YMCA & Clemson

The Beginning

English professor T. P. Harrison and a few students formed the Clemson College YMCA in 1894, the second year the school was open. Meetings were held in the college chapel on Sunday evenings and the emphasis was on religious activities, particularly Bible study.

Clemson's first full-time YMCA Secretary was hired in 1905. That same year, the Board of Trustees designated a room in the Barracks as a YMCA recreation and club room and provided some funding.

from "Book of Views of Clemson College, 1911"

The Building

In 1913, Clemson President Walter Riggs approached oil industry tycoon and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller for help in funding a campus YMCA building. Rockefeller agreed to contribute two-thirds of the money -- $50,000 -- if the other third was raised locally. Faculty, students and community members contributed to the building fund.

The Italian Renaissance Revival style YMCA building was designed by Clemson architecture professor Rudolph E. Lee with Shattuck & Hussey of Chicago as consulting architects. Shattuck & Hussey had designed YMCA buildings around the United States and in China. Engineering professor Samuel B. Earle designed the plumbing and heating systems.

The cornerstone was laid during the 1915 commencement week and the building was completed late that year.

The Clemson YMCA building officially opened on January 1, 1916.
The Clemson YMCA building through the years

The building included several YMCA emblems on the front. The back side, which faced the football field in 1916, featured two tiger heads.

The new YMCA building included a swimming pool with showers, a bowling alley, a gymnasium, an auditorium, a cafeteria and kitchen, reading rooms, and meeting rooms.

Game area
Music Room
Bowling Alley
Swimming Pool
Playing pool at the YMCA through the years

The YMCA building served as a center for both the college and the local community for more than five decades. It was renovated several times as the student and local population grew.

A 1927 renovation included new guest rooms, a new ventilating system for the auditorium, and renovation of the café and dressing rooms. In 1937, the auditorium was enlarged to hold 500 seats and air conditioning was added.

The YMCA was re-dedicated after a major renovation and refurnishing in 1956.

Preston Brooks Holtzendorff

Preston Brooks Holtzendorff grew up in Atlanta and graduated from the University of Georgia law school. He arrived at Clemson College in 1916 to become Assistant General Secretary of the YMCA in its new building.

Preston B. Holtzendorff (far right) in the YMCA lobby, circa 1916

After serving with the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War I from 1918-1919, Holtzendorff returned to Clemson to become General Secretary of the YMCA, a position he held for 40 years. As General Secretary, Holtzendorff supervised campus religious, social and recreational activities. He was supported by several staff members, as well as student and faculty advisory groups.

During World War II, Preston B. Holtzendorff (right) mailed the monthly YMCA newsletter to Clemson students, alumni, and friends in the armed services around the world to boost their spirits and provide a connection to home.

a page from the September 1945 YMCA newsletter

Throughout his career, Holtzendorff was known for his compassionate relationship with the college students, who called him “Mr. Holtzy.” The YMCA building was named for him in 1971.

Y Cabin

In addition to the YMCA building on campus, students and community members used the Y cabin on the Seneca River for meetings and events from the 1930s through the 1950s.

YMCA cabin c 1940s

Y Beach and Recreation Area

After Lake Hartwell was created in the early 1960s, Clemson University and the YMCA contributed funds to develop a 25-acre recreation area on University property along the new lake. The property previously was used as a pig farm.

Pig barn, circa 1955

The former pig barn became the "Y Barn" used for indoor recreation. The property also allowed the YMCA to add tennis courts, baseball and soccer fields, a beach area and water sports to its offerings. Many University club activities, social events, dances and concerts also were held at the Y Beach.

Beach with bathhouse under construction at the new YMCA recreation area, 1965

In 1988, the area was named the J.R. Roy Cooper YMCA Recreation Area at Clemson University. Cooper, who helped develop the area, served the Clemson YMCA for 40 years as Associate Secretary and then General Secretary.

Religious Activities

The earliest programs of the YMCA were religious activities for Clemson students, including Bible study classes, faculty-led Forum groups, Morning and Evening Watch devotional groups, and Sunday afternoon and evening Vespers services.

Vespers services usually featured guest speakers or entertainers, particularly musical groups from other colleges. The programs often were organized in conjunction with local churches.

The YMCA also co-sponsored Clemson’s annual Religious Emphasis Week from the 1920s to the 1960s.

c 1925
Forum meeting in the barracks, c1940s

Clemson student YMCA members also presented programs at other colleges, churches, high schools and YMCAs. For many years, Clemson YMCA students joined students from other colleges at a week-long summer conference at Blue Ridge Assembly in Black Mountain, North Carolina.

YMCA road trip, c1925
Blue Ridge Assembly, c 1929

Social and Entertainment

The Clemson YMCA also held dances and provided other entertainment for Clemson students, particularly on weekends.

One of the most popular YMCA activities was the movies shown several days each week in one or both auditoriums. Movie ticket sales helped fund many other YMCA activities.

Sports and Recreation

In addition to recreational sports activities, the YMCA provided Clemson College's first physical education classes, as well as Red Cross swimming and lifesaving classes.

Life saving classes in the YMCA pool

In 1931, Preston Holtzendorff started Clemson's first organized intramural program, designed to "provide wholesome recreation and physical activity for every student."

Within a few years, intramural choices included basketball, boxing, track & field, swimming, bowling, badminton, gymnastics, softball, hiking, ping-pong, handball, volleyball, soccer, tug-o-war, wall scaling, rifle marksmanship, archery, tennis, foul shooting, golf, horseshoes and water basketball.

By the early 1950s, the intramural program focused on seven sports: swimming, volleyball, football, basketball, softball, golf and tennis. The YMCA ran the intramural program until it was transferred to the Athletic Department in 1955.

Intramural volleyball champions, 1934

In addition to intramural sports, the YMCA played a role in several of Clemson's first intercollegiate sports. The basketball team played in the YMCA gym from 1916 until the Fike Field House gym opened in 1930.

Holtzendorff coached tennis and freshman football in the early 1920s. He also started the swimming program and coached it for 27 years, including the 1939 Southern Conference championship team.

The swim team practiced in the YMCA pool until the pool in Fike Recreation Center opened in 1975.

Swim team at the YMCA pool, 1966

Fred Kirchner, YMCA Director of Intramural Sports, organized and coached Clemson's first intercollegiate soccer team in 1933.

Soccer team, 1933-34

Student Handbooks

Another way the YMCA served Clemson students was by publishing the annual student handbook from the 1920s to the 1960s. The handbook provided advice and information about academics, rules and regulations, sports, religious organizations and extracurricular activities, including the opportunities provided by joining the YMCA.

Clemson freshmen, known as "Rats" during the college's military years, with their student handbooks in the YMCA auditorium, c 1950

Freshman Camp

“You will enjoy worship, faculty talks, discussions, recreation – all in the informal relaxed atmosphere of a camp setting”

In the 1960s, the Clemson YMCA sponsored a camp for freshmen at Camp Greenville. Like the student handbook, the camp was designed to help prepare new students for college life.

YMCA Freshman Camp for Clemson students, 1964


The Clemson YMCA wasn't just for the college students. Families, youth and individuals in the surrounding communities, many of whom were affiliated with the college, began enjoying the YMCA facilities as soon as the building opened in 1916. They watched movies or attended Vespers services in the auditoriums, ate in the cafeteria, dribbled basketballs in the gymnasium and learned to swim in the pool, the only one in the area until the 1960s.

They also used the club rooms and auditoriums for meetings or celebrations, particularly before Clemson House opened in 1950.

In addition to swimming lessons, the YMCA offered a few sports and recreation programs for community youth beginning in the 1930s. The popular summer day camp that included spending two days a week at Oconee State Park began in the late 1940s.

YMCA day camp at Oconee State Park, c1950s

YMCA programs were not offered to ALL of the local community, however, until after Clemson University, and other institutions, became racially integrated beginning in 1963.

There is no evidence that any Clemson YMCA recreation and social activities were offered to members of the local African American community before the 1960s even though many of them worked for the college. Although they could attend movies and some other entertainment programs, like in other venues under Jim Crow laws in the racially segregated South, African American audiences only were permitted to sit in the auditorium balcony.

YMCA auditorium, c 1947


Clemson YMCA programs for youth and families increased as programs for college students decreased. This happened after Clemson began admitting women and the Athletic Department took over the college intramural program, both in 1955. And again beginning in 1972 when a new Student Union organization began providing most official University entertainment and social activities.

Some University-sponsored activities, such as movies, continued to be held in Holtzendorff YMCA Center.

By the early 1970s, the Clemson YMCA offered a wide variety of youth sports lessons and teams -- football, basketball, baseball, softball, soccer, tennis, track, wrestling -- as well as a day camp, a leadership program for high school students, physical fitness classes for women, a men's volleyball league, and parenting classes.

1970s era brochure

Family programs and services continued to grow through the 1980s.

In 1989, with the YMCA no longer offering programs for college students, Clemson University gave the organization four years to decide how to operate without University affiliation. Prior to that time, the YMCA had been a University department with funding provided by both YMCA-raised operating funds and state funds, mostly for salaries.

Clemson University’s formal affiliation with YMCA ended on June 30, 1992 when the Clemson YMCA organization became the Foothills Area Family YMCA providing programs and services to communities in Pickens and Oconee counties. Foothills YMCA continued use the Fike Recreation Center pool on campus for swimming lessons and leased the J. R. Roy Cooper Recreation Area for another two decades.

Although still bearing the YMCA name, Holtzendorff YMCA Center became known as Holtzendorff Hall home to University classrooms and offices.


Created by Susan Hiott, Curator of Exhibits, Clemson University Libraries' Special Collections and Archives

Information and materials are drawn from the holdings of Special Collections and Archives including Young Men’s Christian Association [YMCA] Records (CU Archives Series 79), Clemson University Photographs (CU Archives Series 100), Preston B. Holtzendorff, Jr. Papers (Mss 290) and Rudolph E. Lee Papers (Mss 41).

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