Reader’s Question: 

When I was growing up, we were members of a gym called (I think) the Lincoln Turners. My dad’s side of the family was German, and I remember being told something about German prejudice in Indianapolis during the war. The gym used be called Turnverein (sp???), but it was changed as a way to make it sound more American.  Does this strikering a bell?  ~ Esther Shir, Albuquerque, New Mexico

HI’s Answer:

The German immigrants who came to the United States of American in the mid-1800s established organizations in their adopted country that were similar to the ones to which they had belonged in their native homeland.  These groups served as social, athletic, musical, and political centers in newly established German-American communities.  The associations and clubs helped ease their homesickness and preserve their German culture.

The German word for gymnast is “Turner.”  As physical fitness was an important component of many German-American societies, the word “Turn” or “Turner” became a part of some organizations’ names.  The German word for association or club is “verein,”  so “verein” also became a part of some German-American organizations’ names.  The clubs were called by their German names and their English names interchangeably.

American Turners Clubs were founded in many U.S. cities across the United States

Drawing illustrates the varied gymnastic activities of the German-American Turnvereins

The first American Turners Club or Turnverein was founded in Cincinnati in 1848.  Soon after, societies began to spring up in many U.S. cities to which Germans had immigrated.  In 1851, two Turners clubs were founded in Indianapolis, the Indianapolis Turngemeinde and the Indianapolis Socialistisher Turnverein.  They merged with one another a year later, and after the Civil War the club renamed itself Indianapolis Socialer Turnverein.  The club was housed in different downtown locations from its inception until Das Deutsche Haus was built in 1894, at which time the group found a permanent home at 401 E. Michigan Street.  Das Deutsche Haus has been featured in a number of HistoricIndianapolis.com pieces, including this Indianapolis Then and Now  feature.

When Das Deutsche Haus was built in 1894, the Indianapolis Turners found a permanent home (photo courtesy Indiana Historical Society)

In 1894, the Indianapolis Socialers Turnverein found a permanent home in Das Deutsche Haus at 401 E. Michigan St.    (photo courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society)

In 1879, the Independent Turnverein was founded in Mozart Hall, which was located in the first block of South Delaware Street and is today the site of the Marion County Jail.  In 1885, the Independent Turnverein moved into the building formerly occupied by the Third Presbyterian Church, on the northeast corner of W. Ohio and N. Illinois Streets, where the club operated for almost thirty years.  In 1914, the Independent Verein built a new facility at 902 N. Meridian Street.

The club changed its name to the Independent Athletic Club in the 1920s and then to the Hoosier Athletic Club in the 1930s.  Experiencing financial hardship in the 1940s, it was sold at auction and donated to Purdue University in 1943.  The building provided classrooms and office space for IUPUI for more than three decades.  In the 1980s, an investment group bought the property and converted it into apartments.  Despite alterations to the original building, the Turnverein Apartments was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.  Carved into the stonework above two sets of front-facing windows is the Turnvereins’ motto, in Latin:  “Mens sana in corpore sano” (“A healthy mind in a healthy body”) and “Dum vivimus vivamus” (“While we live, let us live”).

The Independent Turnverein built a new facility at 902 N. Meridian Street in 1914 (photo courtesy of Indiana Historical Society)

In 1914, the Independent Turnverein relocated to 902 N. Meridian St.  (photo courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society)

In 1893, German-Americans living on the south side of town broke away from the Indianapolis Socialer Turnverein and formed the Süd Seite Turnverein.  In 1900, the South Side Turners built their own hall at 306 Prospect Street, which served the southside German-American community for more than 75 years.  The rising cost of maintenance and the declining number of members resulted in the club’s selling the building in 1977.  It is now owned by the Madison Avenue Athletic Club and was the subject of a Sunday Prayers article at HistoricIndianapolis.com in 2012.  The South Side Turners relocated to German Park, a private, outdoor recreational facility situated on 25 acres at 8600 S. Meridian Street.  Several annual festivals are held in German Park, including a 4-day-long Oktoberfest every September.

In 1908, the South Side Turners Club built a facilty at 306 Prospect Avenue

In 1900, the South Side Turnverein built a facilty at 306 Prospect Street in the Bates-Hendricks Neighborhood    (photo courtesy of Indiana Historical Society)

From the final decade of the nineteenth century through the first decade of the twentieth century, the Turners clubs in Indianapolis experienced an unprecedented period of popularity.  As time went on, however, the German-American community became increasingly assimilated into American life.  Those who had immigrated from Germany in the 1800s were well-established in this country by the 1900s, and their American-born children and grandchildren were not as attached to the customs of the old country as their forebears were.   At the outbreak of World War I, Das Deutsche Haus was renamed the Athenaeum, due to anti-German sentiment.  German-Americans downplayed their roots, and the German-American organizations housed in the Athenaeum suffered from their attempts to distance themselves from their origins.

Gymnastic Club competed in meets and put on exhibitions (photo courtesy of University of California at Berkeley

Turners Clubs competed in meets and put on exhibitions   (photo courtesy of the University of California at Berkeley)

There were several Turnvereins in Indianapolis over the years, and most were known by more than one name, so I’m not sure which group was the one to which your family belonged.  None of the Indianapolis societies was named Lincoln Turners.  Lincoln Turners (as in Lincoln Park) is the name of a Chicago verein.  Possibly you traveled to Chicago for a gymnastics meet when you were growing up, or maybe the Chicago club came to Indianapolis for an athletic event, and its name made an impression on you?

1914 Women's Gymnastics Class at the Independent Verein (photo courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society)

1914 Women’s Gymnastics Class at the Independent Verein   (photo courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society)

The Athenaeum Turners Club did experience a revival in the 1950s and 1960s, although its activities became more social and less athletic.  My best guess is that your family belonged to the Athenaeum Turners Club, and you went to the gym at 401 East Michigan Street.  The YMCA currently occupies that space in the Athenaeum.  Below is a more recent color photo of the Athenaeum than the early black and white photo depicted at the top of the article.  Perhaps you recognize this facility as the location of the gym where you went?

According to my search of the Internet, there are only a few dozen Turnvereins still in existence in the United States today.  The Athenaeum Turners is no longer a club for physical fitness, but is now a group committed to preserving the last traces of German culture that still remain in Indianapolis.