Theme: Spirituality & Community
The East Madison Branch of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) has been at the corner of 23rd Avenue and East Olive Street since 1936. It was renamed in 1993 to honor Meredith Mathews, its director from 1957 to 1965. This was the first YMCA facility of Greater Seattle to be named for an individual.
In the late 1920s, representatives of the community advocated for much-needed youth programs and asked the Seattle YMCA to fill this void by opening a branch in the Central Area. When the stock market collapsed in October 1929, plans for a new branch fell victim to the Great Depression. By 1936, the largely African American community was again appealing to YMCA leadership and longtime Y benefactors the Colman Family to invest in a new neighborhood branch. The Colmans were persuaded to donate the 23rd Avenue property—a modest building and grounds that formerly served as a tennis club—to the Y, and the site became the East Madison YMCA.
The branch operated on an entirely volunteer basis, with some financial support from Kenneth Colman but no funding from the Seattle YMCA, until 1942. By that time, World War II rearranged the city’s demographic profile. Nearly 7,000 Japanese residents were forced to relocate to internment camps for the duration of the war, while African Americans were populating the city for wartime jobs. The military was segregated, and the downtown Y was not friendly to Black soldiers. The East Madison branch became an Armed Services YMCA for African American servicemen. The old tennis club was remodeled, and a Quonset hut was constructed on site. The hut served as a canteen and dormitory and was a popular location for USO activities. In 1943, an average of 400 to 600 servicemen used the branch’s facilities each week.
Approaching the end of the war, the branch had become a venue for some of the best-known jazz and rhythm and blues musicians in the Northwest and was beginning to increase its outreach to attract young people to its newly developed youth programs. From 1957 to 1965, programming grew exponentially under the direction of Meredith Mathews.
In 1965, a modern structure designed by University of Washington grad and African American architect Leon Bridges was built to include a gymnasium, swimming pool, activity rooms, and offices. This was Bridge’s first design job. He later relocated to Baltimore to open his own firm and taught at Morgan State University. The Y was remodeled and enlarged again in 1991. The Meredith Mathews-East Madison Branch YMCA is the largest provider of youth education and development programs among all YMCAs of Greater Seattle.