By Bill Kemp | Archivist / Historian, McLean County Museum of History
BLOOMINGTON – For three decades spanning the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Turner Hall has been the cultural center of the large and influential German community of Bloomington.
Located in the 300 block of South Main Street and built in 1883, the formidable three-story lobby housed the local Turnverein (roughly translated as “gymnastic union”), a sports and social club with the motto “A healthy mind in a healthy body. “
Organized in 1855, the Bloomington Turnverein limited membership to native Germans and their children. In 1870, nearly one in ten Bloomington residents was born in Germany.
The city was home to German-organized Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, and Baptist churches, as well as the Moses Montefiore Temple, a synagogue established by German Jews. German organizations included Maenerchor, a singing company; Krieger Verein, a group made up of veterans of the German army; and even a German Masonic Lodge.
In the early 1880s, the Turners overtook a series of clubhouses and downtown venues. George H. Miller, then employed by architect Henry A. Miner, drew up plans for a free-standing building. Miller eventually established his own practice and enjoyed one of the most prolific architectural careers in Bloomington history.
The main hall, or auditorium, of the $ 22,000 structure has been described as a “comfortable and elegant opera house” with seating for 1,000 or more. It included a 25-foot-wide stage and a gallery or balcony that enveloped much of the room. Suspended from the frescoed ceiling (described as “a mass of fluffy clouds floating in an azure sky”) was a “magnificent prismatic chandelier” of solid bronze and nickel scalloped with 30 gas jets.
Directly under the main hall was the “huge gymnasium”, spanning over 3,100 square feet with 22-foot ceilings. The building also included a bar, dining room, kitchen, chess room, ladies room and “gentlemen’s retreat room”.
The official opening took place on December 10, 1883. The program began with a torchlight procession of around 100 Turners and their supporters, who marched through the city center towards the new hall.
Most of the speeches were in German. âBelieve me,â said Turner President Christian Riebsame, âif we love to cherish the memories, habits and customs of our homeland, and we cling with reverent affection to our mother tongue, our purpose and ambition are at all times to be as good citizens of the country of our adoption for it is your pride and glory to be Americans at the Manor Born. “
The building has been used for a wide range of events including gymnastics classes, dances, dinners, theatrical productions and end of year celebrations. The Turners were an inclusive group, with members that included Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, as well as members of the working and middle classes.
In 1911-1912, as the immigrant generation was dying, the Turners sold the hall to the Bloomington Chapter (or aerie) of the Fraternal Order of Eagles.
When the United States entered World War I, anti-German hysteria swept through the nation. The local “superpatriots” have suppressed the German language from churches and schools, and printed documents such as the Bloomington Journal, a German weekly newspaper. In April 1918, the Turnverein changed its name to Columbia Fraternal Society, an “all American” revision made in the “spirit of the moment”. After the war, the Turners reverted to their Old World name.
The group eventually occupied the third floor of the Wood Building, 108-110 E. Front St. In the 1930s, the Turners held picnics near the Downs along Kickapoo Creek or at Randolph south of Bloomington. “There were tables, an ice-filled tub with a beer keg, another with soft drinks for the kids, and a third tub to rinse out the pewter cups used for beer,” recalls William Adams, who attended as a young boy and later wrote a company history. The last picnic was probably in 1947.
In its later years, the 1883 Turner Hall was partially obscured by the erection of the Main Street Viaduct Bridge. Another blow to the building’s prestige was its use as a warehouse for Stern’s, a downtown furniture store.
The building was demolished in 1969 and the site became a parking lot.