“YMCA” by the Village People was one of this biggest hits of the disco era, and indeed, of the entire 1970s. The group, with its members portraying various macho stereotypes --- cowboy, Indian, leather-clad biker, construction worker – was known for its songs, which on the surface were tributes to American institutions such as the YMCA and the Navy, but which also were replete with gay double-entendres that Middle America often didn’t get.
The opening shots of the official “YMCA” video, however, might confuse some current Chelsea residents. You see a huge sign, “McBurney YMCA,” but instead of today’s familiar McBurney Y on West 14th Street, you see a different building. The older building, on West 23rd Street between 7th and 8th avenues, is still there, and was the home of the McBurney Y from 1904, when it was built, until 2002, when it moved to 14th Street.
This wasn’t the Y’s first home on 23rd Street. The original one, built in 1869, was also on 23rd Street, but on Fourth Avenue, according to the New York City YMCA’s official site. It was a French Renaissance-style building that also served as the headquarters of the city’s YMCA organization. When the “new” building opened in 1904, according to site, it boasted a roof garden, a cork running track and a marble-lined swimming pool.
Over the years, wrestling, track and swim meets were often held at the Y, as well as plays and concerts. In 1941, the building was renamed in honor of Robert Ross McBurney, an Irish immigrant who served as head of the citywide YMCA organization in the late 19th century. During the civil rights era of the 1950s and ‘60s, the McBurney Y regularly hosted meetings of the Urban League, a rights group that was part of the coalition that planned the 1963 March on Washington.
The Y also contained a residence building with an entrance on 24th Street. One of the most notable temporary residents was playwright William Saroyan, author of “The Time of Your Life,” who stayed there in 1928. Charles Merrill and Edmund Lynch, founders of the famed Wall Street firm, met while both were staying at the Y during the early 1900s.
In 1994, the Y moved its teen program as well as Elesair, a program designed to help new immigrants, into a building on West 17th Street it leased from the Xavier parochial school. Since the new building had a gym facility, the teens were overjoyed. “Before, we had to share the gym with adults, which meant only five hours a week for teen-agers compared to over 40 hours now,” the New York Times quoted Nicole Libone, the program director, as saying.
In 1998, the Y undertook a study about the building’s future, and eventually concluded that it would have to move. It purchased the old Armory site on 14th Street with the purpose of building a new home for the McBurney facility. One sore point was the fate of the people in the 24th Street residence, most of whom, by that point, were low-income and elderly.
The original plan made no provision for the residents, but a compromise was reached when Common Ground, a social service agency, agreed to take over the residence building on 24th Street. It is now known as the Christopher, and provides 207 units of permanent supportive housing for low-income and formerly homeless adults and people living with AIDS.
Visually, the main entrance to the former McBurney Y building on 23rd Street is dominated by a huge sign for the Crunch gym. The gym has been there since 2014; previously, it was the David Barton gym, famed for its celebrities and its nightclub-like ambience.