Where there is now a parking lot …

The history of the second Cranbrook Gymnasium and Recreation Club Building

Top: The location of Cranbrook’s first indoor swimming pool on the corner of 8th Avenue and 1st Street is now a parking lot – Cameron 2014. Bottom: An undated aerial view of Cranbrook

Top: The location of Cranbrook’s first indoor swimming pool on the corner of 8th Avenue and 1st Street is now a parking lot – Cameron 2014. Bottom: An undated aerial view of Cranbrook

Jim Cameron

Built by the Methodist congregation and opened in early 1906, the first Cranbrook Gymnasium and Recreation Club building proved immediately popular with the young men of the community, young men for whom the Methodists wished to provide an alternative to the “darker” side of life easily found within the community.

It was a substantial building, constructed immediately behind the small Methodist Church on the northeast corner of 8th Avenue and 1st Street. Within a few years, however, it became apparent that the facility was lacking something, something which the Methodists decreed to be none other than a swimming pool.

With the Gyro outdoor swimming pool some 20 years in the future there was, for those of an aquatic persuasion, nothing to be done in the cold months of the year.

So saying, Reverend W.E. Dunham, in October 1911, laid public the plans for a newer, bigger and better gymnasium and recreation club by way of the addition of a large indoor swimming pool.

The necessary funding appeared in short order, with construction slated to begin in November despite fears of frosts preventing connection to the city sewer lines.

Still, as is often the case, time slipped by and it was not until March 1912, that local architect F.S. Rosseter unveiled plans for the new structure. Erected immediately to the rear of the earlier gymnasium, the building was to feature two storeys upon a full basement (which the first building lacked), and both a larger gym and reading room. Plans changed somewhat in the ensuing months with, at first, a decision to move the original gym across the street before adding to it and then, by September 1912, to abandon the first building completely and construct the second gymnasium and recreation building directly across the street on an empty lot on the southwest corner of 8th Avenue and 1st Street.

The contract was awarded to local builders Baker & Banfield in October and  preparation began soon after with the excavation of the lot. It all went well with the exception of W.E. Worden’s team of horses, while clearing the ground, becoming temporarily (it is hoped) lost in a cesspool present on the property, which undoubtedly says something for the state of the city’s sewage system at the time.

By late November, aided by mild weather, the concrete foundation was nearly complete.

The building officially opened on March 21, 1913. The large, wooden, rectangular structure may have been lacking in elegance — it was, in fact, little more than a very large, rectangular box (thus predating the majority of Cranbrook commercial construction for decades to come) — but its mere existence made up for any cosmetic shortfalls.

Measuring 30 by 80 feet and standing nearly two-and-a-half storeys tall (the basement was situated partially above ground level), it met with general public approval. General entrance was achieved via a broad staircase leading to a first floor verandah, onwards to a 16 by 20 foot entrance hall and then to the gymnasium itself. The gym measured 30 by 60 feet with a 16-and-a-half foot ceiling surrounded by 10-foot wainscoting and 12 windows. A 20 by 29 foot room directly over the entrance hall constituted the combination reading room/spectators gallery, closed off from the gym by sliding windows.

Basement stairs and a corridor led to the swimming pool, hereafter referred to as a “tank,” according to the custom of the day. The solid cement, 20 by 40 foot tank, ranging from three to seven feet deep, was situated towards one corner of the tank room with a locker room, a dressing room, a furnace room, lavatories and “shower baths” in conjunction. It was proudly declared that the swimming tank was larger than those of the Spokane and Vancouver YMCAs of the time.

A coal-fired furnace provided steam to maintain the water at 75F (24C) throughout the year. The gym was soon supplied with gymnastic, basketball, handball, indoor baseball and tennis equipment.

Notably, the Methodists decreed the building open to men of all religions, a departure from the majority of the local clubs and lodges of the day. Further, it was decided to form a Ladies Auxiliary to the also newly formed “Young Men’s Club” that would see to the needs of the ladies who were allowed to utilize the building every Monday afternoon and Thursday evening.

The Young Men’s Club did well over the next few years despite the gaps left by the young men going to war but, by the mid-1920s, things were not going as well. Social and entertainment functions in the gym helped to keep it afloat but it appears athletes of the town gradually took to pursuits elsewhere. By 1926, plans were afoot for the building to become home to the Great War Veterans Association (the present day Royal Canadian Legion) but fell through when the vets constructed their own building on Baker Street the following year.

The old gym maintained an occasional presence within the athletic scene into the 1930s, but was gradually converted to apartments on the upper levels and joined by Stewart’s Auto Wreckers in the basement.

A fire in 1954 did considerable damage but the old building lingered, little more than a vacant eyesore until it was renovated in the 1960s and used once again as a commercial/residential property.

It was demolished a number of years ago and the site is now a parking lot containing no hint of Cranbrook’s first indoor swimming pool.

janusthenandnow@shaw.ca