Saving the world’s oldest basketball court

03Jun18

Not many sports can trace their origin as decisively as basketball: Fans know the first game was played on December 21, 1891 in Springfield, Massachusetts.

But few Americans are aware that the oldest surviving basketball court is in Paris, inside an unassuming building at 14, rue Trévise in the 9th arrondissement.

YMCA entrance 1260860 BLOG
The entrance, in a promotional brochure from the 1930s

The building felt almost abandoned when Esteban and I first walked into its small lobby with our friend Gilles Thomas last April. A single shaft of light from the serpentine stairs illuminated the tile floors and the old posters on the walls.

YMCA stairs 1260594 CX BLOG

YMCA stairs 1260600 BLOG

It seemed a strange setting for the first recorded basketball game on European soil, which took place here on December 27, 1893.

YMCA plaque 1260619 BLOG
A plaque commemorates the first basketball game played in Europe

But Sylvie Manac’h — the director of the Y.M.C.A. in Paris — would soon show us that very spot (and many less-well-known) in this remarkable structure.

A video shoot was in progress when Sylvie led us into the historic basketball court. But in spite of the pink lighting, balloons, and young actors that filled the gymnasium, I still felt like I was stepping into a time machine.

YMCA shoot 1260602 BLOG

The gymnasium in Paris was almost identical to the original in Springfield, which unfortunately was destroyed by fire. As in its American twin, the two baskets were suspended from a slanted wood track that circled above the court.

Piste-gymnasePhoto courtesy of UCJG Paris

Below, the antique exercise machines hinted at the building’s age: it opened less than two years after James Naismith invented basketball at the Y.M.C.A. in Springfield in 1891.

YMCA exercise equipment 1260635 BLOG

I wondered whether the original gymnasium in Springfield had also featured cast-iron columns in the middle of the court.

Gymnase1Photo courtesy of UCJG Paris

Sylvie explained that the creaky parquet floor was original too, made of wood imported from the United States.

YMCA floor 1260637 DIF BLOG

In fact, the entire building seemed like a testament to the special friendship France and the U.S. have shared since the American revolution:

• James Stokes, a millionaire philanthropist from New York, financed half of the construction to honor General Lafayette’s role in the revolution.

YMCA Lafayette plaque 1260680 BLOG

YMCA Lafeyette detail 1260684 BLOG

• The architect (Émile Bénard, a student of Gustav Eiffel) traveled to America to study Y.M.C.A. buildings for inspiration.

• An American named Melvin B. Rideout became the first athletic director, bringing basketball to Paris.

But perhaps even more revolutionary were the ideals of the Y.M.C.A. (Union Chrétienne de Jeunes Gens, or UCJG), which linked physical health and community with spiritual well-being — a concept that was unheard of in France at the time.

In addition to a chapel and a cafeteria …

YMCA chapel 1260838 BLOG

YMCA chapel 1260712 BLOG

YMCA cafeteria 1260849 BLOG

YMCA dining 1260733 BLOG

YMCA Gilles railing 1260868 BLOG
Gilles asked why the railing on the stairs was so high. “So people could lean against it and read the newspaper while they waited in line for food,” Sylvie explained.

… the new building featured an American-style bowling alley and France’s first indoor swimming pool. Sadly, the bowling alley (shown immediately below) and swimming pool have fallen into disrepair.

YMCA bowling 1260675 BLOG

YMCA pool 1260841 BLOG

YMCA pool 1260656 BLOG

YMCA pool 1260663 BLOG

But many of the other rooms are still in use — including the auditorium, which has found new life as the Théâtre Trévise.

The upper floors also still provide housing for some 40 residents (most of them young men under 25) in modest dormitory-style rooms with fantastic views.

YMCA Montmartre 1260812 BLOG

YMCA view 1260783 BLOG

I was fascinated by the winding stairs that served the dormitories, and by the cast-iron fire escape. Was it just my imagination, or did the latter show some Eiffel-like influences? It looked in excellent condition, considering its age.

YMCA staircase 1260762 BLOG

YMCA staircase 1260780 BLOG

YMCA fire escape 1260749 BLOG

Alas, other parts of the building were much worse for wear, including a few rooms that were practically in ruins. Sylvie lamented that it would take hundreds of thousands of euros to make all of the needed repairs — money the Y.M.C.A. simply doesn’t have.

YMCA ruins 1260807 BLOG

That’s why the association has launched a Go Fund Me campaign to restore the basketball court and renew interest in saving the building, which was registered as a historic landmark in 1994.

It is my hope that a few kind, generous Americans will once again extend a hand of friendship by helping preserve this historic venue, and this living symbol of the Franco-American bond.

I extend my deep and heartfelt thanks to Gilles Thomas for arranging our tour, and to Sylvie Manac’h for so graciously sharing her knowledge and time with us. Je vous remercie infiniment !

Want to know more?

Help save the building with a donation of any amount.

Discover how you can tour this building through the European Heritage Days program.

YMCA patrimoine 1260871 BLOG

Learn more about the history of the Y.M.C.A. in Paris.

See more photos on Atlas Obscura.

Become a sponsor of the Y.M.C.A. in Paris.

 

 



31 Responses to “Saving the world’s oldest basketball court”

  1. The court reminds me of my junior high gym (the same place my dad went to high school), in New Richmond, Wis. It had the upper part and the poles.

    That pool is hilarious, too.

    • 2 Heide

      Gosh. So maybe that gymnasium design isn’t as unusual as I first thought, eh? Maybe I’m too safety-conscious, but having poles all over the court just seemed like a broken nose waiting to happen. And yeah, that pool … definitely not regulation! But back in the day it must have been mind-blowing to be able to swim anytime you wanted, regardless of the weather. I hope to have the chance to go back sometime and learn more about the pool, actually: Only after the fact did I have a million questions about heating and filtration, as one does. 🙂

  2. 3 Marie

    Fascinating. I wonder if they had a special dribble to get around the poles down the center of the court. 🙂 I hope they are able to save the building.

    • 4 Heide

      Ha! I wish I’d thought to ask about special dribbling techniques, Marie! Maybe when I return I’ll actually get to see a game and I can report back to you. 🙂 Thank you so much for stopping by.

  3. Well, as a guy who grew up in a place where the game really took root and flourished (Indiana) I had no idea that such a place as this existed. We have a couple of really old gyms here, but none this old. A fabulous bit of information!

    I just looked it up and discovered that in terms of seating capacity Indiana has the 6 largest gyms in the US (and 13 out of the 15 largest). But I think oldest is cooler.

    • 7 Heide

      I am so glad to have brought this bit of history your way, J.P.! Having the six largest gyms in the U.S. is a pretty great distinction too — but I’ve got to admit that the oldest court is pretty tough to beat for sheer coolness.

  4. While I generally find sports boring, this history is interesting. And yes, it should be preserved.

    • 9 Heide

      I’m not a big sports fan either, but the tangible connection to the past in this case really reeled me in. Thank you so much for stopping by!

  5. I had heard about this place (and the indoor pool) and always wanted to go photograph
    Many nice perspectives and interesting architectural details

    • 11 Heide

      If you’d like to see it for yourself, I do believe it will be open again this September for the Journées du Patrimoine! Although there are so many trésors cachés open that weekend that it’s difficult to choose which to see, isn’t it?

  6. Thank you so much for a such wonderful article on this place we are very moved to read your experience at the YMCA Paris about this place!

    Merci beaucoup!

    YMCA UCJG PARIS

    Our facebook for more information: https://www.facebook.com/14ruedeTrevise/?ref=br_rs

    • 14 Heide

      I must in turn thank YOU for your generosity and kindness in giving us a tour of this extraordinary building! It was truly a privilege, and we will continue to spread the word about the GoFundMe campaign in hopes of helping your effort.

  7. Thanks, Heidi for the wonderful history lesson and, as always, the great photos. The gym reminded me of the high school gyms in central Minnesota when I was in high school.

    • 16 Heide

      I felt a bit sheepish about my photos because I didn’t really have time to do a good job (I was literally walking while shooting in a couple of cases) — but I’m glad the spirit of the place seems to have come through anyway. And how cool that a gym half a world away could remind you of your youth in central Minnesota, Tom! One more way it’s a small world …

  8. I LOVED reading this! All that history and architecture! I could just imagine some 6″5 giants ;p dribbling a soft leather ball around on that court. Your pictures are stunning and so vivid! I love that they are trying to preserve it and I hope they get the funds they need. Thank you for sharing! ❤

    • 18 Heide

      I really smiled at the idea of 6’5″ giants running around on that court — the mental image I got made those metal posts in the middle seem even more obtrusive, with all those long arms flying around. Still, isn’t it a wonderful bit of history? Thank you so much for stopping by and for your sweet comment. xx

      • LOL. To me anyone above 5’10 is a giant :p Bwahahah that is an even funnier image! Now I have visions of them just crashing into those posts. lol. It really is! You are so welcome sweets! Thanks for sharing this! ❤

  9. The place must have looked really nice when it was in good condition. Do you live in France or America?

    • 21 Heide

      Judging from the vintage photos I saw, this place was *gorgeous* when it was new, Racheal. As for my whereabouts: I live in the United States but consider France my second home. I save every possible penny so I can visit Paris once a year, if I’m lucky.

  10. I’m wondering if the young residents go down to the basketball court to play? I love the architecture of all those staircases and that triptych of huge windows.

    • 23 Heide

      The young residents do indeed play on the court — or at least the photos I’ve seen would suggest that! And I join you in loving the architecture of this venerable old building. So many of the spaces really were harmonious in their design, and luminous. Thank you so much for stopping by, and best wishes to you in Sweden!

  11. Fabulous photos of the different stairwells and views of – love the artistry of capturing the right angles “) Also love the mention of physical health, community and spiritual well-being all being linked and affecting one another. Huge believer in this! I hope your wonderful post will get some needed attention and support for preserving this building and its history =)

    • 25 Heide

      The fundraising effort seems to be gaining some traction in France, so I’m hopeful they’ll raise enough to at least restore the venerable old basketball court. Yay! Thank you for your kind words, Lara — and for your keen observation too about the uniqueness of this old organization’s mission. 🙂

  12. 26 Kiki

    I’m with W. Churchil on this point – no sports thank you – BUT I need to mention those absolutely mindblowingly wonderful stairs – and also your aptitude to catch those notoriously difficult angles so brilliantly. You have SUCH a wide take of various interests – which – in turn, makes it so worthwhile reading you and learning a thing or three! Love, 🙂

    • 27 Heide

      Merci infiniment, chère Kiki ! I so appreciate (and am honored by) your kind words! xx

  13. 28 Theresa Kraft

    This comment should be approved.

  14. I love old buildings with beautiful architectural features. What a fascinating history, too. I’ve always been fond of winding or curving staircases. I’ve been up a few lighthouse stairways, but I actually get dizzy after so many rounds and have to stop. I’m such a lightweight!

    Your passions for all things Paris shine through. Thanks for another great post.

    • 31 Heide

      I get dizzy in winding staircases too, dear Alys! Let us be lightweights together. 🙂 xx


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