The Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) has its roots in England as early at 1855. Two organizations, the Prayer Union and the General Female Training Institute, formed at the same time to provide a variety of services to young single women who were working outside of the home. Young women were working away from their homes because of opportunities and necessities present due to the industrial revolution and the Crimean War.
The development of the YWCA in America happened under similar circumstances. More women were entering the work force and serving in the Civil War. For the first time, young women found themselves living away from their families in the big city. The YWCA offered safe, suitable, and affordable housing combined with a variety of services. The first official YWCA formed in Boston in 1866 and spread to six major cities by 1868. The YWCA provided a good moral environment for young working women to live, gain employment skills, participate in physical exercise, get a good noon meal, fulfill their spiritual needs and have morally accepted social activity.
The YWCA made its way to Indiana in 1885 and the first ones were associated with colleges and universities. The earliest urban YWCAs were in Fort Wayne (1894), Indianapolis (1895), and Terre Haute (1902). Many started out in private buildings until the necessary funds were raised to construct a new building to meet the specific needs of the YWCA. These new buildings had small parlors for receiving guests, reception areas, meeting rooms, a library, a cafeteria, and a gymnasium in addition to sleeping rooms to accommodate large numbers of members. The YWCA in Elkhart could hold 1,104 women while the building in Indianapolis had the first indoor swimming pool in the city.
Prior to World War I, social activities and employment opportunities for women were limited. The YWCA promoted the independence of women by offering classes, social gatherings, and an acceptable place to live. It also introduced an opportunity for personal and professional growth by bringing together the young working women of a community.
As members lost their jobs with the advent of the Depression, they had to leave the YWCA. Some women would work at the facility in return for meals and lodging. In an effort to maintain occupancy, the YWCA eased its requirements and allowed women over 35 and those that were married to move in. They also started income-earning activities like making and selling candy. The YWCA would also offer to rent its meeting space to local businesses and organizations for lower rates or for free. Such actions pushed the YWCA beyond being an organization for women. It became a community center.
Many YWCA buildings were designed by well-known local architects. Rubush and Hunter designed the Blue Triangle Residence Building in Indianapolis, E. Hill Turnock designed the YWCA in Elkhart, Thompson and Geary are created with the building in Evansville, and Kibele and Garard designed the Muncie facility. The YWCA clearly took pride in their organization and, consequently their buildings, to seek out the services of leading architects.
There are a few YWCAs in Indiana that have been recognized by the National Register including buildings in Elkhart, Muncie, Indianapolis, and Evansville. Other YWCA structures exist but only a few have been recognized for their historic value.