Tear those stairs down! Much maligned YMCA structure is going away

Long a symbol of the seemingly never-ending construction at the YMCA of Greenwich, the wooden staircase outside the facility will soon be a memory, as it’s finally coming down.

The event is such a milestone for the YMCA, which has been in a period of rebirth thanks to a new CEO and new funding to finally finish the interior renovation of the historic building, that a special ceremony was held last Friday to mark the “first cut” into the staircase, which is being removed in earnest this week. With all the pomp and circumstance of a ribbon-cutting to start construction or launch an opening, YMCA staff and local elected officials, including First Selectman Peter Tesei, pushed down a portion of the wooden stairs to the sound of loud cheers from the crowd.

Removal of the stairs has been a long time coming. Originally the renovation of the interior was to be done as part of a two-step process that included the construction of the YMCA’s Olympic-sized pool. However, a lack of funding and several leadership changes at the facility pushed completion back years, and construction had been stopped at one point with the work uncompleted. But a loan and new private donations have gotten the renovation back on track and the work is still on schedule to be completed at the end of the month.

The ceremony was held just weeks into the tenure of new YMCA CEO Edward Philipp, and he said he could see what a significant milestone this was for the staff and for the members, who now have a very public sign that the end of the work is finally in sight.

“I’ve only been here four weeks so I actually think I underestimated at first what this means to the staff,” Mr. Philipp said to the Post. “You can see the excitement in their faces and so many of them came out here today to see this happen. This is a huge hurdle that’s been cleared and for them this means putting the struggles of the past in the past and moving forward into the future. It’s such a great day for them.”

YMCA Chief of Staff Dale Lucian echoed that sentiment. As someone who has seen those struggles and felt the sense that the project may never get moving, she said to the Post that this was a day that came with a real sense of victory to the staff.

“It’s been here for such a long time and I think most would agree that it’s been a little bit of an eyesore,” Ms. Lucian said. “People are really happy that we’ve reached this point and when people drive by here now and they see these are gone it’s going to be an invitation for them to come in and see the Y. These stairs are down for a reason and it’s because we’re ready to go.”

Ms. Lucian said the very day of the ceremony she had gone to the store and people, recognizing her from the YMCA, had come up to her and asked when the stairs would finally be coming down.

“I was able to tell them, ‘Well, it’s going to happen in about two hours,’ and they thought I was joking,” Ms. Lucian said.

One part of the construction that remains is the tarp over the lettering on the outside of the building. According to Mr. Philipp, the intent is to have the original copper lettering restored and until that happens the tarp will have to remain. That restoration, which will likely come through new private donations, is expected to be the last thing done after all the interior work is complete and the facility is able to be at full capacity, and Mr. Philipp said the goal was to get it down “as soon as possible.”

“Once the construction is done and we get the go-aheads from the building department we will really be able to propel forward with our programming and meeting our members’ needs,” Mr. Philipp said. “Then we can focus on growing membership and offering services and programs to the community that they really need.”

While members of the public have suggested everything from taking an ax to the much loathed wooden stairs and chopping them into bits or even setting them on fire, a more practical solution is in place. The wood in the stairs will be given new life when it is repurposed for use at the Boys & Girls Club of Greenwich. The club’s executive director, Bob D’Angelo, was at the ceremony and told the Post that some of the wood would be used to build a treehouse at Camp Simmons on Lake Avenue and used to make an obstacle course.

“We want to put it to good use,” Mr. D’Angelo said. “We can make this into things for the kids to climb over or use as a balance beam. Once we get the wood we’re going to get to work on it and we’ll definitely have it in place for the kids to use next summer.”

Many public officials turned out for the event. In addition to Mr. Tesei, Selectman David Theis, State Sen. L. Scott Frantz (R-36) and State Reps. Livvy Floren (R-149) and Fred Camillo (R-151) were on hand to see the stairs start to go down. U.S. Rep. Jim Himes (D-4), a Cos Cob resident, took a tour of the ongoing construction on Tuesday afternoon.

“This is a historic landmark in our town and one that our residents have rightly recognized as a venerable institution here,” Mr. Tesei said. “Having it back in its original state without the stairs on the outside I think gives people confidence that its future is a good one. It’s been a long seven years and people are going to say ‘Wow, we can really see the progress.’”

A former member himself, Mr. Tesei noted the YMCA’s “great history” in town and said it was “great to see them moving forward after a little hiccup” because it can only enhance the Greenwich community.

Mr. Frantz added, “We all knew this day was inevitable because the stairs would have to come down as part of the process of the reconstruction. It was just up a lot longer than anybody expected and that entire time it’s been up it was really speaking to the community about what’s been going on here. That was misinterpreted to have people think that the whole thing was falling apart because people couldn’t pass by without seeing it for so many years. Now that this symbol is going to be coming down I really think it provides a boost, but I believe that even before this happened the YMCA had turned a corner and is on its way back to health. I think the community is going to recognize that real soon.

 

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