by Shannon Butler

This week in our Local History Blog we are continuing in a series of articles that will look at buildings that once stood in Poughkeepsie. Today we are going to take a look at the Y.W.C.A. building that once stood on Cannon Street. The building itself was used by the Y for almost 70 years before it was raised in order to make a larger parking lot, which is sad when one considers the history of its use and the work that was put into its creation.

The Young Women’s Christian Association got its start back in the 1850s but the official chapter for Dutchess County was founded in 1881. That first year they held their meetings at 297 Main Street in Poughkeepsie. The following year they moved to Garden Street and had 40 members on the books. In 1889, Dr. Grace Kimball, a local doctor and missionary, was elected to serve as President which she continued to do for the next 41 years. Under her administration, the Y would grow to offer more classes for young women and better opportunities for growth. Several prominent donors would contribute to the organization at this time including William Smith (of the Smith Brothers Cough drop company) who gave them the land on Cannon Street to build their own meeting house. Not only did he give them the land but he also donated 50 cents for every dollar donated from elsewhere. In 1905 this money allowed the Y to hire one of Poughkeepsie’s leading architects, Percival Lloyd.

There was much excitement over the creation of their new establishment, one of the young women even wrote a song for the occasion,

“On the left bank of the Hudson
Where the oarsmen each year meet
Stands the city of Poughkeepsie
Queen of the Empire State

And she claims one organization
With which few will dare compete
Young Women’s Christian Association
When you’re our way come and greet

We’ve been working for our building
And the future now is bright
We have thirteen thousand dollars
And a kind of friend gives the site

We shall have the state convention
When out building is complete
Things too numerous to mention
Will be ours when next we meet”

The Y moved into their new building in January of 1906 which had a gym on the first floor and a bowling alley in the basement. This extra space allowed them to expand their classes to offer bible studies, basket making, hat and dress making, English literature, and Swedish gymnastics just to name a few. By that point they had a budget of about $6200 a year and over 600 members. Money was coming in from big name donors all over the city, including E.P. Platt, John E. Adriance, and Ida Lansing Smith.

During both World Wars, the women at Cannon Street made themselves useful to the war effort as the Red Cross used the space to teach women how to make surgical dressings. Some of the Y’s members even made their way overseas including Dr. Alive Stone Woolley, who served as the physical director for the Y and went to France to serve in the medical field. Mrs. Vincent Astor showed up in 1918 to give a speech to the girls informing them of the importance of their work. During the Second World War, the main gym at Cannon Street was used for USO dances and entertainment.

Although the association spoke of Christian values and the acceptance of all (and indeed, women from every denomination in the area joined the ranks, as seen in the image to the right) that concept didn’t necessarily apply when it came to the issue of race. There was a very clear separation between white and black members, even an entire separate building which had been designated as a black community center on Catherine Street. There, young black women were taught some of the same classes that were offered in the white facility. Integration didn’t take place until the mid-20th century as the Civil Rights Movement itself was beginning to pick up steam.

The Y added a second building to their holdings on Bancroft Road but by the 1960s, the building on Cannon street was in need of much repair. The decision was made to sell it off to the urban renewal program in 1972. It was torn down not long after and is now the site of a parking lot, but for nearly 70 years, it was a place where women could go to learn, exercise, and worship.

If you are interested in seeing our YWCA collection, please send us an email