There were once dozens of Turner Halls all over Chicago, but Vorwaerts is one of only two that remain in the city. This mysterious looking building is a living artifact of a group that began in Chicago 164 years ago, and continues the same traditions today.
Birth of a Movement
The Turnverein (German for “gymnastic union”) is a gymnastic movement founded in Germany during the time of Napoleon’s occupation.
The founder of the movement, Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, believed that the key to resisting and defeating Napoleon was a physically fit and disciplined fighting force. He served as a commander of a volunteer force that was instrumental in defeating Napoleon’s army.
After the war, he continued efforts to increase discipline and physical fitness in the German population. He would later invent fixtures of gymnastics still in use today: the balance beam, the horse, rings, parallel bars, and the horizontal bar.
The Turnverein and Failed Revolution
There were very few German immigrants in Chicago’s early history, until the German revolution of 1848. The liberal and middle classes (including large numbers of Turnverein) fought against the aristocracy for workers’ rights and reduced taxation and censorship. Their attempt was unsuccessful, and the result greatly impacted the demographics of Chicago and the country.
The failed revolution led to an influx of educated and skilled immigration to America, particularly the Midwest. The national Turnverein formed in Cincinnati in the same year as the revolution (1848). The first Chicago Turnverein formed a few years later in 1852.
Though they embraced their German history with words and song, they were deeply patriotic for their new home in America. Turnverein proudly served in the Civil War and helped Lincoln get elected president. They also served as bodyguard for Lincoln during his inauguration, and later during his funeral.
Early Rise of Turnverein Vorwaerts
The First Turnverein Vorwaerts Hall and 1877 Riot
As many social clubs, the Turnverein formed in local chapters. The Turnverein Vorwaerts (“Forward Turners”) first formed in 1867, and within the same year occupied a building on 12th Street (now Roosevelt).
That building no longer stands, but an interior illustration of it (above) was included in the August 18, 1877 issue of Harper’s Weekly. A meeting of furniture workers at the hall erupted into a riot with police after the latter claimed they were provoked. According to the Chicago History Museum, this was part of the backdrop of events leading up to the Haymarket Affair:
One eyewitness described the police as “a uniformed mob.” The raid led to a successful lawsuit by the furniture workers’ union that resulted in the condemnation of the police and the affirmation of workers’ right to peaceful assembly. The bad feelings generated by this incident became another cause of the mutual distrust that was part of the backdrop of Haymarket.
A New Hall for Turnverein Vorwaerts
In the 1880s another wave of German immigrants arrived in Chicago, many the result of an Anti-Socialist Law. This led to a swelling in the ranks of Turners across the city, including the hall on 12th Street.
In October 1896, it was announced in the Chicago Daily Tribune that a new building would be constructed for this growing movement. The building’s architect was George L. Pfeiffer, also a member and president of the Turnverein Vorwaerts.The Vorwaerts Turner Hall consisted of three buildings in one–two adjacent structures and a gymnasium in the rear that had 40-foot ceilings and a capacity of 1,000 people.
Good Health and Healthy, Upright, Strong, True
The extra large front gable (above) is rich in artistry and symbolism. Most prominent is the phrase Gut Heil, translating as good health.
It also features a cartouche with letters representing “Healthy, Upright, Strong, True.” The face appearing in the relief is Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, founder of the Turner Movement.Its early roots were focused on creating a population able to resist Napoleon’s occupying army, but over time evolved to promote general health and well-being among its members and the neighborhoods in which they lived.
The fruits of their early efforts in Chicago are evident today, in the form of physical education:
In 1884, Turner members of the Illinois District were responsible for introducing physical education classes into the Chicago Public Schools and provided the first instructors for these classes. In 1895, these Illinois Turners established the first playground in Chicago in Douglas Park and for many years the Turners provided the supervisors and directors for all the playgrounds in the Chicago parks. One of the parks located on the north side of Chicago is named in honor of Turner Theodore Gross who was the supervisor of the Chicago playgrounds for many years.
Health and Good Beer
Beyond their work to promote good health, facilities for leisure and recreation were part of the new building. The Turner Hall contained two bowling alleys, showers, two bars (one for members and one for the public), and a two story residence for the building manager above the lower level.
Establishment of Illinois Turner Camp
Around 1914, the Illinois Turner Camp opened to promote physical fitness and athletic instruction. The Turnverein Vorwaerts were one of original founders of the new camp.Gymnastics and physical fitness were central to the idea of Turner Camp, but it also served as a valuable retreat for Turners young and old. There are 267 cottages on the grounds, many of which have passed through generations of Turner families.
Social Justice, Prohibition, and Immigrant Life During Wartime
The 1852 founding of Turnverein Vorwaerts was in part based on their staunch anti-slavery views, so it’s not surprising that the hall frequently hosted political activities that aligned with their liberal or socialist views.
One group was the United Societies for Local Self-Government. In the 1920 article above, it is noted that a near-riot occurred during the meeting between that group and Congressman Britten over the topic of prohibition.
An earlier declaration highlighted the cultural fault lines exposed by Southerners who pushed for prohibition, and their negative feelings toward immigrants:
This manifested again in World War Two, when in 1938 a band of vigilantes stormed the hall expecting to find Nazi sympathizers. Instead, they found people playing a basketball game.
A meeting was called by the United Society for Local Self Government, to establish the battle program for individual liberty. The propaganda made in the south by the Prohibitionists not only ruins the existence of the saloon-keepers and clubs associations, but menaces the activities of all immigrants, especially the Germans.
The Turners used the opportunity to state they were opposed to any foreign ideologies, and that pro-Nazi gatherings were forbidden. A long-held tenet of American Turnverein is integration into local society, and citizenship a requirement for membership.
After the war, the Turnverein Vorwaerts changed their name to the English version of their name, Forward Turners.
Neighborhood Changes as the Turners Move On
Decline of Vorwaerts Turner Hall and Surrounding German Population
By the 1940s, the German immigrant population around Vorwaerts Turner Hall began to decline. Immigration stopped as a result of the war and earlier residents moved further out of the Near West Side. Membership in societies and clubs also declined rapidly, and the West Side Turner Hall saw fewer patrons and gatherings.
The Forward Turners sold the hall in 1945.
What’s Left of the Former West Side German Community
The Near West Side was once home to some of the earliest German immigrant communities, and this rapid influx of educated and skilled people created a bustling commercial district with ornately designed buildings.
But today few architectural artifacts remain. Decades of neglect, segregation, and few employment opportunities contributed to the loss of commercial and residential infrastructure.Vorwaerts Turner Hall (above) once had a gymnasium behind the front two structures. The gymnasium was demolished in 2007. Just a few years ago a turn of the century commercial building across the street from Vorwaerts hall was demolished (above). Today it’s only a vacant lot. With new development appearing in nearby parcels, it may not be that way for long. Demolition of buildings on the Near West Side left wide swaths of vacant lots. But the area close to downtown is rapidly changing as the area redevelops with new construction.
A new development (above) near Vorwaerts Turner Hall appeared with a sign advertising “luxury homes.”
Forward Turners After Leaving the Near West Side
The Forward Turners Move to Cicero
The Forward Turners (as they became known then) sold the building in 1945. Without a permanent space, they rented facilities at 6100 West Cermak Road in Cicero.The building in Cicero was built for Sokol Slavsky in 1924. Sokols are a Czech youth and gymnastics movement with activities and traditions very similar to Turners.
Sokol Slavsky lost the building during the Great Depression and after served as a ballroom and theater, and rented out space to groups like the Forward Turners.
Though the space was well suited for the Forward Turners, it was only a temporary home.
Social, Swiss, and Forward Turners Unite
The 1950s were a time of upheaval for many social and fraternal organizations, especially for Turner Societies. Children and grandchildren of immigrants that formed these groups were leaving the old neighborhoods, and shared less interest in being a member of a Turner Hall.
In 1954, the Forward Turners and other Turner groups held a series of meetings to discuss merging and a location for a new building. During this time, the City of Chicago notified the Social Turners of plans to condemn their building at Belmont and Paulina (above) in order to build a parking facility.
In the same year, the Forward, Social, and Swiss Turners officially merged and became American Turners-Northwest Chicago, holding their first meeting at the Social Turner Hall which would soon be demolished.
The Move to Belmont and Natoma
The newly formed American Turners – Northwest Chicago purchased land at Belmont and Natoma in 1956, building a modern facility to host events, gymnastics, and various social gatherings.
The Rise and Fall of Bowling
Like most social organizations, the Turners sought a revenue stream for the building and other operational expenses. The Northwest Turners achieved this by incorporating a large bowling alley into the facility.
The 1960s and 1970s were the golden era of professional bowling, and revenue from the bowling alley was initially successful at subsidizing operations for the Northwest Turners.
Unfortunately, the midcentury modern building with low ceilings wasn’t well suited for banquet halls or wedding receptions, limiting the use of the space for other purposes. Coupled with the sharp decline in bowling as professional and hobby sport in the 1980s and 1990s, the Turners were left without their once-thriving revenue stream.
The Turners later ran a weekly bingo game to fund operations, which was successful for a while. But with few revenue-generating events and an aging building with increasingly high maintenance and repair costs, keeping the building functional became on overwhelming challenge.
The Northwest Turners sold the building at Belmont and Natoma in 2005. It was later demolished and replaced with residential buildings.
Northwest Turners Today: Continuing The Tradition
The Move to Schiller Park
Whenever a social organization leaves a neighborhood building that served generations of people, the impact is deep.
The new Turner Hall near O’Hare in Schiller Park wasn’t far from the previous location, but far enough to lose some members and effectively end a few lifelong friendships that formed around a common place.
Despite the strife and difficulty associated with losing a meeting place, Northwest Turners kept the gymnastics program and evolved with changing times, as well as strengthen ties to other Illinois Turner Societies.
Continuing the Tradition of Sound Mind in a Sound Body
Though the Northwest Turners have relocated and rebranded a few times over the course of their 156-year history in Chicago, the organization remains committed to many of the same ideologies that date to its founding.The facility in Schiller Park hosts cheerleading class programs, and has a gymnastics team which recently won a series of medals a the Illinois State Gymnastics Championship.
The Northwest Turners are also active in the now 102-year old Turner Camp, which today features a bar, restaurant, pool, and continuing education and physical fitness programs.
The Old Vorwaerts Hall Today
New Life for the Old Hall: Hope Cafe
Today, the former Turner Hall is home to Hope Cafe, a coffee shop and event space that serves small plates. It’s run by Chicago Hope Academy, and proceeds from the business further their education and community outreach efforts.If you’re looking for a new place to grab coffee, Hope Cafe recently expanded operating hours to Saturdays. It’s a great historic space that benefits the local community:
We are more than just a coffee shop. We seek to be a positive outreach within our neighborhood and community. Every cup of coffee and fresh baked pastry financially supports the diverse student body at Chicago Hope Academy. The majority of the student body is from low-income families, and many will be first-generation college students.
Take a trip to Roosevelt and Western to get some coffee or small plates with a large helping of Chicago history.
References and Further Reading
- American Turners-Northwest Chicago
- Illinois District of the American Turners
- Hope Cafe
- Vorwaerts Turner Hall (City of Chicago Landmark Designation Report)
- Campers Find Real Retreat (Chicago Tribune, 1995)
- American Turners Image Collection (IUPUI Digital Collections)
Special thanks to Nicholas Barts of American Turners-Northwest Chicago for assistance in providing historic and current information on the American Turners.