A Place in Time spotlights a significant cultural resource - a district, site, building, structure or object - entered in the National Register of Historic Places.
Centre Avenue YMCA, c. 1930 Urban League of Pittsburgh Records, University of Pittsburgh

Centre Avenue YMCA, c. 1930.
Urban League of Pittsburgh Records, University of Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh’s African American Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) originated in 1893 as a men’s Bible class at Old Bethel AME Church, which then formed a social and recreational club for young men and boys. This group was not officially recognized as a YMCA affiliate group until 1906, at which point they rented meeting space at 1847 Centre Avenue in the Hill District and became the third African American YMCA in the state, after Philadelphia’s Christian Street YMCA and Harrisburg’s Forster Street YMCA.

In 1910 the Chicago-based businessman Julius Rosenwald (1862–1932), who had made his fortune as the president and co-owner of Sears, Roebuck & Co., announced a new philanthropic fund to construct buildings for African American YMCAs nationwide. Any African American YMCA organization could receive $25,000 if they could raise $75,000 toward construction. The Centre Avenue association quickly began their fundraising campaign to purchase their own land and construct a permanent home. The future site, at the corner of Centre Avenue and Francis Street, was purchased in 1918 for $12,750.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Hill District was the center of the African American community in Pittsburgh. Known as “Little Harlem,” it was also a hub of Black culture, especially jazz, and Centre Avenue was the spine of the Black business corridor in the city. The YMCA’s new location was flanked by many African American churches and together they created the heart of the neighborhood.

Centre Avenue YMCA was built between 1922 and 1923 to the design of Pittsburgh architect Edward B. Lee, following a national typology of YMCA buildings established in the early 20th century, executed in the Classical Revival style. Most YMCA buildings occupied entire city blocks. The ground floors provided access to public recreational facilities, offices, classrooms and meeting rooms. The repetitive fenestration and ornamentation of upper floors reflected their function as dormitory rooms.

Dedication ceremony for Centre Avenue YMCA, 1923. Dorsey-Turfley Family Photographs, 1880-1987 (Bulk 1900-1950), MSP 455, Detre Library & Archives, Senator John Heinz History Center

Dedication ceremony for Centre Avenue YMCA, 1923.
Dorsey-Turfley Family Photographs, 1880-1987 (Bulk 1900-1950), MSP 455, Detre Library & Archives, Senator John Heinz History Center

When it opened in 1923, Centre Avenue YMCA followed this formula. The first floor housed the multipurpose community center, gymnasium, basketball court, swimming pool, boxing ring, weight room, laundry, kitchen, lunch counter, and meeting, reading and lecture rooms, while the upper floors contained 86 single-occupancy dormitory rooms with shared bathrooms, providing short- and long-term accommodations to African American visitors who were denied entrance to mainstream hotels that often only served white clientele. The restaurant offered affordable and nutritious meals to those who were unwelcome in white-owned restaurants. The rent and revenue secured additional income to operate the YMCA.

Centre Avenue YMCA provided its membership with social, intellectual and recreational opportunities through the mutual support of a tight-knit community and nurtured leadership skills and activism that would lead to greater equality and civil rights. Pittsburgh public school students often used the gyms and pools for physical education classes and the educational programs offered included English lessons, typing, architectural drawing, stenography, auto mechanics and driving lessons. Centre Avenue also had a choir, an orchestra, and an art society, which exhibited African American artists and held free Sunday afternoon lectures by African American cultural icons from W.E.B. DuBois and Mary McLeod Bethune to Marian Anderson, Langston Hughes and Paul Robeson. The membership used the social spaces to educate individual African Americans and organize local groups related to civil rights and racial solidarity. Centre Avenue YMCA became one of the critical places in the movement for African American social and economic justice.

Recently, Centre Avenue YMCA’s historic building was rehabilitated by Action Housing Inc. The first floor provides communal living spaces, and the upper floors house 74 single-room-occupancy units for stable and affordable housing and support services for some of Pittsburgh’s most vulnerable residents.

Centre Avenue YMCA was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on November 3, 2021, for its significance to Black history, recreation and architecture. It is of statewide significance as one of only 24 African American YMCAs nationwide built between 1912 and 1933. Of these, Centre Avenue YMCA is one of 13 still standing nationwide, and the only one in Pennsylvania.


Recent listings in the National Register of Historic Places include Brooklawn, West Marlborough Township, Chester County; Fairfax Apartments, Pittsburgh, Allegheny County; Hoyle, Harrison & Kaye Textile Mill, Philadelphia; Locust Grove Cemetery, Shippensburg, Cumberland County; Merchants Cigar Box Co., Dallastown, York County; Philadelphia & Reading Railway Lansdale Passenger Station, Lansdale, Montgomery County; and Western State Penitentiary, Riverside Penitentiary, Pittsburgh, Allegheny County.


Jenna Solomon is a historic preservation specialist who reviews National Register nominations in the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office.