The Turnverein Movement was first brought to the United States in 1848 by a group of political refugees from Germany who were keen enthusiasts of gymnastics and physical exercise. The name turnverein refers to a type of athletic club. Texas Turnvereins were established in Galveston in 1851, and by 1858 its Turn Verein Lodge had erected a building named Turner Hall that became one of the first public halls in Galveston.
The Galveston Turners made the decision to design a multi-purpose hall, rather than one strictly dedicated to exercise. As guests entered the front door, they could leave their hats and coats in a hat room to the right before proceeding to a bar on the left for refreshments. Beyond the bar was a sitting room which provided an area for socializing before or during the events of the evening.
To the far right was the popular ten pin alley where regular tournaments took place. Beyond these rooms was a grand hall that could be used for lectures, physical activities, and performances.
A stage at the back of the hall featured gas footlights, and the highly polished floor in front of it was designed for dancing. It could reportedly accommodate 75 couples at one time. Balcony seating was available on both the right and left sides.
The most popular activity that the “Turners,” as they called themselves, introduced to the community was a game of Ten Pin which is now known as bowling. A separate room was designed in which to play the popular game, but the rules were not as strict as they are in modern day.
Scoring was fairly unheard of, and the goal was to knock down the most pins for the right to demand “Ein glas bier!” Perhaps things have not changed so much after all.
Membership understandably decreased during the Civil War with members away fighting with their regiments. Once the conflict was over, membership grew to a larger number than before the war, with citizens ready to find reasons to celebrate and socialize.
Though the first private Mardi Gras ball took place at Michel Menard’s home in 1856, the first public Mardi Gras celebration took place at Turner Hall in 1867. A group which called itself “The Jolly Young Bachelors” invited 100 guests to an evening of entertainment and a masked ball.
The entertainment consisted of the performance of a scene from Shakespeare’s King Henry IV, in which the portly character of Falstaff was portrayed by 350-pound local judge Alvan Reed. Mademoiselle de Campbell then performed a comical German musical number about a woman struggling with layers of skirts, inspiring laughter from the gathering.
A dance followed, populated by extravagantly costumed attendees some of whom were entirely unrecognizable to their closest friends. The celebration set the bar for future Mardi Gras gatherings.
The hall was refurbished prior to the opening of the 1870 entertainment season, delighting those who attended functions there. The anterooms were decorated with updated furnishings masterfully made by local craftsmen and finished by Galveston upholsterer McMorris & Company.
Painter J. C. Evans provided fresh finishes to the exterior and interior, and the stage’s new drop curtain was described as “splendid.” The new appearance was celebrated with German vocal and instrumental performances reviewed by the Galveston Daily News as “sublime.”
Local newspapers of the 1870s were filled with listings and recaps of activities that took place at the hall including the 1875 anniversary ball of the Washington Steam Fire Company, an 1876 Strawberry Festival fund raiser, local military school graduation ceremonies, instrumental performances, internationally known singers, dances, Mardi Gras balls, anniversary parties, gymnastic performances, the Leidertafel (a local male vocal group), Galveston’s Amateur Orchestra, Greco-Roman wrestling matches, ten pin tournaments, political speeches, recitals, plays, and more.
Tickets to the performances were often sold by local merchants, costing 50 cents for adults and 25 cents for children.
An important part of the Galveston community, the hall also served as a meeting and event facility for a countless variety of local organizations including the ladies’ organization of the local Baptist Church and members of the Ancient Order of Druids. Thursday nights, however, were reserved for the gathering of the Turner Association who were often busy with the business of planning Volkfest, Maifest, and assorted charitable drives.
Former Texas Governor Elisha Marshall Pease (1812-1883), who helped to organize the Republican party in Texas in 1867, delivered a famous speech to the Republican County Committee at Turner Hall prior to the election of 1880. He asked members to ratify the nominations of James Garfield for president and Chester Arthur for vice-president of the United States.
By 1880 when Clara Kauffman inherited the property from her husband, Turner Hall’s popularity provided the opportunity the expand the venue and enlarge the footprint. The two main rooms downstairs were extended backward on the property and impressive hand painted scenery was added to the stage.
The building was increased to a total of nine rooms, two closets, two halls, and two fireplaces. Gas and oil lighting was available throughout the building, but there were still no bathrooms. The exterior of the hall maintained its original Greek Revival detail, but added block siding, additional windows, a two-story portico and hipped shingle, and metal roof.
In 1890, Trinity Church Sunday School held their Christmas celebration at the hall, complete with a gift laden tree on the stage, supper, dinner, dancing to the music of Elhardt’s Orchestra and an appearance by Santa Claus.
According to insurance board records from 1896, Kauffman had returned to Germany after her husband’s death and hired Henry B. Hildebrandt (1823-1903), a painter who lived on Rosenberg Avenue, to manage Turner Hall in her absence. A tenant area on the second floor was used by a caretaker.
Charles Sebastian Ott (1847-1909), the patriarch of Galveston’s longest-running monument company, purchased the hall from Kauffman in June 1900 for $7,000 and remodeled it for use by his business. Advertisements in newspapers and directories touted that the company located in “Old Turner Hall” could provide marble and slate headstones, tiles for hearths and vestibules, and wainscoting for halls.
Members of Ott’s family occasionally lived in the upstairs portion of the hall. The downstairs area was utilized for the company, and the former ten pin alley was used as a space to operate their electrical equipment. Many of the grave markers for victims of the 1900 Storm were created in this shop.
During Ott’s ownership, he provided workspace for Italian-born sculptor Pompeo Coppini. While working in the hall, the famous artist created the plaster cast for Galveston’s Woodmen of the World Memorial that now stands sentry in Lakeview Cemetery.
As a gesture of gratitude for providing studio space, Coppini also sculpted a bust of Ott that still has a place of honor in the offices of the Ott Monument Works on Broadway.
In addition to changes made for the sake of functionality, the building’s original roof was updated to composition and metal in 1904. When Ott passed away in April 1909 his wife Ellen Agnes Ott (1848-1913) transferred the property to Freda Kauffman, Clara’s daughter in law, for the consideration of $1 in exchange for the cancellation of notes due by Ott to Kauffman. Freda also lived in Germany, so the property was operated by a local agent.
Though ownership of the property changed, the monument works continued to operate from the building for several years. The two-story hall was listed for rent in May 1927, with a suggested use as a storage facility or garage.
From 1928 through 1940, a portion of the property served the community in an entirely new way, housing a bottling plant for Nehi soda. By that time, the current generation had largely forgotten the original significance of the hall.
Two years later, in May 1942, the building that originally hosted many of Galveston’s most spectacular events was razed. As with so many other buildings lost to time, it is sad that recognition of the history that is lost with them is realized too late.