York Town Square

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Should someone have a fundraiser in that old York U.S.O.? How did they play basketball in that little thing?

This Pennsylvania Dutch Hex symbol still appears on the wall of the old York County Academy gymnasium, to the rear of North Beaver Street in York. It was painted there as part of decorating  work in making the old gymnasium the Pennsylvania Dutch Canteen, a U.S.O. hangout in World War II. See a photograph of the paintings when the canteen was operating:  York County’s USO junior hostesses in World War II: ‘Patriotic to look pretty’.

When I look at the small brick building across from St. John’s Episcopal Church, I wonder two things.

Why doesn’t someone seize on its still-decorated interior and have a fundraiser featuring World War II garb and music? People could dance on the old gym floor. And How did they play basketball in that little thing?

Oh, and I think a third thing. Too bad, the gymnasiums of the two historic  institutions that formed York College of Pennsylvania – the York County Academy and York Collegiate Institute were demolished and only their gyms survived. The Voni B. Grimes gym on, yes, College Avenue, is the former athletic facility for York Collegiate Institute.

All this is so intriguing that I’ll include York Sunday News columnist Gordon Freireich’s recent column on the old U.S.O./gymnasium:

“It sits back there in the corner of a parking lot. A reminder of York’s past, quietly echoing times gone by.

“The building is seen, but is unseen.

“Located in the northwest corner of the parking lot across the street from St. John’s Episcopal Church on the second block of North Beaver Street, it is at the intersection of two unmarked alleys that would be — if they had street signs — Cherry Lane Extended and Gay Avenue. It is overshadowed by the Valencia Ballroom to one side and the Wilmac corporate offices on the other.

“Ironically, it is only a quick walk from one of York’s newest athletic facilities, Sovereign Stadium.

“The lonely building is the gymnasium of the former York County Academy.

“The York County Academy was organized in 1787, an off-shoot of a classical academic program developed by St. John’s Church. This was less than a decade after the Continental Congress had met in York.

“In his history of York, ‘To The Setting of The Sun,’ author Georg Sheets says it was one of the first classical education institutions established west of the Susquehanna River. It would become a component of today’s York College of Pennsylvania.

“To celebrate the 125th anniversary of its founding, the gymnasium was erected in 1912 as an adjunct facility to the York County Academy. The total cost was $6,000.

“With the main building fronting Beaver Street demolished in 1966, the former gymnasium is the only visual reminder of the history of the tract.

“If you think of a gymnasium in today’s terms as at least a basketball court in depth, think again. Basketball was developed by James Naismith in 1891, only 21 years before the York County Academy gymnasium was constructed. The building is relatively small and probably could not accommodate what we think of today as a full-size basketball court.

“However, basketball was played in the building. A 1952 history of the York County Academy records the York County Academy playing games against Columbia, Marshall Academy, and York High School in the 1914-15 season.

“After its merger with the York Collegiate Academy, then located on the corner of College Avenue and South Duke Street, the old York County Academy had a number of uses.

“When it was founded in 1932-33, the York Little Theatre used the former Academy building. The gymnasium at the rear of the property was used as a place to build and store theatre sets.

“During World War II, the larger building housed USO activities for military personnel and the gym building became a popular USO Canteen for gatherings and dances.

“In a blog, historian and archivist June Lloyd noted that Pennsylvania Dutch paintings were added to the walls of the gymnasium to give it a more homey touch. June discovered the paintings were done by Margaret Sarah Lewis.

“One York County veteran remembers servicemen visiting the alcohol-free USO Canteen and then going around the corner to the Valencia Ballroom for stronger liquid refreshments.

“Today the building is owned by the Kinsley company, as is the Valencia. It is used as a storage facility by the Valencia.

“A visit to the interior of the building last week found a few reminders of its past glory. Remnants of the Pennsylvania Dutch artwork are still visible around the ceiling.

“Standing inside the building, you could almost hear the sounds of bouncing basketballs, of hammers building stage sets, of soldiers and young women talking.

“On its 100th birthday, it is a time to remember the colorful history of the gymnasium that holds so much of York’s history.”

Also of interest:

– See several York Town Square posts about the old U.S.O.