The South Side Turnverein Hall was built in 1900 at 306 Prospect Street, located in the Babe Denny neighborhood, as a gymnastics and social club for German Americans. Brought to the United States by the German-speaking immigrants during the 1840s and 1850s, the Turnverein (gymnastics association) movement emphasized the concept of “sound body, sound mind” and brought together Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and Freethinkers, united by their common heritage, language, culture, and identity as German Americans. In the early 1850s, recent German immigrants to the city founded the Indianapolis Turngemeinde and Socialistische Turnverein.

Exterior view of the Southside Turnverein building.
South Side Turnverein, 1908 Credit: W.H. Bass Photo Company Collection, Indiana Historical Society View Source

In 1892, the Socialer Turnverein Atkien Gesellschaft (Social Gymnastic Society Stock Association) organized to raise money to build a home for the Socialer Turnverein and other liberal German societies of Indianapolis, which led to construction of the Athenaeum. About 200 German Americans living on the south side of Indianapolis broke away from the Socialer Turnverein Aktien Gesellschaft to establish the South Side Turnverein (Südseite Turnverein) in 1893. By 1900, Indianapolis had three thriving Turnvereins: Socialer Turnverein, Unabhängiger/Independent Turnverein, and Südseite/South Side Turnverein.

The prominent architecture firm Vonnegut and Bohn designed the clubhouse for the South Side Turnverein with an allegorical sculpture created by Rudolf Schwarz, who had come to Indianapolis from Vienna in 1897 to create important sculptures for the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. Bernard Vonnegut, one of the principal architects for Vonnegut and Bohn, had been the designer of the Athenaeum (1893-1894, 1897-1898), and his father Clemens Vonnegut Sr. had been one of the founders of the original Indianapolis Turnverein in 1851.

When it opened in 1900, the South Side Turnverein Hall contained a large turnhalle (gymnastics hall) and auditorium with seating for up to 1,000, along with a bowling alley, dining room, parlor, and kneipe (pub) in the basement. In addition to gymnastics, the building hosted basketball, boxing, charity balls, euchre parties, wedding receptions, and political rallies, including a 1959 speech by John F. Kennedy.

Anti-German sentiment during the World Wars led to increasing assimilation of German Americans and the decline of organizations that celebrated this identity. Much of the surrounding neighborhood was destroyed to make way for the Madison Avenue Expressway and I-70. The South Side Turners closed the building in 1977, and it later operated as the Madison Avenue Athletic Club. Rehabilitated as a corporate headquarters in 2019, the South Side Turnverein Hall remains an enduring symbol of German American culture on the near south side of Indianapolis.

Revised June 2023

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