During the booming 1880s, Marion became home to the first Young Men’s Christian Association in Kansas. The stately, three-story stone building was constructed in August 1887 on the northwest corner of Fifth and Main streets. The only other building on that block was a hotel at the west end.
The building was destroyed by fire in December 1954.
The Oct. 14, 1887, issue of the Marion Record reported the following:
“Marion is erecting the first YMCA building in Kansas. It will, when completed, be a substantial and beautiful structure, furnished with a library, a reading and school room, a gymnasium, bath room, and lecture room, and with all the modern appliances for such purposes, and will cost $15,000.”
Earlier that year, readers were encouraged to send in contributions for the project.
According to the Oct. 21, 1887, issue of the Marion Record, the state convention of the YMCA, held at Wichita, printed advertising circulars that included “a full picture of the YMCA building in Marion.” Editor E.W. Hoch said the circular was “fine advertisement for Marion.”
A month later, when Florence was considering organizing a YMCA, this description of Marion’s organization was published in the Florence Bulletin:
“No one can fail to see what the association has done for Marion and the towns around us; not only giving them a moral religious tone but drawing in the best classes of society — to help build up and improve them.
“Its object is to lead young men in the paths of purity and truth; to pick them up out of a fallen condition, if such be the case, and reform and make men out of them; to shut up the place of vice and crime: to furnish moral entertainment for the young who would otherwise be wandering around the streets; to build up business; and by working out the direct object of the church, to be as great an organization.”
The article stated that Marion had 100 members enrolled in the YMCA. A women’s auxiliary also was functioning.
A picture of the Marion YMCA building appeared in the Chicago paper, Watchman, during the same month. On the front of the ornate building was the inscription: YMCA Building 1887.
The “Handbook of Marion County, Kansas,” published in Chicago in 1888, stated: “This noble structure, which is the only one of the kind in Kansas, is located in the very heart of the city upon lots valued at $5,000 and generously donated by Mr. Alex E. Case.”
The handbook also stated the building was “elegantly and entirely furnished by voluntary contributions.” It housed a library, reading rooms, gymnasium, meeting rooms, parlors, and bath and classrooms.
From November 1887 to October 1889, the Marion YMCA published a newspaper, The Lower Light.
According to “Marion County Kansas Past and Present” (1972), by Sondra Van Meter, the building did not exist long as a YMCA: “The organization looked ahead to many years of service to the community, but before it was five years old, financial difficulties reduced its programs.”
Although the building was turned into offices, apartments, storage, and retail businesses, it continued to be known as the “YMCA building.”
The late Phyllis Melton remembered the structure well. Her parents moved to Marion in 1909. For many years, her father, S.W. Williamson, operated a furniture store in the building. He closed the store in 1936.
Melton said the building extended almost to the alley and contained beautiful wood and windows. The basement had a swimming pool and a bowling alley. Melton also recalled the building had an elevator that worked with ropes.
A second-story ballroom was accessed by way of a broad central stairway that led from the front of the first floor to the second floor. The ballroom had an arched blue ceiling adorned with stars.
In 1935, Dr. Robert Melton, Phyllis’ future husband, moved to Marion and established his office on the first floor of the building. After the flood of 1951, he moved his office to the front of the second floor, where it remained until the building burned. A small balcony off the office was used by the Melton family and friends to view Old Settlers’ Day parades.
Melton recalled the night of the fire, Dec. 1, 1954. She said it was 20 degrees outside. At least five fire departments responded as the whole inside of the building became engulfed in flames. When firemen sprayed water on the building, it formed ice on the street.
Two Marion fire-fighting units received assistance from Hillsboro, Lincolnville, Florence, Peabody, and Cottonwood Falls. They were able to prevent it from spreading to the adjoining building.
Melton said two small rooms with false ceilings remained after the fire was extinguished. Dr. Melton was able to reclaim patient histories, some lab equipment, and his desk. Everything else was lost.