The Athenaeum was built primarily to provide a space for physical fitness. The building was constructed in order to house a gymnastic organization called the Socialer Turnverein, later known as the Athenaeum Turners. Individual members of these German American gymnastic clubs are known as Turners.
A gymnastic movement was started by Friedrich Ludwig Jahn in the early 19th century when the German states were occupied by Napoleon. Their motto was “A sound mind in a sound body.” The Turnvereins (gymnastic clubs) were not only athletic, but also political, reflecting their origin in similar nationalistic gymnastic organizations in Europe. The Turner movement in Germany was generally liberal in nature, and many Turners took part in the Revolution of 1848. After its defeat, the movement was suppressed, and many Turners left Germany, most immigrating to the United States. Several of the original German immigrants (called “Forty-Eighters”) went on to form units in the Union Army during the American Civil War and later became involved in politics.
Beginning in 1848, Turnvereins were founded throughout the U.S. with a high concentration in the Midwest and Northeast. The Turners formed a national organization, Nordamerikanischer Turnerbund, in 1850, now known American Turners. In 1914 Indianapolis had three Turnvereins, each with its own distinctive purpose-built Turner hall. In addition to serving as physical education, social, political and cultural organizations for German immigrants, Turners were also active in the American public education and labor movements. The Turnvereine made an important contribution to the integration of German-Americans into their new home and to American culture in general.
Like other German-American groups, the American Turners were under extreme scrutiny during World War I. The German language was banned in schools and universities, and German language journals and newspapers were shut down, but the Turner societies continued to function. However, the U.S. Post Office issued a 3-cent commemorative stamp marking the 100th anniversary of the movement in the United States in 1948.
Cultural assimilation, prohibition, the Great Depression, urban demographic shifts, and two world wars with Germany took a gradual toll on membership, with some halls closing and others becoming regular dance halls, bars or bowling alleys. Fifty-four Turner societies still existed in the U.S. as of 2011, primarily in areas of heavy German immigration such as Iowa, Texas, Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Kentucky, New York, New Jersey and Los Angeles. The current national headquarters of the American Turners is in Louisville, Kentucky.
The Athenaeum’s Gymnasium features gymnastic equipment used by the Turners and the Normal College. The climbing tree, ladders and peg boards for climbing were typical equipment used by the Turners for training and competition. The presence of this room with some of its original equipment intact is a link to a time when physical fitness was an important part of life in Indianapolis. The Turner movement found expression in clubs throughout the city most notably at the Socialer Turnverein (Athenaeum), Independent Turnverein at Ninth and Meridian Streets, and the Southside Turnverein on East Prospect Street. Photographs and artifacts displayed in the Athenaeum illustrate how these facilities were used.
Outside the gymnasium is a large staircase that leads to the second floor club rooms. These rooms were used as meeting rooms by the Turners and as classrooms and training spaces by the Normal College. Since 1992 the YMCA has continued the building’s tradition of physical culture.
This gym was the center of activities for the Normal College of the North American Gymnastic Union. The school was founded in 1866 to properly train instructors in the Turnvereins throughout the nation. It expanded its curriculum and standards to train physical education teachers for America’s public schools. This was home to the Normal College from 1907 to 1970. It continues today as the Indiana University School of Physical Education on the IUPUI campus 1.5 miles west of the Athenaeum.
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