This past Sunday being Valentines Day, my wife and I ventured to Milwaukee where we were fortunate to see a great concert: Dawes opening up for Cory Chisel. Both of us came away feeling the state of American song writing is in good hands with either of these acts. But the other thing that gave me goose bumps was the venue- The Ballroom at Turner Hall on 4th Street, across from the Bradley Center in Milwaukee. I’ve written briefly about Turner Hall, but Sunday we got to spend some time looking around and that time just whetted my appetite.
When I was 10 or 12, I remember going to Turner Hall with my dad a few times for a fish fry prior to Bucks games. I also seem to remember a couple friends of mine from school who went there on Saturday mornings for gymnastics. For all these years, I’ve known of it’s existence but never knew Turner Hall even had a ballroom. Nor did I know about the origin of the Turners or what influence they had over Milwaukee’s early history.
The Turners (Turn Verein in German) were founded in 1811 by Friedrich Ludwig Jahn as a means of conditioning Germany’s young men both mentally and physically so that they may be better prepared to fight off Napoleon. The organization was eventually crushed in Germany, with many of its members fleeing and settling here where the organization thrived. The Turners not only valued physical fitness, but also took on several progressive social causes, including Women’s Suffrage. According to the Turner website, their “mission statement” included the following: ”Liberty, against all oppression; Tolerance, against all fanaticism; Reason, against all superstition; Justice, against all exploitation!”. In the early 20th century, the Turners of Milwaukee became proponents of clean and transparent governance. According to the Milwaukee Turner website, six of Milwaukee’s mayors have been Turners.
Turner Hall was built in 1882. My Great Grandfather, Wm. J. Rathkamp would have been five years old at the building’s dedication. The building was designed by H.C. Koch who also designed Milwaukee’s City Hall. It is currently the only original building on 4th street, between Highland and State. It is surrounded by parking lots and sits across from the Bradley Center.
Turner Hall was added to the list of National Historic Landmarks in 1996. Until its recent role as a venue for concerts, the ballroom sat vacant. If you use your imagination, you can see glimpses of what it once was. However, its current condition would have to be referred to as a state of decay. There is netting which spans all four corners of the room, presumably to shield patrons from the falling rotting ceiling. The condition of the paint makes the interior look like some sort of archaeological find.
Although I can’t say this as absolute fact, I’m fairly certain my Milwaukee ancestors, the Rathkamps, Niesls, and Dachs, attended events at Turner Hall. Turner Hall was the epicenter of German society at a time when Milwaukee was known as the “German Athens” of America. My Rathkamp ancestors lived a block away. Fritz Rathkamp, my Great Great Grandfather was a carpenter. Did he work on this building? George Niesl, my great grandfather, was an artist who painted murals in churches all over the midwest. Is his work present in the murals at Turner Hall?
I wonder what the future holds for Turner Hall. The website includes a list of current board members and I intend to contact them. There is a “Preservation Trust” currently working on renovating the facility. I’d really hate to lose the value this building holds for future generations and if there is anything I can do to help secure it’s future, I intend to. I need another hobby.