To Thomas B. Hargrave Jr., president of the Metropolitan Washington YMCA, the Anthony Bowen building had become like a dying man. After years of deterioration, the final death blows were a new critical fire inspection and safety report, plus a yearly deficit that climbed to $28,122. That, he said, left the YMCA no choice but to pull the plug on the historic 73-year-old structure in Shaw.
But to Hargrave's critics, the YMCA itself is to blame for allowing Bowen to deteriorate, while the organization was busy constructing an impressive new $5.3 million downtown facility and expanding its programs outside the immediate Shaw area.
As the controversy over the decision to close the Bowen building continues--the D. C. Federation of Civic Associations decided Friday to oppose the closing--both sides marshaled facts and figures. At issue is the assertion of Hargrave and virtually the entire YMCA board that the Bowen building was dying on its own, versus the contention of community critics that Bowen was neglected and ultimately abandoned, and that it can and should be saved.
When it was closed last Tuesday, few programs remained at the Bowen site, 1816 12th St. NW, the home of the first black YMCA chapter in the nation. In the last two decades the swimming pool, cafeteria, several meeting rooms and 32 dormitory rooms were closed. The basketball court was so deteriorated that youngsters could only use part of the floor because of structural defects and termites, Hargrave said.
Since 1967, Hargrave said, the YMCA had planned to rebuild both Bowen and the old downtown facility at 18th and G streets NW, which formerly was for whites only, because both structures were deteriorating. By the mid-1970s, however, with real estate and construction costs rising at more than 10 percent yearly, it became clear that the YMCA could only afford one new building and that a downtown presence was "crucial," Hargrave said. Bowen was put on the back burner, but $500,000 was set aside toward building a new center, he said.
In 1979, Hargrave said, a detailed study by YMCA building experts concluded that because of Bowen's aging all-wood interior and numerous structural defects, the YMCA "should abandon any further plans to attempt to prolong the life of this building." The YMCA continued pouring money into repairs, he said, but finally decided last week that the spending was fruitless.
Over the weekend, a new sign was posted on the Bowen front door, saying that "YMCA programs are now operating at locations throughout the community . . . A new Anthony Bowen YMCA building is coming!"
However, several Bowen board members who stood outside the building yesterday were skeptical and questioned whether the YMCA will follow through on its commitments.
"It's an indictment of the YMCA that they let things get so bad," said Tilmon O'Bryant, 61, a retired assistant D.C. police chief who used the Bowen YMCA as a youngster. "I think they just want to sell it and make money on it." O'Bryant said the closing represents to him YMCA's "failure" in the black community.
With him was another Bowen board member, Andrew Bryant, 52, an architect who has inspected the building and believes that it could be made safe with as little as $5,000 in repairs, comparedwith the YMCA estimate that even with $75,000 to $100,000 in repairs, Bowen would still be unsafe.
"They've been trying to find a reason to tear it down," Bryant said. "To them it is just a business. I talk to them about the history of it and they said they can't be bothered by relics."
Because of Bowen's historic significance, Hargrave said his critics are allowing emotion to interfere with what he sees as a prudent decision that was based on a concern for youngsters' safety, and a sound business decision that will eventually benefit the black community.
"The building is a symbol and people are operating out of sentiment," Hargrave said, "It's a nice thing to try to keep it open, but we are draining ourselves to death, and it would be just to keep a presence at the building for memory's sake."
YMCA has shown its commitment to the black community through various neighborhood programs and by using nearly half its $400,000 yearly United Way allocation for "inner city" programs, including $100,000 at Bowen, and $90,000 for an "outreach" program with offices at Benning Road in Northeast, Hargrave said. He said the YMCA's 12 other chapters have absorbed $84,388 in losses at Bowen in the last 10 years.
Hargrave pledged that because the YMCA will no longer be paying $60,000 yearly just for "occupancy expenses" such as heating and electricity, and will no longer be losing up to $28,000 yearly on Bowen, the organization will be able to expand its local operations at rented and donated space.
"We decided we are not going to pour money down a rat hole," he said, "We are going to put people to work--young, unemployed people" who will be hired to run new programs.
Hargrave, at the conclusion of a lengthy interview, accused some of his critics of "raving about a dead symbol." He includes in this group William H. Rumsey, who is chairman of Bowen's management committee and director of the D.C. Department of Recreation, and David A. Clarke, the Democratic council member from Ward 1, which includes Bowen. Hargrave called them "agitators trying to damage a great institution" by suggesting the YMCA is abandoning the black community, and further suggests that Clarke is capitalizing on the issue as part of an anticipated campaign to be elected chairman of the City Council.
Clarke, who has strongly condemned what he calls Hargrave's "insensitivity" to the community and its history, said he expected such criticism because Hargrave is also the campaign finance chairman for Arrington Dixon, the current council chairman.
On Friday, the D.C. Federation of Civic Associations, representing more than 50 civic groups, unanimously adopted a resolution urging the YMCA to reopen Bowen or rebuild it on its present site, according to Arthur Meigs, the federation president, who said there was a "real wave of support from all parts of the city" to save Bowen.