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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 strike 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.

21 responses to “HI Mailbag: Indianapolis Turnvereins”

  1. Norm Morford says:

    Good job, Sharon. The Southside Turners builiding was still there the last time I passed that way. Some twenty years or so ago an Irish family attempted a restaurant in the lower level, but I don’t think it lasted very long. Last I knew you could still play basketball in the “gym.” Not sure of the current owner and whether it is available to the public.

  2. Sharon Butsch Freeland says:

    The same group that bought the property from the South Side Turners thirty-five years ago still owns it today. It’s called the Madison Avenue Athletic Club. The principals registered with the State of Indiana Secretary of State’s Office are Anthony Elrod, President, and Janet Elrod, Secretary. When I went to the property over the weekend to take photos, the neon “Open” sign was lit, so it seems to be a going concern. Here’s a link to a web page: http://www.madisonaveathleticclub.com/ .

  3. Wanda Jacobs says:

    I remember fondly my days at Athenaeum Turners, when I was selected as a scholarship winner for two summers, where I was trained on the balance beam, tumbling, web, and trapeze from Walt Linehert-(sp) – also in the 1970s as a member of the Athenaeum Players, I recall 2-3 years playing and/or helping on the dinner/theatre-in the-round shows complete with wandering waiters who wouldn’t hesitate to take the shortcut across the stage floor to deliver patrons’ dinners… as the show played on! (Naturally, I waited until they crossed before delivering my line!) And the unbelieveable stage on the third floor where at least three shows were successfully presented albeit the dressing rooms were teeny-tiny.
    Aaaah-thanks for giving history to such a landmark. I am so glad to hear the Haus still stands. What a beaut.
    WLJ

  4. Esther Shir says:

    Sharon–thanks so much for the wonderful Turnverein history! I think it was the Athenaeum that was our gym–looks really familiar. And perhaps we did go to Chicago for some kind of meet, and that’s where I got the name. This was really fascinating! Many thanks.

  5. Norm Morford says:

    Muchas gracias, Senora!

  6. Sharon Butsch Freeland says:

    The wing of the Athenaeum building where the Athenaeum Turners used to do gymnastics is now occupied by a branch of the YMCA. You can see some photos of their space on the Y’s Facebook page. Do you recognize any of the following rooms as being where you went to the gym as a kid? http://tinyurl.com/crajfz2, http://tinyurl.com/cklk8k2, http://tinyurl.com/d9dbl6u

  7. Norm Morford says:

    Was there also a Linehert camp some place between Carmel and Westfield, before that area became entirely suburban? There was some kind of summer camp that may have existed as late as the 1960’s.

  8. Sharon Butsch Freeland says:

    Bingo! Mystery solved (I think). Wanda and Norm have provided a piece of information that probably explains why Esther remembers the name “Lincoln Turners” from her childhood. I should have thought of this myself. The clue is Walter J. Lienert, who was for many years the Director of the Athenaeum Turners.
    .
    Walter Lienert was born in Chicago. When he was a boy, his German-born mother took him to the Lincoln Turners to learn gymnastics. He attended the Lincoln Turners throughout grade school and high school. After graduating from high school, he enrolled at the Normal College of the American Gymnastics Union. He had to drop out of school when the U.S. entered World War II. When Walter returned to the Normal College after serving in the war, Indiana University had assumed ownership of the school. It was located in the Athenaeum. After receiving his B.S., Walter stayed on as a physical education instructor at the Normal College. He got permission to use the gym when regular classes weren’t in session to coach the Athenaeum Turners. He started an invitational gymnastics competition that lasted many years, bringing a lot of top-ranked gymnasts to Indianapolis.
    .
    Walter and his wife Mary (neé Smyrnis) purchased a 26-acre farm at 1040 West 64th Street, between Hoover Road and Grandview Drive, where they operated Lienert’s Gym Camp for several decades. Generations of schoolchildren have attended exercise programs there. Sadly, Walter Lienert passed away last year, at the age of 87. Here’s a link to his obit: http://flannerbuchanan.tributes.com/show/Walter-J.-Lienert-94068821.

  9. Sharon Butsch Freeland says:

    Read my reply to Norm Morford, above. I think Wanda and Norm have provided the critical piece of information that connects the dots, by their mention of Walter Lienert. I don’t know why this didn’t occur to me sooner. No doubt you heard of the Lincoln Turners through Walter Lienert, since he grew up in Chicago and spent a lot of time there. He probably continued a relationship with the Lincoln Turners after he came to Indianapolis. If you remember Walter Lienert, this would seem to clinch it that the Athenaeum was the gym to which your family belonged. I just love trying to figure out these little mysteries of days gone by.

  10. Norm Morford says:

    Thanks, Sharon. However, now that you pinpoint where Lienert had his camp, I am sure there was a second camp somewhere north of the present commercial spaces at 146th and Meridian [south of 146th is Carmel — north of 146th was Washington Township and is now Westfield.]

    It seems to me that this other camp may have been run by two women, who during the school year had a rustic personage they assumed and went to schools to present a program.

    Does any of that “info” resonate with anyone else?

  11. Sharon Butsch Freeland says:

    Ahh. I think you must be referring to Herb and Dee Sweet’s Acorn Farm, which was east of US 31, about 15400 north. In the 1930s, after meeting at Butler University and marrying, the Sweets purchased acreage along Cool Creek. At that time, it was out in the country, a couple of miles north of the town of Carmel. They operated a private day care camp there for more than 40 years. Although there was undoubtedly plenty of exercising at their camp, it was not strictly a gymnastics camp, as Walter Lienert’s gym camp was. At Acorn Farm, children swam, fished, rode horses, made crafts, cooked over campfires, hiked, etc. After the Sweets ceased running the summer camp, they operated an antique store on the property. In more recent years, I think their daughter Jill has operated some kind of a country store there.

  12. Sharon Butsch Freeland says:

    I sent my previous comment too soon and didn’t respond completely to your comments. Dee Sweet did make presentations to schools and other youth groups. She often appeared on late-afternoon and Saturday morning kids’ shows. If there was a second woman, it may have been her daughter, Jill. I remember going on a “field trip” to Acorn Farm in the 1950s with either my Brownie or Girl Scout troop (don’t remember how old I was, so I’m not sure which rank I held at the time). I vaguely recall Dee Sweet’s having either her own TV show or at least a regular segment on some other TV show. Also, I seem to recall that Herb Sweet was a teacher at Orchard Country Day School. In its early years, Orchard was first on W. 42nd Street and then on W. 43rd Street, both adjacent to the Butler University campus. The former Orchard site then became a Noble School facility for some years and is now owned by the Unitarian Univeralist Church.

  13. Norm Morford says:

    Sharon — Once again, you nailed it! To what degree do you rely on your memory, and to what degree do you depend on other sources? Thanks, and keep up the good work.

  14. Norm Morford says:

    Sharon — Might that TV program have been on Channel 4? Also, there is a log cabin at the current site of Orchard School — I wonder if that is an outgrowth of the Sweets’ work with students.

  15. Sharon Butsch Freeland says:

    It seems logical that Dee Sweet would have appeared on Channel 4, since WTTV was an independent station that served Central Indiana. Channel 4 was founded by Sarkes Tarzian, a Bloomington businessman who eventually moved to Indianapolis (I knew his daughter Pat Tarzian, who was my same age, from clubs we participated in together during our high school years). Since Channel 4 wasn’t affiliated with one of the three commercial networks of the day, the station had a lot more local programming than Channels 6, 8, or 13 did. I remember being in the audience of a live kids’ TV show once, but I can’t remember exactly where the studio was. It was a bit of a drive from the north side, where we lived, so I’m thinking the studio was on the south side, probably more-or-less in the direction of Bloomington, since that’s where Tarzian started out. Bluff Road rings a bell.

  16. Norm Morford says:

    The last time I passed WTTV, it was on Bluff Road, but that could have been years ago.

  17. Norm Morford says:

    Sharon — the Anderson Herald-Bulletin published in today’s paper (Sun., 3-24-13) an account of the flood that hit Anderson in 1913.

    One of the more amazing stories is that part of a bridge over White River for the interurban washed away, but someone was able to fashion a walk way, so that people from Anderson and south who wanted to go to Muncie could walk over and catch the Muncie bound car on the other side, as well as folks from Muncie walking across and boarding the car for points,south and west!

  18. Sharon Butsch Freeland says:

    Here’s a link to some photos of that same 1913 flood, including several taken in Indianapolis: http://www.flickr.com/photos/hoosier_recollections/sets/72157625367038180/.

  19. Norm Morford says:

    Muchas gracias, Senora!

  20. Jana Phariss says:

    The gym camp is located on 64th Street, east of Grandview Drive. It is located before you come to a building that used to be Pleasant View Lutheran Church and is now a Yoga place.. It is very close to the Grandview Riding Stables located on the southside of 64th Street.

  21. Sharon Butsch Freeland says:

    Thank you, Jana. My reply to Norm Morford, back on March 20, 2013, at 2:07 a.m., included a little background on Walter Lienert, the location of Lienert’s Gym Camp, and a link to Walter Lienert’s obituary.

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