by Michael R. Allen
The scars of historical neglect are visible on every corner of the north side, but few of them make one’s jaw drop faster than the crumbling red brick hulk running from the corner of Salisbury and 20th streets all the way south to the corner of Mallinckrodt and 20th. This is the Nord (or North) St. Louis Turnverein, and it may very well be one of those buildings that even its admirers never mention in the future tense. Its ownership has passed to a negligent owner and it has suffered major roof collapse since going vacant nearly one decade ago. Yet it remains a powerful symbol of the lost ethnic heritage of the Hyde Park neighborhood — which hopefully has a future despite its many setbacks.
Hyde Park began as the German-founded town of Bremen in 1844, and for the first 100 years of this area’s development, Germans were involved in every aspect of civic life here. Despite annexation by the city of St. Louis in 1855 and an influx of immigrants of other nationalities, Hyde Park retained a distinctly German character. The Germans created businesses, wholesale companies, factories and saloons, built great homes and introduced some institutions of a progressive bent, from kindergarten to the St. Louis Philosophical Society (a Hegelian group that published the Journal of Speculative Philosophy from the neighborhood). Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of German social ideals was the founding of the Nord St. Louis Turnverein in 1870. (“Turnverein” is German for gymnastic society.) The members, popularly called Turners, formed the association not only to promote physical health but to promote socializing and civic participation among the working and upper class Germans of Hyde Park.
In 1879, the Turnverein built its first building at 1926 Salisbury fronting Hyde Park itself. This two-story red brick building was built in an Italianate style with a half-mansard parapet wall on its symmetrical five-bay front elevation. Storefronts for rental income faced Salisbury in the two bays to the east and west of the center doorway. Behind the front elevation sat the large gymnasium with its arched roof. This stately building, designed by architect H.W. Kirchner, still stands and has suffered the most damage of the portions of the Turnverein complex.
The new building opened one year after the Turnerbund, the national coordinating organization for Turner societies, moved its office to the temporary Hyde Park home of the Nord St. Louis Turnverein. St. Louis Turners played an important role in the national organization, and were notably progressive in their outlook. They urged passage of successful resolutions calling for the direct election of United States senators (years before that actually occurred in 1913), child labor restrictions, workplace and health inspections and the right to recall and referendum. The Nord St. Louis Turners pushed for adoption of physical education in the St. Louis Public Schools, which was established in 1883. They also advocated installation of public playgrounds around the city.
The Nord St. Louis Turnverein served as a popular civic center for German Americans living on the north side. Widespread use necessitated additions to the first building. A three-story Romanesque Revival addition built in 1893 behind the first building included a bar, meeting rooms and lounges. The addition featured a center arch proclaiming the name of the Turnverein. An 1898 gymnasium addition in the same style facing Mallinckrodt Street, connected over the alleyway with a bridge, expanded the Turnverein building to a full block in length. Turner Oscar Raeder designed the additions while Turner A.H. Haessler served as contractor.
The Turnverein prospered for decades into the Twentieth Century as the acknowledged center of German social life in the neighborhood. The Mallinckrodt Chemical Company, owned by the German Mallinckrodt family, held its board meetings at the Turnverein into the 1980s despite the availability of fancier locations with air conditioning. However, German culture in the city declined following World War I, through political suppression as well as inevitable assimilation. German Americans also joined the flight to the suburbs after World War II. By the 1960s, the Turnverein was renting its space to other organizations, including Veterans clubs. Regulars held on, and the bar remained a good, safe place in the neighborhood for a drink. The bar had no tolerance for fighting, but would serve minors who were employed at the factories on the north riverfront. As former underage patron told us, the Turners figured that anyone “doing a man’s work could have a man’s drink.”
In the early 1980s, the Turnverein enjoyed some renown as a venue for punk rock shows that drew young people to Hyde Park, some for the first time. A nascent rehab effort in the neighborhood and the shows seemed to indicate a better future for the Turnverein, but neither lasted. In 2000, the Nord St. Louis Turnverein closed its doors for good. The buildings already had many problems from deferred maintenance, and quickly deteriorated. The Turners sold the buildings to a non-profit that wanted to revive the buildings for a cultural center, but that group dissolved and somehow DHP Investments LLC ended up with ownership. They have done nothing to repair the buildings; in fact, they allowed the roof on the first gymnasium to collapse and have left the doorways wide open. Inside, the wooden floors have buckled, joists sag and even exterior brick walls have spalled to the point of failure. The condition is so poor that rehabilitation will surely cost several million dollars. Still, much of the interior retains original features and could be made to be very attractive again.
Alderman Freeman Bosley, Sr., whose ward includes the Turnverein, has expressed interest in using eminent domain to remove the buildings from the ownership of DHP. Bosley has no specific details on who would then own the buildings and how they would be restored, but he has told constituents that he would like to see a comedy club open in the Turnverein. Whatever happens needs to happen now. The Germans are not returning in large numbers to the now mostly African-American neighborhood, but their grand hall is part of our polyglot heritage that honors everyone through preservation.
Photographs from May 20, 2005 (Michael R. Allen)
Some Turnverein Documents