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Historic Union Gym struggles to get up off mat

Looks to its roots while modernizing amid financial concerns

Billed as “America’s Oldest Gym,” the Union has been used for healthful recreation for 160 years. The gym recently began offering classes in the martial arts, including judo.

UNION GYM 1967 (Left); YOON S. BYUN/GLOBE STAFF

Billed as “America’s Oldest Gym,” the Union has been used for healthful recreation for 160 years. The gym recently began offering classes in the martial arts, including judo.

With broad shoulders, powerful chest, and a bushy mustache that curls upward at the tips, Brendan McKee could pass for a strongman in an old sepia-toned photograph.

McKee may indeed require herculean strength to usher the 19th-century gym he oversees into the 21st.

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He is director of operations for the Boston Young Men’s Christian Union, a historic gym on Boylston Street founded by Harvard students in the mid-1800s as a space for “self-improvement and healthful recreation.”

McKee, on the job for 16 months, hopes to return the nonprofit to its roots by offering new programs for urban youths as well as a convenient, affordable workout center for adult members.

“When I came here, I said I want to come full circle, I want to come back to what this place was,” said McKee, 28.

For him to succeed, however, the Union Gym has to weather financial problems that recently shut its doors for nearly a month and find ways to attract new members to a facility that lacks the flash, but also the expense, of many competitors.

For members and visitors, the gym is an unexpected and unpolished downtown jewel. Billed as “America’s Oldest Gym,” the facility sits behind a 138-year-old High Victorian Gothic façade on Boylston, near its intersection with Tremont, that is designated a Boston landmark and listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

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Its narrow frontage belies the vast maze of spaces beyond, including an indoor basketball court, a large weight room, and multiple rooms for fitness classes.

The landmark’s frontage belies ample space within.

GLOBE STAFF / FILE 1993

The landmark’s frontage belies ample space within.

“I’ve lived in downtown for 14 years and never known it was here,” Paul Campano, 34, said as he practiced free throws on a recent day. “And then I come in and it’s awesome. So much space.”

But last year, as the gym quietly celebrated the 160th anniversary of its incorporation, it was showing its age. Most equipment hadn’t been replaced since a renovation a decade earlier, and some was in need of repair.

“No money was being put into the gym for upkeep, maintenance, new equipment, nothing,” said William Fasciano, 54, a member for most of the past two decades.

Also, the gym had barely updated its offerings in an era of rapidly evolving fitness trends.

McKee was working to adapt the tradition-bound organization when a late payment of an electric bill led NStar to shut off power, closing the gym for most of last October.

Members, unable to exercise or retrieve gear from lockers, were upset by the sudden closure, but more outraged by the lack of information from the gym. Many took to a Facebook page called Union Gym Troubles to air grievances.

Members said the Union has yet to recover from the revenue lost when the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind moved out of rented offices on the upper floors of its building last April.

A year ago, the commercial real estate firm Richards Barry Joyce & Partners said that the building was up for sale, but no deal has been announced.

“As we were running our sales process, there was significant interest from various real estate groups . . . but it’s my understanding that none of those groups bought the building,” said Tom Ashe, a senior vice president at the firm.

The president of the gym’s board, Greg Sobchuk, and Vice President Philip G. Bagrowski declined requests for interviews to discuss the organization’s finances and plans.

McKee said he believes the board members have been focused on their work and personal lives to the detriment of the gym.

“For a long time now, there just hasn’t been the structure that was needed,” McKee said.

Amid the concerns, McKee has sought to move ahead.

The gym — which serves mostly men, as well as some women, of many backgrounds — recently began offering a youth program in futsal, a form of indoor soccer, and classes in the martial arts capoeira, aikido, and judo. Classes in yoga and CrossFit, a strength and conditioning program, will begin soon, as will a coed adult dodgeball program organized by Social Boston Sports.

Each program brings in new revenue through membership fees, drop-in fees, or space rentals, McKee said.

McKee has become certified to teach CrossFit classes and in the BOKS curriculum, a Reebok-affiliated program to support physical education for children, in hopes they will help him attract new members and partner with schools and community groups. He said he also has bought new gear and arranged loans for other equipment, and organized a charity mixed-martial-arts fight night for local professionals.

McKee remains upbeat about the gym’s potential. He hopes to bring in more new programs and recruit new board members.

“We’re heading in the right direction, and with new programs coming in everything is starting to come together for us,” he said.

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.

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