Young Men’s Hebrew Association's Athenaeum

“One of the handsomest structures in the city will be the new building of the Young Men’s Hebrew Association,” [1] said an article from the New Orleans States when the Athenaeum opened in 1896. With various Jewish families from the New Orleans area wanting to join together to form an association, the Athenaeum was born after a November 22, 1891 meeting at the Grunewald Hotel where the organization, Young Men’s Hebrew Association (YMHA), was proposed. [2] This became a site for social gathering for New Orleans socialites, various musical acts from around the world, and, of course, the betterment of Jewish men until the building burnt down first on January 17, 1905, and then for a second time in 1937. [3]

The YMHA was originally instituted to advance the mental, moral, social, and physical improvement of young Jewish men. The first was established in New York on March 22, 1874 at the home of Dr. Simeon Leo with the board of directors including Isaac S. Isaacs, Adolph L. Sanger, Oscar S. Straus, Lewis May, and others. After, similar organizations sprouted throughout the United States in such cities as Philadelphia, St. Louis, San Francisco, Louisville, Washington D.C., and New Orleans. [4]

With the Jewish population growing and expanding in New Orleans, many young Jewish families began wanting to form an organization, named a Young Men’s Hebrew Association. After several attempts, a meeting at the Grunewald Hotel proposed the organization to 300 gentlemen gathered there and thus started the New Orleans branch of the YMHA, the Athenaeum. [2]

The Athenaeum was built at 1205 St. Charles Avenue, on the corner of St. Charles and Clio St. The first floor included a parlor, a library, a chess and checkers room which adjoined to the library, a large billiard room with three billiards and three pool tables, a committee room, a smoking/lounging room, and a lodging room with a capacity for 150 people. The second floor opened up with a spacious foyer which adjoined to a ballroom. The plans for the building were by Mr. D. Einseidel, and the building company was T. Carey and Co. [5]

For many years the meeting of the courts of Rex and Pickwick Club at midnight on Mardi Gras day, the official end of Carnival, took place in the Athenaeum’s ballroom. [2] However, the krewe of Pickwick Club did not allow Jews in its membership, showing that even though the Athenaeum was socially prominent, there were still signs of segregation.

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