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Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection, copyright 1904

As a short history for Historic Indianapolis.com fans who plan to attend the International I-Spy Game this Saturday, we repeat Joan Hostetler’s Das Deutsche Haus / Athenaeum Then and Now article from October.

Befitting a city with such a strong German heritage, the Athenaeum, located at the corner of Michigan and New Jersey Street and Massachusetts Avenue, is one Indianapolis’s oldest clubhouses still used for its original purpose.

Many German immigrants contributed to the business and cultural life of Indianapolis, including a group who left Germany after a failed revolution in 1848. Known as the “Forty-Eighters,” these well-educated freethinkers organized many social, music, and political clubs. In the 1890s leaders sought to bring these German clubs together under one roof, and in 1892 formed the Sozialer Turnverein Aktiengesellschaft (Social Gymnastics Association) to construct a clubhouse. Lots were purchased near what is now Lockerbie Square, a German neighborhood, and the building was named Das Deutsche Haus, meaning The German House.

Architects  Bernard Vonnegut (grandfather of author Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.) and Arthur Bohn designed the two-phase building, starting with the east wing in May 1893. It included a biergarten, dining room, men’s bar, ladies’ parlor, meeting rooms, and lecture hall. In keeping with the turnverein (athletic and gymnastic club) movement, members could use the gymnasium, bowling alley, and billiards room. Describing their philosophy, a motto inscribed on the East Tower reads “Frisch, Frei, Stark & Treu” (Vibrant, Free, Strong and Loyal). The west wing was completed in 1898 and included a ballroom, auditorium, large bowling alley, and several clubrooms.

Google Street View, July 2009

Although the name was changed due to anti-German views during World War I, the Athenaeum survives today, operated by the Athenaeum Foundation.  It is home to many organizations such as the YMCA, Rathskeller, Indy Metro Church, Young Actors Theatre, and several non-profit organizations. The building looks largely as constructed in the 1890s thanks to many preservationists, including  two supporters who raised money by living on the roof.  The first event occurred in September 1992 when the crumbling roof threatened the building. David Willkie (grandson of Hoosier-born Wendell Willkie, who ran for president in 1940) lived in an 8′ x 10′  shed for two months to raise awareness and funds. He raised over $150,000 and donors chipped in matching funds to pay for the new slate roof. In homage to his stunt, in October 2012 Athenaeum Foundation president Cassie Stockamp lived on the roof for a week teaching yoga every morning, dining to the tunes of local musicians, and sleeping in a tent. Funds raised will help pay for restoration of the stained-glass windows, cleaning and repointing the brick, updating the theater, and soundproofing the walls of the Rathskeller, the city’s oldest restaurant (housed in the Athenaeum since 1894).

Hope to see some of you at the International I-Spy Game and look forward to seeing what country or state people will represent!

[Would you like to see your old photographs featured in this Then and Now column? If so, attach a high resolution jpeg or png and any details about the building within our “Say Hi” link in the footer of our website.]

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One response to “Then & Now: Das Deutsche Haus / Athenaeum”

  1. basil berchekas jr says:

    must stay with this one!

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