Historic YMCA Transformed Into Artsy Apartment Complex In Downtown Granite City
Editor’s note: This story was originally published by the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.
Granite City was already dealing with vacant buildings and other downtown deterioration in 2004, when the YMCA moved out of a landmark four-story brick building on Edison Avenue.
Since that time, government officials, business people and community leaders have been working to turn things around.
Their efforts got a big boost this summer.
A nonprofit development organization has completed a $11 million renovation on the old YMCA building, turning it into an apartment complex for artists, veterans and others with incomes at or below 60 percent of the region’s median. Tenants are now moving into its 37 units.
“When it was a YMCA, I came here swimming,” said Randy Carter, 66, a retired warehouse employee who’s renting a one-bedroom apartment. “I used to stay in Madison. I’m getting out of a great big house.”
The new Edison Avenue Art Lofts are part of a larger vision to transform downtown Granite City into a thriving arts-and-entertainment district. Plans call for the complex to eventually include an art gallery and studio space for visiting artists.
Renovations were made possible in part by nearly $3 million in federal and state historic tax-credit equity, requiring contractors to save many original features. The 1924 building had been placed on the National Register of Historic Places four years ago.
The city essentially donated the building to Rise Community Development. The organization is based in St. Louis, but it also works on neighborhood-revitalization projects in the metro-east.
The city had owned the YMCA building since 2005, according to the Madison County assessor’s office.
“The city held onto it, waiting for the right development,” said Brenda Whitaker, director of art, entertainment and tourism. “So this has been a long time in the making.”
Whitaker also owns three restaurants and serves as executive director of Alfresco Productions cultural center.
Interior had ‘seen better days’
Rise started renovations on the old YMCA building in early 2020, working with St. Louis-based general contractor Altman Charter Co.
While in city possession, the building had been used for United Service Organizations (USO) housing, Halloween haunted houses and police tactical training. It also had sat vacant for long periods.
People sneaked into the building and painted graffiti on walls and caused other damage. Trash and debris included shell casings from police-fired blanks and coffins and other props from haunted houses.
“Structurally, it was in good shape, but the interior had seen better days,” said Mark Stroker, director of real estate development for Rise.
Altman Charter coordinated with architects at Rosemann & Associates in St. Louis to create 25 one-bedroom and 12 two-bedroom apartments, all with different floor plans.
The complex has an industrial feel, embracing its past as a health and fitness center. Wooden bleachers line a hallway leading to five loft-style apartments carved out of the old gymnasium. They showcase original brick walls and maple floors and reproduction lighting reminiscent of the “Hoosiers” basketball era.
Other historic features include the lobby’s black-and-white tile floor and oak woodwork and reception desk; a stained-glass window over the entrance; and a brick fireplace with the triangular YMCA logo.
“We redid all this,” said Mark Ehlert, project superintendent for Altman Charter. “It was in shambles when we got here.”
Also saved were the wooden doors lining hallways on upper levels. They once led to dormitory-style rooms, where the YMCA allowed down-on-their-luck men to stay in the 1920s and ‘30s.
The dance studio and racquetball courts have been converted into apartments. The complex also offers a computer lab, exercise room and laundry.
The non-functional, glazed-brick swimming pool on the lower level will be left alone for now. Officials hope someone will open a coffee shop or other business in an unfinished commercial space.
Focus on artists and veterans
Edison Avenue Art Lofts is now owned by a private limited partnership, including Associated Bank as principal investor. The complex is overseen by a Rise affiliate, Stroker said.
All 37 apartments are rented. They range from 500 to 991 square feet and cost $525 to $750 a month.
Rents were required to be “affordable” since the project received more than $6 million in federal low-income housing tax-credit equity, as well as loans from Madison County and the state of Illinois.
Tenants can be any age as long as they meet income requirements.
“The development is focused on serving artists and veterans who are interested in living downtown, (where) amenities such as City Hall, restaurants and coffee shops, a movie theater and parks are within walking distance,” according to a blog post by Larry Perlmutter, communications and development director for Rise.
A ribbon-cutting ceremony is planned soon. People interested in renting apartments can put their names on a waiting list by contacting McCormack Baron Management at 618-271-6970 or email@example.com.
One person excited about the downtown project is longtime Granite City volunteer Conrad “Babe” Champion, 89, a retired schoolteacher and coach who worked at the YMCA from 1949 to 1956.
Champion was still in high school when he started in the “boy’s area,” where men and boys checked in their clothes before going swimming in their “birthday suits” (nude). The YMCA even had a boxing ring, helping to produce multiple Golden Gloves competitors.
Champion eventually earned $4,200 a year. He and his late wife, Sue, didn’t have much to spend on their wedding reception in 1953, so the YMCA management allowed them to use a small room for free.
“The YMCA was the center of everything in Granite City in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s,” Champion said.
In 2004, the Granite City YMCA moved to the former Tri-City Regional Port District, now America’s Central Port, and became Tri-City YMCA. Last year, officials announced that they were ending health and fitness programs due to COVID-related losses and transitioning to a youth-development center.
Teri Maddox is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.