Thomas Valentine Sullivan (1800-1859), an American seaman and missionary. He was influenced by the London YMCA and saw the association as an opportunity to provide a "home away from home" for young sailors on shore leave. The Boston chapter promoted evangelical Christianity, the cultivation of Christian sympathy, and the improvement of the spiritual, physical and mental condition of young men.

The Boston YMCA first met in rooms rented on the fourth floor of a building on the corner of Washington and Summer Streets but moved in the following year to the second floor of the Tremont Temple. In 1872, the Boston YMCA purchased the Gymnasium Building on Tremont and Eliot Streets. It relocated in 1883 to a larger building at the corner of Berkeley and Boylston Streets. After a fire destroyed the Boylston building in 1910, the Boston YMCA launched a fund-raising campaign for the construction of its present home on Huntington Avenue. In 1911, President William Taft laid the cornerstone. In 1913, the Huntington Avenue building was opened for business.

By 1853, the Boston YMCA had 1,500 members, most of whom were merchants and artisans. Members, who were evangelical Christians, paid an annual membership fee to use the facilities, including a library and reading room, gymnasium, parlor, and auditorium. The Boston YMCA also provided job placements as well as educational, religious, and social activities and services. Membership fees, donations, and funds raised through lectures and fairs paid for operating expenses.

In its nascent years, the Boston YMCA was governed by two bodies: the Standing Committee, which consisted of two elected persons from each evangelical denomination represented in the Boston area, and the Board of Managers, which comprised 12 men from the Standing Committee.  In 1888 the association abolished the Standing Committee and reorganized the Board of Managers as a 21-member Board of Directors with enlarged powers. Members chose the directors for a four-year term, and the Board selected the president and other volunteer officers. In the same year, men were allowed to join the Boston YMCA as active members without regard to religious affiliation. In 1936, women were admitted as members. One year later, the Boston YMCA created the General Assembly, which gave branch units representation on the governing bodies.

Because of political, physical, and population changes in Boston during the second half of the century, the Boston YMCA established branch divisions to satisfy the needs of local neighborhoods. Some early units included: the German Branch (1880); the Tremont Row Branch (1884); Charlestown Branch (1891); the Boston & Maine Railroad Branch (1901); the Ruggles Street Branch (renamed Ford Branch) (1908); the Chinese Branch (1914); and the Army-Navy Branch (renamed the Army-Navy YMCA) (1918). By 1920, each branch had its own Board of Managers with its own branch council. The Board of Directors of the Boston YMCA became a citywide administrative body.

From its early days, the Boston YMCA offered educational classes. In 1853-1854, it sponsored free literary exercises and Bible instruction taught by ministers and qualified lay people. In 1895, the association's educational classes were organized as the "Evening Institute of the Boston YMCA," a vocational school. In the following year, Frank Palmer Speare, Northeastern University's first president from 1917-1940, was appointed the director of educational activities. He urged the development of school facilities for people who could not afford college or who worked during the day. From 1903 to 1909, the Evening Institute opened the Automobile School, the Evening Polytechnic School, the Evening School of Law, the School of Commerce and Finance, and the Day Cooperative School of Engineering. By 1916, the educational department was incorporated as the Northeastern College of the Boston YMCA and in 1922, Northeastern became a university.  In 1948, Northeastern University became a separate organization from the YMCA.

The Boston YMCA was especially interested in providing strong moral guidance and leadership for its youth members.  It sponsored social clubs and community service organizations; provided physical and athletic activities; and organized social events. In 1899, the association hosted its first camping season at Sandy Island Men's Camp (formerly, Camp Buena Vista) at Lake Winnepauskee, NH. In subsequent years, the Boston YMCA purchased or leased property to provide more day camps for its young members. Some of the camps included: Camp Ousamequin (1922), Camp Dorchester (1923), Camp North Woods (1928), and Pleasant Valley Camp (1968).

Since its establishment in 1851, the Boston YMCA has enjoyed a long history as a charitable association dedicated to improving the mind, body, and spirit of its members.  The association continues to offer social and educational activities and programs.  In 1975, the Boston YMCA launched the Black Achievers Branch to recognize African American professionals for their career accomplishments and to develop a mentor program for its young black members. In 1984, the association established Training, Inc., a nationally recognized job training program for adults whose second language is English. The Boston YMCA opened the International Learning Center in 1990 to teach computer classes and provide English language instruction. The association presently maintains 31 branches and program centers.

The Massachusetts Historical Commission, Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, Phoenix Property Company, Northeastern University and the YMCA of Greater Boston reached an agreement on November 17, 2011, furthering the partnership between these two institutions. The agreement allowed for the Huntington Avenue YMCA's aging gymnasium and connecting structures to be razed, the remaining buildings to be renovated, and Northeastern to build a dormitory onsite. As part of this agreement the history of the YMCA of Greater Boston, its historical structures, and its connection to Northeastern have been documented, preserved, and made accessible through preservation photography, oral histories, online and onsite exhibitions, and a scaled 3D model of the Huntington Avenue Branch to be displayed in perpetuity in its historic lobby.


Annual Reports (1994-1995). (Box 3, Folder 38)

Black Achievers. Brochures (1997). (Box 4, Folder 55B)

Doggett, L.L. History of the Boston Young Men's Christian Association. (Boston: The Young Men's Christian Association, 1901) [BV 1050.B7D64]

“Here's Y!”  Newsletter (Autumn 1996). (Box 18, Folder 265)

Whiteside, William B. The Boston Y.M.C.A. and Community Need: A Century's Evolution, 1851-1951. (New York: Association Press, 1951). [BV 1050.B7W5]