SIOUX CITY | In the 1950s, two things struck me each time I walked through the front door of the Young Women's Christian Association at 619 Sixth St.
First was the ornate beauty of the Turkish-style mosaic tile floors that graced the main lobby and then the sting of the strong scent of chlorine. Even though the large swimming pool was on the lower level, that chemical smell wafted up the steps to the floor above that featured a large kitchen and dining room, meeting and program rooms, offices, lounges and a gymnasium.
Like thousands of other kids, I learned to swim in that pool under the guidance of well-known swimming coach Allie Montagne and others.
I dreaded walking through the narrow, cave-like entry from the girls dressing room to the pool. Each swimmer had to take a subzero shower at the entrance, presumably to wash away contaminates, and then hop through foot-stinging, cold disinfectant tubs to reach the other side.
"All water used here is first sterilized with an ultra-violet ray system insuring perfect health conditions for the girls who use it," a 1923 brochure assured parents.
I recalled those memories while reading about plans to create Shepherd's Garden on the lot that once housed the Y in downtown Sioux City.
"We went to dances there every Saturday night after games in 1949 to the early 1950s," said Nancy Horton, of Sioux City. "Those dances were for all the high school students. We were well chaperoned. I guess they wanted to keep us kids off the streets!"
The dances were sponsored by the Sahara Club. A number of clubs and organizations called the YWCA home through the years, including the Y-Wives, said member Vicki Bata, of Sioux City.
"Our main event was to decorate the Y for Christmas. We had quite a few trees and many were really tall," Bata said. "We held luncheons there. Loose meats were a favorite."
The Urban-Rural Christmas Fair drew thousands each December. The Y, which opened in 1900 at another location, kept up with current events. During World War I, volunteers made surgical dressings and knitted items for soldiers. During the Depression, the Y provided rooms for young out-of-town working girls who couldn't afford an apartment. The employees took pay cuts to keep the Y open.
In 1936, the Y became home to flood evacuees, and did so again during the big Missouri River flood of 1952, and in 1953 for those displaced by the Floyd River flood. During World War II, Y volunteers maintained a housing registry to find housing for servicemen stationed at the Sioux City Air Base, as well as running USO programs at the base.
During the polio epidemic in the 1950s, the Y opened its pool to post-polio victims for water therapy.
Through the years, the Y offered a range of programs for women and girls, including crafting, exercise, health and sewing classes to hosting basketball games, publishing cookbooks and putting out a newspaper. Many groups held events at the Y -- the Piano Teachers Association held recitals and Quota Club held its annual Honors Luncheon for ninth-grade girls there.
By 1985, membership had dropped. The Y board faced paying off a debt and making an estimated $1 million in repairs.
"It was going to be quite expensive to do," said then-board member Carolyn Rants of Sioux City, who had taken her sons to swimming lessons at the pool. "The Y really did not have that kind of money competing against other organizations."
In 1985, Rants led the YWCA delegation to work out details to merge with the YMCA, which created the Siouxland Y at 722 Nebraska St. The Sixth Street YWCA building, which had opened in 1923, remained mostly empty except for a time when a private gym called it home. It had several owners. After a flood left mold, city inspectors declared the building unfit for occupancy.
The building was demolished in December 1985, leaving a weedy, empty lot. Soon, those weeds will be transformed into a spiritual garden with flowers, trees and other features.
"It was a women's organization's building," Rants said. "It had that feel to it that no other place had. In its era, it was the place to be."