The Coral Gables War Memorial Youth Center is the outgrowth of the tireless spirit and constant drive of a group of civic leaders determined to honor the men and women who served in World War II with a living memorial. This has culminated in the construction of what is often termed the most beautiful youth recreation center in the world. Mr. Harry W. Morgenthaler, founder and first president, called a meeting of 22 civic groups in February, 1944 to plan a campaign to raise $75,000. He was assisted by Mrs. Lewis Hall, Sr., co-founder heading the woman’s division; Mr. Paul Brinson, men’s division and Mayor Thomas C. Mayes. This organization was incorporated as The Coral Gables War Memorial Youth Center Association. Over 400 citizens volunteered for active service.
A site of 48 lots on Andalusia Avenue was purchased; 12 were donated by Mrs. Helen Doherty, and 12 were secured by right of eminent domain by City Attorney, Ted Semple. A baseball field, dance patio and a small building were opened for summer recreation. The property cost the Association $16,000. The area was officially opened December 7, 1945, Pearl Harbor Day. Mrs. Betty Ward, former entertainment director from Key West, was named first supervisor and Ed Beckman, All-American football player, was athletic director. Amateur theatricals, games of many types, teams and a number of sports and classes in crafts and recreation kept the Youth Center buzzing with teenagers.
In December, 1945, attendance reached 1,000 a day. Soldiers overseas read about it in Stars and Stripes, the army newspaper, and wrote home praising it. Recreation , the official National Recreation Association Magazine, carried a lengthy article about its origin and success. A recreation expert, surveying the plan, wrote that he knew of “no other community which had so many hard–working, intelligent, selfless citizen leaders as this one.” He was also struck by the civic pride and neighborliness of the community of Coral Gables.
As a result, the City Commission agreed to give $4,000 for operating the city recreation program as an adjunct to the $12,000 allocated by the Community Chest. A torchlight parade studded with costumed squads, bands and majorettes touched off the house-to-house canvass which netted $60,000 by the first anniversary. The original Youth Center had continued a busy operation for 11 years but by 1955, the Association realized that a change was necessary. The three-acre area was deemed untenable due to the growth of the business section, automobile traffic and other activities surrounding the area. The property was offered for sale and was purchased for $365,000 by DuPont interests. The Youth Center then purchased an area approximately five acres from the University of Miami for $53,000.
The old Youth Center, which was on the present site, was designed by architects Watson and Deutschman, and built by Miller and Solomon Construction Company. A curved memorial wall in turquoise stone held the names of 1,288 men and women who served in World War II. Thirty who paid the supreme sacrifice were marked with a star. Dedication was held on December 7, 1956. The Center was given to the City of Coral Gables for operation as a combined Youth Center and Community Center for residents of Coral Gables and surrounding areas. To assure future maintenance of the property primarily as a youth center, the Association included a reverter clause which provided that if the City of Coral Gables ever discontinued use of the property as a youth center, the entire parcel would revert to the Association. The City of Coral Gables has recognized this obligation and has provided the funds for the continued use of the facility as a great asset for the youth of Coral Gables.
On April 19, 1997, the City celebrated the grand opening of the newly renovated Coral Gables War Memorial Youth Center. It was officially inaugurated on March 25, 1997 with a special Dedication Ceremony where the Coral Gables City Commission unveiled the bronze plaque that marks the entrance to the Center on University Drive.
In addition to a 13,244-square-foot gymnasium, the redesigned 58,000-square foot facility (by Fullerton Diaz Revulta) feature a fitness center; outdoor lighted basketball courts and roller hockey rink; auditorium/theater; dance/aerobics studio; child care room; specialized classrooms; expanded parking; landscaped walkways and public areas; and Vita course.
The Coral Gables men and women who served in World War II were commemorated with a new War Memorial Garden Monument. A ribbon cutting and re-dedication ceremony of the Monument was held on December 7, 1999, Pearl Harbor Day. It was designed by architect John Fullerton and built by the Overholt Construction Company.
Fifty-six years after its opening on Pearl Harbor Day, the Youth Center stands as a living memorial to the veterans of Coral Gables who risked their lives for the American way of life.
It is likewise a memorial to the many men and women, and the organization which served tirelessly over the past 50 years. They have never faltered in their efforts to help young people grow up in an environment where ideals are fostered and good citizenship is developed. It has become an integral part of the community offering special events as well as regular athletic and recreational programs year round. The Youth Center is considered one of the most outstanding youth centers in the country.
Today, The Coral Gables War Memorial Youth Center Association is active in providing funds for the Youth Center summer camps. The association also consults with the Youth Center staff regarding policies and reviews programs offered at the Youth Center.