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Turners’ Hall

Once a German social hall in New Orleans, Turners' Hall was purchased in 2000 by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities to serve as the Louisiana Humanities Center.

Turners’ Hall

Courtesy of Louisiana Cultural Vistas Magazine

Turners' Hall. Brantly, Robert (Photographer)

Turners’ Hall, a palazzo-style masonry building with a commanding presence at the intersection of Lafayette and O’Keefe Streets in the Central Business District of New Orleans, is an architectural monument to immigrant pride. Built in 1868 for the Society of Turners, a German benevolent association, it was designed by William Thiel, a German-born architect and surveyor who worked in New Orleans from 1860 to 1869. The Picayune called Turners’ Hall an “Aladdin’s palace, grand in character and design, and a worthy monument to the genius and patient labor of the population which called it into existence.”

As a German social hall and the site of weddings, political rallies, gymnastics events, and other gatherings for the city’s German community, the 30,000-square-foot masonry structure features eighteen-inch-thick walls and twenty-five-foot ballroom windows on the third floor. During a major renovation in 1982–83, two additional floors were created within the third-floor ballroom by stepping back about twenty feet from the exterior walls to create a central core of offices overlooking an atrium on two sides of the building.

After more than 130 years as a fraternal hall and business center, the five-story building was purchased in December 2000 by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities (LEH) to serve as the Louisiana Humanities Center. The LEH occupies about 50 percent of the building, including the entire third floor. In 2007 the LEH opened the Louisiana Humanities Educational Center on the first floor to provide learning spaces for humanities organizations and nonprofit agencies in the state. The Louisiana Humanities Education Center hosts nonprofits, cultural organizations, national corporations, and academic associations for meetings, receptions, and public forums that advance the LEH’s mission. The Center’s Patrick F. Taylor Auditorium hosts innovative, original programs developed by the LEH throughout the year.

Throughout the 1860s Thiel also designed a synagogue for the Polish and Prussian immigrants of Congregation Tememe Derech on Carondelet Street, a hall for the Odd Fellows on Camp Street, and a meeting place for the Deutches Company on Bienville Street, as well as a number of New Orleans residential buildings. Like his other known designs, Thiel’s hall for the New Orleans Turners imparted a sense of European imagery to a growing American city.

Society of Turners

The Society of Turners, also known as the Turn Verein, the Turn Gemeinde, and the Turners’ Association, had the building constructed as a meeting hall and gymnasium. Societies of “turners,” or gymnasts, were popular organizations throughout nineteenth-century Prussia and the neighboring principalities of German-speaking peoples. After a large influx of German-speaking groups migrated to America following the 1848 wars of unification in Germany, many Turn Vereins were organized in the United States. A typical Turn Verein charter specified that the organization would be associated with the North American Turnerbund (Turners’ Federation), and as such would pursue the goals of its statutes to educate members and “enable them to fulfill their duties as men and as fit and useful citizens.” The statutes also aimed to promote the welfare of the Turnerei (members) and to “contribute to the improvement of the German element in the United States” by unifying members and by cultivating and spreading “friendship and brotherly love.”

By 1854 the group had built a meeting house in what is now the first block of Loyola Avenue (Elk Place), between Cleveland and Canal Streets. The Turners built this hall on land rented from a Michael Bock, from whom they held a lease running from 1854 to 1861. An 1855 document indicates that the society conducted its meetings in this building at that time and that they were leasing a part of their building to a barkeeper, Henry Clasen.

In 1867 the Turners found a permanent site for a larger and more ambitious meeting hall and gymnasium: a pair of lots in the heart of the New Orleans business district. The property was in a mixed residential and commercial district, with a number of livery stables in the area and near the thriving Poydras Market. The Turners purchased the lots facing what was then Philippa (O’Keefe) Street at the corner of Hevia (Lafayette) for $7,500 in cash and short-term notes at a public auction of the estate of James Davern on September 17, 1867.

Davern had purchased the plot from the city on May 11, 1858, and held the land undeveloped. The $7,500 that his succession got nine years later for selling them to what was then identified as the “Turngemeinde” was more than twice Davern’s purchase price of $3,450, reflecting the inflationary post–Civil War environment. Longtime Turner treasurer Salomon Schmidt, S. Aufheusen, and M. T. Sibelsky signed the various documents leading to and including the sale in October 1867.

The Turners lost little time starting their new hall. By August 1868 architect William Thiel had finished three drawings for the new hall showing an elevation with the original balconies of the third floor supported by iron brackets, the brickwork, a rear gallery, outbuildings, and a roof-framing scheme. On August 18, 1868, the Turners contracted with builder Thomas O’Neill to construct this building and its dependency for $39,758.

Thiel composed a giant order of pilasters to dominate the upper parts of the two facades overlooking the corner. They rise two stories, eight facing O’Keefe Street and five on Lafayette Street. Below the pilasters, heavy granite columns support a continuous granite lintel and a molded string-course. These define the original interior divisions between a street-level gymnasium and an upper-level auditorium adjoining offices and a ballroom. The building had faux bois doors between the granite columns and balconies beneath the third-level windows.

Inside, the finished building featured a hall, gymnasium, and store on the ground floor. The second floor held a library. A ballroom with a stage occupied the third floor. The Turners furnished the building with nearly a thousand chairs, a piano and violin, eight mirrors, desks, tables, pictures and statues, a library stocked with sheet music, arms, drums, flags, theatrical scenery, and club insignia. Five paintings were hung in the ballroom.

If the Turn Verein of New Orleans was true to form, the Lafayette Street hall was indeed the site of drinking and good times, even on Sunday, and even in Reconstruction-era New Orleans. The city had its temperance adherents, but one rather doubts that the New Orleans Turners faced as much disapproval of their singing and beer drinking as did those of other American cities. For decades, visitors such as Benjamin Latrobe had commented that New Orleans natives were tolerant of Sunday drinking and dancing, and since colonial times the city had been full of corner taverns known euphemistically as “coffee houses.” By 1850 New Orleans also had a number of beer halls, as the many acts of notaries  who catered to European foreigners during the mid-nineteenth century attest.

It was not social pressure but financial trouble that challenged the Society of Turners, even as they took possession of their handsome new building. To acquire the land and build the hall, they had taken on a burden of nearly $50,000 in an era when prices were high, cash was short, the economy was in crisis, and long-term financing was almost nonexistent. A year after the building was completed, O’Neill had received only $15,000 of the nearly $40,000 owed him, and the board decided to issue $25,000 in bonds to raise money to settle his account. O’Neill, hoping thereby to receive full payment, had to settle for a second mortgage on the building in order to prime the debt to the bond holders. This was agreed, and Turner president John C. May and secretary L. R. Jacoby issued the bonds in March 1869. The longest maturity they could get was five years at an eight percent semiannual coupon.

The following year, treasurer Salomon Schmidt prevailed on the Union Bank to lend the society another $9,000. Eighteen promissory notes with interest payable monthly and another mortgage on the building secured this note. A mortgage instrument of April 20, 1870, essentially converted the floating bank debt to a second mortgage after O’Neill appeared to acknowledge that he had been paid and gave the Turners a release on his earlier claims. It was now the spring of 1870. The Turners owed $25,000 to the bondholders, $9,000 to the bank, an indeterminate amount on the land, some taxes, and some accounts payable.

O’Neill and several others, probably bond holders, filed suit against the Turners in 6th District Court in 1878. Pursuant to this suit, the Orleans sheriff seized the Lafayette Street hall and sold it for debts to a consortium of New Orleans insurance companies on June 19 of that year. The consortium was led by Herman Zuberbier, president of the Germania Insurance Company of New Orleans, who may have leased the building to the older Turners group for a while or converted it to other uses. This all ended in 1883, when Germania and four other companies as well as several individuals sold their joint interests in the hall to James B. Moore and Company. At this point, grand Turners’ Hall probably became a machine shop.

Adaptation Over Many Decades

James Bradner Moore and a partner, John Middleton Huger, paid only $9,000 for Turners’ Hall in 1883. It was still known as Turners’ Hall, but it now contained machinery, boilers, pumps, reservoirs, filters, pipes, and pulleys.

Moore and Company turned out to be no more solvent than the Turners. Within two years its own creditors were suing, forcing a sheriff’s sale that took place February 21, 1885. The Board of Commissioners of the Tulane Education Fund now purchased the hall for $11,100 as part of its investment portfolio of downtown New Orleans real estate. Tulane retained the property for fifty-eight years, the longest owner in Turners’ Hall history. The university had a series of tenants, including Steeg Printing and Publishing Company, which also did some bookbinding.

By 1948 Turners’ Hall had become a furniture store. The Labiche family purchased the hall in 1955 and operated it as Labiche’s furniture warehouse and used appliance store until 1979. The building was then converted into office space for the Qualicare Corporation of Louisiana, with Errol Barron / Michael Toups Architects dividing the great interior spaces, both horizontally and vertically, and converting the building to office use.

Turners’ Hall has a new life in the twenty-first century under the aegis of the LEH. Following renovations required after the ground floor of the building flooded during Hurricane Katrina, the LEH opened a public auditorium and new board room where the nonprofit agency conducts public programming meetings.