The West Side YMCA opened in 1896 on West 57th Street at Eighth Avenue, constructed on a site that Cornelius and William H. Vanderbilt purchased for $165,000 at the time. The edifice became known as "McBurney's Folly," after Robert Ross McBurney, the New York YMCA's first general secretary and considered by many to be one of its greatest leaders. The nickname stuck because the location was considered to be too far uptown to attract members, and because construction commenced before funds were fully secured. Yet, despite its critics, the West Side Y was a true New York trendsetter, and became the first general YMCA to offer a dormitory wing. The branch also boasted separate facilities for boys and men, and included gyms, swimming pools, and bowling alleys.
Although a 300 bed residence was added to this Eighth Avenue location in 1912, the branch was relocated to nearby Central Park West in 1930, to its current location at 5 West 63rd Street. The West Side Y's new facility was designed by Dwight James Baum, known primarily for his work building estate homes in Riverdale's elite Fieldston neighborhood in the Bronx, as well as in Westchester County and in Florida. At the time of its construction, the West Side YMCA was structurally the largest YMCA building in the world, cost $3,250,000 to build, and had capacity to serve 10,000 members. With 14 stories and 600 guest rooms, the West Side Y has a distinct medieval theme, with polychrome tile, battlements and irregular balconies spaced to resemble a 12th century Italian fortified town.
Soon after the branch's relocation, an addition was constructed at the facility to house the Trade and Technical School of the Educational Department, which in the 1950's became the college preparatory school currently known as the McBurney School. J. D. Salinger is widely believed to have modeled Holden Caulfield’s alma mater after the McBurney School in his classic novel, The Catcher in the Rye. In the mid 1900's, the land on which The McBurney School stood had become increasingly valuable, in part because of its proximity to Lincoln Center. The school closed in 1988 and the building was then sold to a developer by the YMCA of Greater New York. In 2001 a development sale allowed for the renovation of the McBurney wing for programs and residents.
Over the years, the West Side YMCA has pioneered an expansive list of programs, including Writers Voice, Strong Women United, the Achilles Club and the Elderhostel program. The branch also has a long history of athletic prowess, and its gymnastics, handball and basketball teams have been well-regarded during this branch's 100-plus year history. Like other YMCAs in New York City with residential programs, the West Side YMCA provided a temporary home to a number of the century's defining celebrities, including: Fred Allen; John Barrymore; Montgomery Clift; Lee J. Cobb; Kirk Douglas; Eddie Duchin; Douglas Fairbanks; Dave Garroway; Bob Hope; Elia Kazan; Jack Kerouac; Martin Luther King, Jr.; Dan Rather; Norman Rockwell; Andy Rooney; Robert Penn Warren; Johnny Weissmuller; Malcolm X; and Tennessee Williams.