Turner Hall is as German as Milwaukee gets, yet its exterior offers few hints as to the building’s ethnic roots. In 1811, Frederick Ludwig Jahn founded the first Turnverein in Germany, teaching gymnastics and calisthenics for physical fitness and mental self-improvement. Turners (members of these clubs) linked self-improvement to wider political and social reforms, and Turner reform impulses underlay Germany’s unsuccessful liberal revolutions in 1848. German immigrants to America in the 1840s and 1850s established the Milwaukee Turnverein in 1853. Whereas most American Turnvereins became merely social and cultural clubs after the Civil War, the Milwaukee Turnverein never relaxed its quest for political reform. Beginning in the 1890s, the organization forged close ties to local and national Socialist parties. Many Milwaukee Turners were involved in radical journalism and labor organizing or won election to local or national offices.
Set on a rock-faced limestone foundation with cream brick walls, two identical brick and limestone gabled pavilions flank a taller central entrance pavilion. Originally a massive entrance arch sat beneath a dormered, pyramid-roofed tower, though this was subsequently filled with layered stone. Lively red brick stringcourses run across the facade and leap over round-arched windows. Interior re-modeling in 1995 brought Turner Hall back to life. Above the spacious oak-paneled first-floor dining areas, murals depict patriotic American historic events, and photographs display gymnastic participants and social festivities. At the rear, a two-story members-only gymnasium, still used by Turners, retains its original features. A 1930s fire closed the maple-floored two-story ballroom that occupies most of the second and third floors. Restoration efforts reveal decorative stenciling, cherubim in the ceiling murals, a raked stage that enabled audiences to enjoy each performer’s intricate footwork, and a massive gas chandelier with mirrored reflectors, among the largest of these rare fixtures extant in Wisconsin. Of Milwaukee’s several original Turner buildings, this alone survives.