I look at all kinds of online sources of old pictures of Brooklyn for research, and recently came across an old postcard for a Brooklyn building with the caption “Turn Verein – Brooklyn.” Never having heard the words, and curious as to where the building was, and what “Turn Verein” meant, I did some investigating.
In 1811, German gymnasium instructor named Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, disgusted with his country’s losses to Napoleon, came to the conclusion that part of the loss was due to the lack of physical conditioning of the average German soldier. He came up with an elaborate regimen of strength training through gymnastics, naming his program and fitness philosophy turn verein, (pronounced tooorn fe-rhine) from the German verb “turen” meaning to perform gymnastic exercises, and “verein,” the word for club or organization.
The motto of the Turn Verein was “Frisch, Fromm, Fröhlich, Frei” (Hardy, Pious, Cheerful, Free). Jahn is credited as the father of modern gymnastics, and was the inventor of the balance beam, and horizontal and parallel bars, as well as the vaulting horse. He established Turn Verein clubs across much of a non-unified Germany, but was jailed for his ultra-nationalist sentiments in the 1820s. (He also had problems with Catholics, Jews and the French) The government put strong restrictions on the Turn Vereins during this period, and when he was released, Jahn fades from the leadership of the movement he created.
By the 1840s, restrictions had been lifted, and the growth of gymnastics clubs throughout the German states was tremendous. Membership was expanded to include non-gymnasts, called “Friends of Turnen,” and the clubs were engaged in the creation of libraries, reading rooms and lectures. Many were of a liberal political nature, attracting workers and students. Many of the Turnen established classes for children and some even encouraged women to train. Jews were not denied admission, and some became leaders of local Turnen branches.
Large elaborate gymnastic festivals were staged, and the Turnen called for national unity in this land of separate states. In 1848, revolution erupted in an unsuccessful drive for German unification, and it was during this period that thousand of Germans first came to the United States.
Large communities of German immigrants settled in New York, Texas, Ohio and other Midwest communities. In New York City, Germans established themselves in Manhattan’s Yorkville area, and in Brooklyn, especially in Williamsburg and Bushwick, where many became successful brewmeisters, grocers and merchants. The Turn Verein came to America as well.
In addition to promoting physical education, American Turn Vereins were a cultural sanctuary, preserving traditional German customs, language and celebrations. They also encouraged a new, full life in America, and sponsored English language and citizenship classes. Turn Verein halls usually had a restaurant or beer hall connected to them in some way, a very important cultural necessity for their community.
By the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, the Turners, as they were now called, had firmly established themselves in America. Fiercely patriotic, scornful of slavery, and generally supportive of the Republican Party, Turners made up a portion of Abraham Lincoln’s bodyguard during his inauguration, and the New York 20th Regiment, the Turner Rifles, was made up entirely of Turners, as were regiments in Ohio and Missouri. Over 60 percent of Turners fought for the Union, although many, especially in Texas, also fought for the Confederacy.
After the War, Turners fought to be integrated into American society. One of their major goals was to reform the American education system. They encouraged compulsory education of children until the age of fourteen, and fought to promote physical education in schools. San Francisco was the first city to introduce the Turner/German system of physical exercise into the regular curriculum, and other cities followed.
In 1866, a Turnlehreseminar, a Turner teacher’s seminary, was established to train physical education instructors. Today, part of that school can still be found in the Department of Physical Education at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis. Today’s phys-ed classes in schools can be directly credited to the Turn Verein.
The height of the Turner movement was in the 1894, when 317 societies existed in the United States, with over 40,000 members. In Brooklyn, there were at least five chapters listed in turn of the century Brooklyn directories: the Columbia Turn Verein at 168 Driggs Avenue in Greenpoint, the New Brooklyn TV at 191 Sumpter Avenue in Bedford Stuyvesant, the Greenpoint TV at 142 Greenpoint Avenue, and the South Brooklyn Turn Verein at 104 16th Street in the South Slope.
All of these chapters had fewer than 100 members. Today, a Google search shows none of the buildings are even there, except for Sumpter Avenue, which is now housing. The two largest Brooklyn chapters were the Western District Turn Verein, with 125 members, located at 351-353 Atlantic Avenue, and the Eastern District Turn Verein, with 536 members, first located at 68 Meserole Street, but moving in 1901 to the Tuttle Mansion on the corner of Gates and Bushwick. Once the target of Temperance demonstrations, today, the Atlantic Avenue Turn Verein Hall is now home to Horseman Antiques.
The Eastern District Turn Verein chapter was the largest and most important. It was founded in 1853, and its first home was at 68 Meserole Street in Williamsburg. During the Draft Riots of 1863, the Turn Verein was a sanctuary for Negro citizens fleeing the violence that killed hundreds. Local records speak of Turner men and boys giving shelter to hundreds of people, saving their lives from the mobs. Out of this Turn, the 28th Regiment was one of the first to the front, joining the Turner Rifles of the New York 20th Regiment, seeing action at Antietam, among other battles.
In 1901, they bought the old Tuttle Mansion, a photograph taken, a postcard made, and then by World War II, the Turn Verein disappears from Brooklyn memory. Today, a Spanish speaking evangelical church occupies the lot where, strangely, the annex to the original building is incorporated into the modern design. The main part of the Tuttle mansion is long gone, as is the other annex on the right side of the building.
The Turners are not gone, however. The organization suffered greatly through two world wars, when being a German organization was not too popular, but many branches survived, and in 1998, they celebrated their 150th-year anniversary. They are now known as the American Turners and have about 60 chapters nationally, with over 13,000 members.
All of the New York City Turn Vereins merged into one chapter, and have a new facility in Throggs Neck in the Bronx, now open to anyone, and still emphasizing physical and mental fitness, patriotism and the “preservation of democracy, and the attainment and maintenance of political, economic, religious and personal liberty.” GMAP
(Originally posted 03/16/10)