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Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2009

Turner Hall: Milwaukee’s Enduring Landmark

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When you dine in the restaurant, catch a show in the ballroom or work out in the gymnasium of Turner Hall, you’re under the watchful gaze of the American Turners captured in the portraits and photographs hanging on the walls. The images are a tableaux of the society’s rich history in Milwaukee, a 156-year tenure with roots that thread back to the German Turnverein associations of the early 19th century.

Outside of Berlin, German revolutionary and patriot Friedrich Ludwig Jahn founded an organization that prepared its young members, both mentally and physically, for resistance to the French conquest of Europe during the time of Napoleon. The Turners derived their name from the type of exercise Jahn emphasized: calisthenics and gymnastics, or turnen in German. In 1848, the Turners helped spark a revolution to establish Germany as a unified, progressive state. The uprisings were crushed and many of the movement’s leaders sought refuge in America.

Once here, the Forty-Eighters, as they were called, created social, political and athletic clubs in the tradition of the Turnverein societies of their homeland. The Milwaukee Turners Society received its charter from the state in 1855 and its clubhouse on Fourth Street became a social and cultural center for German and other like-minded immigrants. The Milwaukee Turners were proponents of social reform and transparent, accountable governance, and they developed a reputation for reinforcing the principles declared in their national charter: "Liberty, against all oppression; Tolerance, against all fanaticism; Reason, against all superstition; Justice, against all exploitation!"

In 1882, the Turners built a monumental hall worthy of their society’s solid foundation and dignified ideals. They employed architect H.C. Koch, the German immigrant who designed the Pfister Hotel and City Hall, to draw up the plans. The massive four-story structure of cream city brick was composed in the High Victorian Romanesque style. Devoid of ornamental features, three of the building’s facades have a utilitarian character. The west faade, on the other hand, includes an imposing entrance pavilion that terminates in a pyramidal-roofed dormered tower above the roofline. The articulation on this side of the building consists of tall, ornamental spandrels, arched windows and massive stone lintels.

The interior of Turner Hall is even more impressive. Koch managed to design a building that would ultimately include a two-story, 7,000-square-foot ballroom with an expansive balcony that sweeps around the north and west sides of the space; a ground-level gymnasium; large meeting rooms; and a restaurant and beer hall. Murals painted by German panoramic artists that depict important moments in the Turner movement, as well as famous German villages and scenes, can still be found in the Historic Turner Restaurant.

In 1933 and again in 1941, the ballroom was severely damaged by fires, ultimately forcing the Turners to close its doors. After years of neglect, members of the Milwaukee Turners initiated a campaign to restore the ballroom, and in 2000 established the Turner Ballroom Preservation Trust for the purpose of renovating, maintaining and managing the ballroom. Turner Hall has come full circle, as it once again plays host to Milwaukee’s vibrant social and cultural scene.

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