The Boston Young Men’s Christian Union

Boston Young Men's Christian Union, Nathaniel J. Bradlee, 48 Boylston Street,, High Victorian Gothic architecture, Boston's oldest gymOne of Boylston Street’s High Victorian Gothic buildings is easy to miss, tucked as it is on a crowded block between Tremont Street and Washington Street.

The Boston Young Men’s Christian Union does its best to flaunt its polychromatic splendor and one can appreciate it by stepping back and looking up. At ground level, though, it’s easy to walk past this intriguing building on a block crowded with less original structures.

Still, it catches the eye. You just can’t keep these old Victorian dandies down.

The Boston Young Men’s Christian Union

A group of Harvard students founded the BYMCU in 1851 when Unitarians were excluded from the Boston YMCA, which was at that time an evangelical organization. The BYMCU was originally a religious study group that, over time, evolved into a social, intellectual, and religious organization for men.

The organization’s goal was to:

“…furnish the young men of Boston and vicinity a place of pleasant resort where the influences are beneficial and elevating, to provide them with opportunity of self-improvement and healthful recreation, at little or no expense; to give them opportunities for doing good, by engaging in charitable and benevolent work.”

The began in a location on School Street. The organization decided to construct its own building in 1873 and raised $270,000, which is equivalent to $5,719,087 today. That makes the founders fairly generous–not to mention well to do. They turned to Nathaniel J. Bradlee for the building’s design.

Nathaniel Jeremiah Bradlee

Nathaniel Jeremiah Bradlee grew up in downtown Boston on Avon Place (now Avon Street), a short street that runs from Washington Street, opposite Temple Place, to nearby Chauncy Street.  Upon his graduation from the Chauncy School, his only formal education, he was hired as a draftsman by George Dexter, who was then working with Edward Clarke Cabot on the Boston Athenaeum building on Beacon Street.

In order, Mr. Bradlee was promoted to a full partnership. When George Dexter died in 1856, Nathaniel Bradlee, then only 27, succeeded him as head of the firm. He produced a prolific body of work that includes many Boston structures that are no longer extant. These include:

  • The New England Mutual Life Insurance Company on Post Office Square (demolished 1945)
  • The Girls’ High School on Mason Street (demolished 1960)
  • A riding academy on Chestnut Street in Beacon Hill
  • The Tremont Street Gate to Boston Common
  • Trinity Church Chapel on Summer Street (burned 1872)

As President of the Boston Water Board, he oversaw the laying of 48 miles of new pipes and the construction of the Chestnut Hill Reservoir. He also designed the Cochituate Standpipe in Roxbury’s Highland Park. (Open to climbers on May 5 from 3:00 to 5:00 pm) Nathanial J. Bradlee was a man of many accomplishments and he made significant contributions to the city of Boston. His biography is well worth reading.

The High Victorian Gothic Building

Nathaniel J. Bradlee, architect, Boston

Nathaniel J. Bradlee

The BYMCU remains the best example of High Victorian Gothic architecture in Boston’s Central Business District. I have seen multiple construction dates, including 1873, 1875 and 1872 but 1875 appears to be the best date for completion of the original strucure.

The BYMCU went up after the Great Fire of 1872, which gave Mr. Bradlee fertile ground for his design. As Jane Holtz Kay says in “Lost Boston,”

“…this was a period for fancy. Individualism reigned and a picturesque and personalized architecture was its hallmark.”

She adds:

“Lidded by mansards; serrated by gables; grooved by geometric lines; and textured by glazed tile, brick, stone, terra cotta or copper, nothing restrained postfire architecture.”

Boston Young Men's Christian Union, 48 Boylston Street, Jeremiah Bradlee, High Victorian Gothic style, polychromy

The Boylston Street facade

You have only to look at the façade of 48 Boylston Street to see many elements of High Victorian Gothic architecture:

  • Polychrome, or multicolor, decoration in the construction materials
  • Varying textures
  • Strong vertical lines
  • Carvings of birds, leaves and gargoyles
  • Windows and doors accented with stone or brick trim
  • Pointed arches at windows and entrances
  • Decorative dormers and cross gables

America’s Oldest Gym

The new building incorporated space for “self-improvement and healthful recreation’’ and called itself “America’s Oldest Gym.’’

48 Boylston Street, facade, high Victorian Gothic architecture, Boston Young Men's Christian Union, 48 Boylston Street

The front door

The Boston Young Men’s Christian Union building is actually much larger than it appears thanks to additions in 1883, 1911, and 1956. It now extends at the rear into an irregular L shape.

Those simpler brick structures do not match the original, elaborate Boylston Street façade. Walking past them, you would never know the larger buildings are connected to the Young Men’s Christian Union at all.

The organization’s name appears above the front door carved in a simple sans-serif typeface that is totally unlike Gothic script.

Deterioration and Renovation

The building deteriorated in part due to its proximity to the old Combat Zone. A complete structural renovation in 2003 included major changes to both the exterior façade and interior facilities and finishes.

From the renovation until 2011 the building was called the Boylston Street Athletic Club, and was later known as the Boston Union Gym or BYMCU Athletic Club. In 2017 St. Francis House, in partnership with the Planning Office of Urban Affairs, purchased the building with the vision of creating 46 units of affordable housing, a social enterprise for employment training, new jobs for homeless individuals, and revitalizing the neighborhood!

Websites show the renovation underway but there is little sign of completion from the front door. Ground-floor retail space remains, unfortunately, empty and that gives the building a somewhat forlorn appearance.

The Boston Landmarks Commission designated the building at 48 Boylston Street as a Boston Landmark in 1977 and it was added to the National Historic Register in 1980.

The Passing of Nathaniel Bradlee

The man described by the Boston Globe as “one of the most successful men” of his era suffered a fatal stroke on a business trip at only 59 years old. Nathaniel J. Bradlee is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery.

Unlike many of his other structures, the Boston Young Men’s Christian Union abides.

Other Buildings by Bradlee