From the street, a short, one-way street in the ninth arrondissement, few would expect that the Paris headquarters of the UCJG (Union Chrétienne de Jeunes Gens, the French chapter of the YMCA) is home to a cultural treasure. Visitors have to make their way to the basement level to discover the herringbone parquet floor of the world’s oldest basketball court. The first game in Europe was hosted here on December 27, 1893, two years after the game – “a sort of indoor soccer,” according to the Journal des débats politiques et littéraires – was invented at a university in Massachusetts.
The original building also featured a running track on the mezzanine floor, a swimming pool, shower rooms and hydrotherapy facilities, a bowling lane, a library, a theater, a music room, and dormitories. It was a modern icon of its time, embodying the health and lifestyle mission (“strengthening the body, mind, and spirit”) pursued by the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), which was founded in London in 1844, before spreading to North America and then France. In the late 19th century, the residence on Rue de Trévise welcomed young men who had just moved to Paris from the countryside. In the indoor pool – one of the first in the French capital – newcomers were taught how to swim.
The originally protestant UCJG is now secular, just like the YMCA. Some fifty students and young workers rent rooms there and can attend classes in acting, fencing, yoga, hip hop, and krav maga. However, the building, which is now a listed historical monument, is showing its age. “Aside from restoring the façade and maintaining the roof, no major works have been carried out since 1893,” says Aska Monty, head of the fundraising initiative. “We would like to inspire the same enthusiasm of our first fundraising project, driven by French-American friendship.”
The American Model
The Paris UCJG celebrated its fortieth anniversary in 1892. The event was a chance to modernize the association and provide it with a fitting setting. An incorporated company was created and placed under the administrative supervision of Alfred André, regent of the Banque de France and former representative for the Seine département, and American banker James Stokes, member of the YMCA in New York and also a fervent protestant. In memory of his father, a friend of the Marquis de Lafayette, Stokes financed almost half of the project to the tune of 400,000 francs, and Cornelius Vanderbilt II also contributed.
The building’s design was entrusted to Emile Bénard, who later submitted plans for a student residence on the Berkeley campus. Invited by James Stokes, the French architect traveled to the United States to observe the YMCA chapters flourishing in cities across the country. He brought back the concept of a multi-use building and drew inspiration from Springfield College, the birthplace of basketball, to design the gymnasium. The sports equipment and installations on the Rue de Trévise – and its first athletics director, Melvin Rideout – arrived by boat from the United States.
The four-story building was inaugurated on May 7, 1893. Doctor Charles Monod and Baron Pierre de Coubertin, a staunch advocate of sports in schools and the future founder of the International Olympic Committee, attended the ceremony. Protestant newspaper Le Signal commended “a beautiful building” designed with “praiseworthy care and intelligence.” Writing for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Paris correspondent Emma Bullet described “a crystal palace made of iron and glass, most perfectly constructed for comfort and hygiene.”
Restore and Modernize
“When reading the annual reports, you can feel the influence of leading French and American families in the history of the UCJG,” says Aska Monty, who is counting on the same transatlantic dynamism to raise 200,000 euros from the general public (through the Fondation du Patrimoine and the French Heritage Society) and five million more from sponsors and foundations. This will be used to “renovate the building from top to bottom,” ensure it complies with fire safety regulations, and make it “more accessible” with the installation of an elevator. So far, Nike has been among the first benefactors. The American company launched two new sneakers inspired by the ocher shades and the materials of the venerable basketball court in 2018. The profits from the sale of the limited-edition, 400-pair series were donated to the Parisian association.
The residence will open its doors to the public as part of the European Heritage Days on September 18 and 19 (prior booking required), and regularly hires out its gymnasium for special events. Givenchy used the setting to photograph its spring 2012 couture collection. More recently, French rapper Eddy de Pretto filmed the music video for his hit “Normal” on the basketball court, and students from the Parsons School of Design presented their end-of-year exhibitions in the space. And, of course, French basketball players Rudy Gobert and Boris Diaw, and American NBA star Stephen Curry, have shot a few hoops on the historic parquet floor.
“The 14Trévise [the building’s nickname] will be inaugurated for a second time in 2024,” says Aska Monty. “The fact that Paris is hosting the Olympic Games that year will enable us to organize sports-themed events while offering a showcase for the rebirth of the residence.”