by Michael R. Allen
The following photographs show the state of the Nord St. Louis Turnverein on July 4, 2006 after a major fire brought about and end that long seemed inevitable. These photographs, taken by Claire Nowak-Boyd, depict a destabilized mass barely recognizable as the landmark that generations of north siders loved. Instead, we see charred wooden beams and joists amid the stub end of walls that once rose two and three stories.
Firefighters responded to the blaze at around 11:00 p.m. on Monday, July 3. The cause is undetermined, but fireworks are likely to be involved. Eyewitnesses have mentioned bottle rockets being shot into the building by neighbors, but the Fire Department has no comment.
The fire quickly destroyed the Turnverein’s oldest part, the 1879 building facing Salisbury Street. That part had suffered some roof damage in winter 2004 and its walls were partly toppled by high winds in April 2006. Left exposed, its wooden roof joists were dry; left without a roof, its masonry walls were barely held up at all.
The fire must have been hot enough to spread into the more stable 1890’s additions, and those sections were mostly destroyed except for the 1898 gymnasium facing Mallinckrodt, which lost its roof but retains stability of its masonry walls. Preservation of the shell of this section is still feasible, although the rest of the complex is basically impossible to save.
Lenders were close to foreclosing on DHP Investments, the company that had pledged to rehab the Turnverein before its founder disappeared in April. A rehabilitation project may have happened, but no one will know for sure now. The Building Division will likely begin an emergency demolition in the next two weeks, and will probably take down the entire complex.
Total demolition would be a shame. Although the disparate parts worked visually as a patchwork whole, the 1898 gymnasium could stand as a stern reminder of what once stood at the site. However, the current state of the Hyde Park neighborhood is too grim for such reminders, and is under so much duress that there is no time or money to make careful decisions. The “if’s” in this story are overwhelming. German-Americans who left for the suburbs, the Turner organization, the do-nothing alderman, complacent preservationists, a string of mayors who could care less and Doug Hartmann of DHP Investments all share some blame here. This end easily could have been avoided, but for inaction.
There is no rest for the north side today, or any other. At least one other historic building — this one on North Market Street in Old North St. Louis — burned on the same night as the Turnverein.
Here’s the view southeast from Salisbury at 20th:
The view along 20th Street shows how little of the building’s profile remains:
The view of the east wall of the original building shows that the extent of loss is severe:
The 1898 gymnasium addition lost its roof but retains stability:
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran an article on July 5 that claims that the fire is a “total loss.” This is untrue, because the steel-structure 1898 gym remains stable and could be reserved.
A neighbor reported seeing the Henry Rollins Band, the Dead Milkmen, Naked Raygun and other bands at the Turnverein during the 1970s and 1980s when promoters booked many shows there.