It’s Fun to Stray at the YMCA

Revisiting the past reaffirms that everything used to be something else.

Illustration by Dola Sun

Earlier this spring, when I heard that Hotel Covington was renovating and reimagining an adjacent building that used to be the Willard Wade Covington YMCA, turning it into North by Hotel Covington, I was desperate to gain access. I hadn’t been inside since 1985, back when we just called it “Wade.”

My sisters did gymnastics there in the late 1970s. I tagged along whenever I could, starting lessons there myself in 1984, when I was 10. I was on the team one year before the program shut down.

I’m a lifelong YMCA person, with associations at multiple places like Tri-City Y in Florence (another defunct one), where I spent most of my youth, first on the gymnastics team in middle school and high school and then running the gymnastics program in college; Blue Ash Y, where I’ve belonged since 1999 and have used just about every feature at some point; and Countryside Y, where I’ve enjoyed their adult gymnastics open gym sporadically over the last 15 years.

And so for the relatively short span of my life the Wade years represent, they have an outsize place in my personal mythology. The building at the corner of Madison and Pike—with its marble staircase, Rookwood tile, multiple entrances, upper and lower gyms, elevated running track, basement pool, and rumors of haunted dorms—still lives large in my memory. It’s the smell of bar chalk, the sound of panel mats unfolding, and the feeling of following in the footsteps of the three people I most wanted to be like. Basically, just my entire childhood.

That’s quite a lot for a building to live up to, especially one that was already past its prime in the 1980s. It opened to great fanfare in 1913 after a grassroots campaign raised funds for a new Covington YMCA, but it didn’t open to women until 1918 (boo); an addition in the 1930s expanded its footprint. It was eventually renamed for Willard Wade, who led the branch on and off from the 1920s through the 1950s. After the Y sold the building in 1987, it became a Family Service Office for the state of Kentucky for a few decades, until it wound up vacant, the pool full of concrete, the floors I once tumbled on in dusty disrepair.

But the Salyers family, long-time champions of Covington, had a vision and came to the rescue. I’d covered Donna Salyers a lifetime ago as a business journalist, and she had perfected a way for sewing chic, luxurious faux fur. I had to get into that building and see for myself how they were reimagining the Y.

To be honest, I simply wanted to return to a time and place where I’d sit in awe of the teenage girls on my sisters’ team, probably fidgeting on my mom’s lap in one of the uncomfortable spectator chairs that had been set out along the perimeter of the floor during gymnastics meets. It was the place where I first learned a back handspring. The place where my whole life hadn’t happened yet. The place where the memories were so close but so fragmented.

Fortunately, Amanda van Rooyen, chief creative officer for Hotel Covington, was happy to give me a tour. Obviously, I brought my sisters—at least the two who still live locally; we sent my other sister text updates. “The desk was right there,” my sister Nancy said, when we saw part of what used to be the old lobby. “You went through a door there to get to the lower gym,” Laura said, pointing to a space by a wall. “These were the steps we always walked up,” I said, sure that if you could excavate all of the shoe prints over the last century you’d see a layer from my ADSs (which stands for “Almost Dr. Scholl’s,” what my sisters called the knock-off sandals we all had circa 1980).

When my sisters and I walked with Amanda into the shell of the lower gym, a space that’s not yet renovated, we reminisced about how the trampoline always stayed there but the rest of the gymnastics equipment was in the upper gym. When we saw the second floor, where the hallways retained a portion of the painted brick wall from the elevated track, with its navy stripes and red graphic of a runner, we told Amanda everything we remembered about the track, how the sides banked, the feel of the railing, and the way you could use the track to spy on people in the lower gym. Continually amused by our glee and nostalgia, she kept asking, “How do you remember all of this?”

How, indeed? I presume it’s because early memories are the last to leave us, even if they can sometimes be the trickiest to excavate. Being at Wade (I mean, North by Hotel Covington), I felt dizzy with remembering but also sad, because, like the running track, life moves in just one direction—which means the spaces that once held balance beams now hold beds and kitchenettes.

There were terrific nods to the Y throughout the space, like art created by using gym equipment, rings, and dumbbells covered in paint and given new life on the canvas. Old photographs of people working out at Wade hung here and there, and the design team was able to salvage the upper gym’s beautiful end-grain wood floor in several spaces. As for the pool? It became the ballroom, a corner exposed to let you see the history beneath, where children used to splash and squeal and businessmen swam laps on their lunch hours.

I loved our tour. Then I couldn’t stop thinking about James Monroe.

My 14-year-old son is taking ninth grade physical science. He likes science, because it allows him to ask over and over, “What happens when…” and that’s his favorite thing to do. And so, in between watching TikTok and talking to his friends, sometimes we have interesting conversations about scientific concepts, like how magnets work (I have no idea) or the nature of matter (I have slightly more idea because I did force my way through Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time). One night several months ago, he asked something like, “How is there just always the same amount of everything in the universe?”

He was talking about the conservation of mass, which says that in a closed system—which the universe is—matter can neither be created nor destroyed. The matter that exists now is the same amount that’s always existed and will always exist.

It wasn’t the first time we’d talked about this topic. I’d brought it up several years ago, probably when I was bleary-eyed from mostly not understanding A Brief History of Time, and I remember, because my son, who was obsessed with memorizing American presidents, asked, “So we could be drinking remnants of James Monroe’s poop juice right now?” To which I naturally answered, “That’s exactly right.”

Now, though, my teenager was thinking about this concept the way an almost-adult would, which meant poop wasn’t necessary for explanation anymore. “There is always the same amount because matter just keeps changing forms,” I explained. “But how does it do that?” he pressed. “Decay and rebirth,” I said. “All that kind of stuff.”

He understood the science of it. It was the human part he couldn’t sync. How do we live inside of this giant recycling bin, where no one and nothing is permanent yet it’s never actually gone? Where the people and bricks and iPhones and cats and flowers and cities and pillows are exactly what they are, and then they’re something else, sometimes over billions of years and sometimes right before our eyes. It’s like he was saying, What do we do about this?

That was another question altogether, and one you can probably glimpse an answer to only when you sit in silence or read poetry or have sex or hear a baby’s giggle. Even then, when your senses are most heightened, it still doesn’t really make sense that you’ll lose so much but it will never truly be gone.

So we raze and we build and we use phrases like “economic redevelopment district.” We spit into tubes and try to trace our trail back in time. We send missions to far-flung places in outer space and set high-powered cameras to capture images of stars to see if any part looks like it could belong to us. We sing Joni Mitchell songs in our car and say “ashes to ashes and dust to dust” at graveside funerals.

And sometimes we use our credentials to tour places that were once everything to us, to see if the new iteration makes the recycling bin feel less terrible. It does.

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