Indy’s (Somewhat Forgotten) German Past

Maybe you’ve been to a concert at the Biergarten, eaten at the Rathskellar or enjoyed a German beer. Maybe you’re a member of the Y, or attended a play performed by the Youth Actor’s Theatre, or grabbed a cup of coffee at the Athenaeum.  Perhaps as you were driving along Meridian Street, you’ve noticed an apartment building just north of the library with the name “Turnverin” etched in stone above the doorway.  And perhaps, like me, you’ve never thought about the history behind any of these buildings….until today.

On Valentine’s Day, my boyfriend, Tim, had a meeting in the Coat Check Coffeehouse, located inside the Athenaeum, an ornate building in the Lockerbie Square/Mass Avenue neighborhood of Indianapolis.  As usual, when left unsupervised, I began to wander.  My wandering led me down a hallway and to a link to the hidden history of the early German immigrants to Indianapolis, and the legacy they left behind.

During the 1840’s, Germany was divided into an autocratic political structure of 39 independent states that made up part of the former Holy Roman Empire.  At this time, many Germans were caught up in a gymnastic movement called Turnvater, which was started by Fredrich Ludwig Jahn.  The Turners, as they were called, consisted mostly of working class Germans and were later joined by the growing “middle class” that was developing.  They believed very strongly in education and physical wellbeing.  Politically, they tended to be liberal, and were often at odds with the more conservative aristocracy, who were the ruling class in Germany at the time. 

In 1848, there were a series of coordinated protests and rebellions across Germany, most often led by the Turners who were seeking a better life for themselves and their families. These protests and rebellions were quelled when the middle and working class were divided, giving the conservative aristocracy the opportunity to defeat them and forcing many of those in the rebellion to flee to America.  Called the “Forty Eighter’s”, these Germans began settling in the Midwest.  In Indianapolis, they settled into Germantown, now known as the Lockerbie, Mass Ave, and Chatham Arch neighborhoods.

As the Forty Eighters settled into America, they sought to preserve much of their lifestyle and heritage.  They brought with them their love for music, art, and physical wellbeing, as well as interests in politics and education.   Many volunteered for and fought on the side of the North during the Civil War, and they ran for local, state and Federal political positions.  They opened schools for physical education, music, and academics. One of their lasting legacies was the formation of Sozialer Turneverin Atkiengesellschaft or Social Gymnastic Associations.  These associations or clubs served as the center of German-American social, political, and educational culture in Indianapolis and across the country.

The first Turneverin in Indianapolis was formed by Charles Vonnegut (the great grandfather of author, Kurt Vonnegut) in 1851.  In 1892, the Sozialer Turneverin Atkiengesellschaft (Stock Association) formed to raise funds and build Das Deutsche Haus (German House) in Indianapolis and in 1893, purchased two lots at the corner of New Jersey and Michigan Streets, in the heart of what was then known as Germantown, for the construction of Das Deutsche Haus for Socialer Turneverin.  It was designed and constructed by the Indianapolis firm of Vonnegut and Bohn. Construction on the East Wing was begun in May, 1893 and completed in 1894.  The West Wing construction began in 1897 and was completed in 1898.  The Das Deutsche Haus hosted many organizations, including the German-American Veteran’s Society, German-American School Society, Socialer Turnverein Women’s Club, German Ladies’ Aid Society, and Turner Building Savings Association.  In 1896, the club boasted 500 members.

The Musikverein or Music Society was founded in 1897.  It included a 60-piece orchestra, male choir, and mixed choir.  Now called The Athenaeum Orchestra, it is the oldest orchestra in Indianapolis.

The Das Deutsche Haus formed an agreement in 1908 with Normal College of the American Gymnastic Union. The Normal school trained physical education teachers for schools across the country.  In 1941, Indiana University incorporated the school, making it the School of Education.  It is the oldest physical education school in the US.  In 1970, the college left the Athenaeum and moved the school to IUPUI.

As the United States entered into war with Germany in the mid twentieth century, anti-German sentiment spread across the US.  In Indianapolis, many primary Germanic communities began to face discrimination and many were forced from their homes.  Due to the anti-German sentiments, the Stock Association chose to rename the club The Anthenaeum.  In 1991, the Stock Association transferred its ownership to the Athenaeum Foundation.

True to its German roots and love for music and theatre, The Athenaeum continued to play a role in the theatre community.  From 1972 to 1980, it was the home of the Indiana Repetoire Theatre.  It then housed the American Cabaret Threatre from 1989 to 2009.  The Young Actor’s Theatre returned in 2008 and continues to host a variety of plays and shows.

Continuing its long tradition of health and wellness, the YMCA renovated the gymnasium and opened its doors as a wellness center in 2012.  It continues to provide wellness services to the residents and employees of downtown Indianapolis.

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