This week and next, we present a series of longer pieces unraveling the histories of storied buildings.
Yesterday New York was AS GERMAN AS BERLIN and any one on the Bowery might have fancied himself unter den Linden. Germany bubbled up everywhere and the substantial joy of substantial Teutonia foamed LIKE A HUGE FLAGON OF LAGER. – New York Herald, April 11, 1871
On an April day in 1871, some 40,000 German immigrants, their spirits buoyed by the fatherland’s victory in the Franco-Prussian War, marched in formation from Tompkins Square Park to the accompaniment of “die Wacht am Rhein,” a tune that would later become a hallmark of Prussian militarism. The men marched down the Bowery to City Hall, then back to Tompkins Square by way of Broadway and 14th Street. All along the parade route, even at City Hall, New Yorkers displayed the German tri-color alongside the Stars and Stripes, sometimes intertwining them like vines wrapped around a common pole. Every corner of German-American society had a representative in the procession: not only brewers, hat-makers and butchers, but bands and choruses and—crucially for this story—a corps of gymnasts.
The Germans, it seemed, had taken over.
At the head of this enormous Teutonic mass marched Major General Franz Sigel, perhaps the most revered of New York’s German-Americans. Sigel had fought in not one, but two civil wars: first in the abortive 1848 Revolution in Baden, one of the many principalities that would later become Germany; then in the US Civil War, when in response to Lincoln’s call for volunteers, he organized a German regiment in St. Louis. Sigel fought the first land battle of the Civil War, a close shave at Carthage, Missouri. Like many of the Forty-Eighters (as those Germans who came to the States after the revolutions were known), Sigel lived and breathed in a web of German-centric groups. He devoted his life in America to one in particular—the New York Turn Verein, or Gymnastics Society—which would, only months after the peace celebration, move into new headquarters at 66–68 East 4th Street, where German gymnasts tumbled, fenced and celebrated from 1871 to 1898.
The building thereafter known as Turn Hall has since had incarnations as a for-hire meeting hall called the Manhattan Lyceum, the headquarters of a Ukrainian labor organization and a movie studio. Since 1974, it has been home to La MaMa, New York’s storied experimental theater. But in the building’s three decades as home to the Turners, as they were known, it housed an organization devoted to what today might seem like a grab bag of unrelated concerns: anti-slavery, “diet and exercise” health-consciousness, and liberal republicanism. They followed the school of gymnastic thought developed by Prussian pedagogue, Friedrich Ludwig Jahn. His motto? Frisch, fromm, fröhlich, frei. Fresh, devout, joyful, free.
This block of 4th Street in turn harbored immigrants, outcasts and agitators—some of them radical, others enthusiastically devoted to the American project. As Bedford + Bowery readers know, the first Yiddish play ever performed in America was put on here, under the Turn Verein’s auspices. Later, 66–68 East Fourth Street would host labor activists in abundance. As the Manhattan Lyceum, from the turn of the century to 1925, it served as the strike headquarters for more than one early 20th century labor dispute. Samuel Gompers and Emma Goldman spoke here and Goldman was once arrested on the building steps in 1906.
But there’s a side to this building that’s perhaps more instructive for today—when once again politicians blame immigrants, aliens and strangers for America’s problems. Long before La MaMa set itself up as the outsider theater par excellence, the New York Turners were instrumental in giving form to the American immigrant experience. Beginning as distrusted, even reviled, foreigners, they eventually joined the American mainstream while still holding tight to their German heritage and mother tongue. By 1900, German-Americans in New York had become an important political constituency, and prominent Turners like Gustav Scholer, who served as municipal coroner at the time of the General Slocum steamship fire, the neighborhood’s worst disaster. He also figured in the revolt against the Democrats of Tammany Hall. This pluralist renaissance came to a tragic end for America’s Germans when World War I prompted mass suspicion of so-called “hyphenated Americans,” and mass amnesia followed. We forgot that German-Americans, in their specifically German guise, had contributed mightily to the causes of abolition, public education and the arts. But reminders remain, buried in archives and microfilmed newspapers.
New York’s April 10, 1871 celebration of the Armistice of Versailles, for instance, is emblematic of how German immigrants remade American in their own image at the same time that they made their way in their new country. The procession that day culminated in a mass meeting of German-Americans at Tompkins Square. After hours of walking, the throng assembled to hear speeches commemorating the peace, including one by William Cullen Bryant, poet and longtime editor of the New York Evening Post. But the best-received address seems to have been that of Sigismund Kaufman—a Forty-Eighter who will soon make another appearance in our story. Here, in part, is what he told the crowd, as reported by the New York Daily Tribune:
We should strive to maintain in these United States our German honor, truth and industry. Then we shall have the best praise given to any people. Let us show the Americans that we know the right and will do it and condemn only the bad and wrong. [Cheers.] Let us remember that we are children of one nation—the great nation in the world—not Prussia, not Bavaria, nor any other state or principality, but only Germany. [Great cheering.] Let us show ourselves worthy of our origin, and we shall be as much respected here as if we had remained in the old land. [Cheers.]
The Turn Verein got its start on the Lower East Side with the defection from the New Yorker Turngemeinde of Hoboken of a dissatisfied minority who broke away to found the Socialist Turn Verein. Frustrated with the New Jersey group’s lack of political energy, the 36 dissidents held their first meeting in June, 1850. A published centennial history of the organization housed in the archives of the New-York Historical Society tells the tale. The membership chose as their first Sprecher—speaker, a post equivalent to president—none other than Sigismund Kaufman, the same rousing speaker who, almost exactly 20 years later, would address those thousands of German emigrés in Tompkins Square. Kaufman would hold this post a total of five times, more than any other leader of the society. Franz Sigel would himself be elected president in 1855, three years before he moved to St. Louis.
In 1857, the New York Socialist Turn Verein became simply the New York Turn Verein. The gymnasts were radical by the standards of 19th-century absolute monarchs—if not by the contemporary understanding of the term. Under its new name, the society acquired its first permanent home at the end of the 1850s: a former Quaker church at 27–33 Orchard Street.
Although they’d found a new home at Orchard Street, the Germans were not always welcome in the new country. The 1850s were the heyday of the “Know Nothing” Party—nativist, anti-Catholics who viewed Irish and German immigrants as potential agents of the Pope. (Never mind that many of the Germans, at least, were Freethinkers and Protestants.) Germans on weekend excursions—often with Turners among them—sometimes weathered attacks by squadrons of young men. This in spite of willingness on the part of Germans to take up arms for the Union: Franz Sigel was far from the only Turner to fight in Lincoln’s War. The Turn societies of New York even mustered an all-Turner regiment—the Twentieth Regiment New York Volunteers, known unofficially as the United Turner Rifles. At the conclusion of the war, the Turners erected a memorial tablet in their Orchard Street headquarters to commemorate their war dead. The tablet went with them to 4th Street.
When the Turners outgrew Orchard Street, the society levied an assessment on its members to raise funds for the move. Besides gymnastic instruction, the Turn Verein now encompassed a chorus (the Turner Liedertafel), a dramatic section and a school for over 600 students. By combining a pair of Greek Revival row houses on East 4th Street between Second Avenue and the Bowery, they were able to add the large gymnastics and performance hall that LaMaMa still uses as a theater.
These were not just any rowhouses. The two buildings had originally formed the centerpiece of Albion Place, a fashionable development on what was in 1833 the far north side of town. When the Turn Verein laid its new cornerstone on July 17, 1871, the club became just as central to the cultural life of Little Germany. Other German organizations like the Beethoven Männerchor and Liederkranz already had their headquarters nearby and two years later, another one, the Aschenbroedel Verein, moved in right next door. (That building is now also part of La MaMa.)
In what remained of the 1870s, the Verein fell into a rhythm, regularly hosting the District Turnfest, for which Turn societies from across New York state gathered in Manhattan. The newspapers of this period feature recurring accounts of gymnastic weekends at Jones’s Wood, once a forested parkland on the Upper East Side. Judging by the attitude of the reporters, the Germans were looked upon as a semi-exotic addition to the New York scene. A Thanksgiving article in the 1872 New York Tribune reported “general observance of the Puritan festival,” then singled out the Germans for doing things a little differently. Where most “repaired to their homes or the houses of their friends” after a church service, “among the Germans, Thanksgiving was celebrated, as usual, by social entertainments, under the auspices of the numerous German musical and social organizations.”
Moreover, the newspapers betrayed a near-constant fascination with German beer culture. A New York Times reporter at the 1860 Mayfest, at which the Turners were present, could hardly contain his astonishment:
But, of all the amusements of the day, that of quaffing the foaming lager was the most universal. The universal German nation drinks lager, and sustained its reputation on this occasion. There was lager in barrels, lager in kegs, lager in horns, lager in cups, lager in tumblers, lager in mugs, lager in goblets, lager in huge wooden bowls, lager in ladies’ slippers, lager in fact in all sorts of vessels, rapidly disappearing. It seems as if there was lager enough consumed to deluge the TIMES office — fourth story and all overwhelming us in the Teutonic flood. Men, women and children alike partook of the exhilarating liquid, and still the cry was ‘Lager.’ But, during a stay of four hours in Jones’ Wood the TIMES’ Reporter did not see a single drunken person.
From its new home base, the society and its members made common cause not only with other German organizations but with other immigrant groups. In August of 1871, barely a month after the move, General Sigel and a delegation from the Verein joined a march of Italian-Americans demonstrating in support of the occupation of Rome by Italian forces—the final stage in the unification of Italy. The Turners regularly lent support to the activities of other German groups, also. In February 1878, they appeared as “Roman gladiators” at a costume ball held by Arion, a German song society. Visiting German gymnasts regularly paraded about town with the New York Turners, usually beginning at the Turn Hall and then taking boats to Jones’s Wood.
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On Jan. 5, 1880, fire swept through 66-68 East 4th Street and the building next door at No. 64. Seven people died in a blaze that the Evening Telegraph called a “Holocaust.”
Their names were Henry Geweiler, Theresa Erhardt, Louis Schmidt, Rose Lang, Margaret and William Geib, and Annie Bauer. All were German immigrants. William Geib, Margaret Geib’s son, was ten years old. His mother, along with the building’s lessee William Winckel, were pulled from the building a little after the Geibs fell unconscious. The firemen also rescued Margaret, but she later died in the hospital. They were too late for young William. He suffocated to death in a Winckels’ apartment on the building’s top floor.
This was the era before external fire escapes. Although mandatory in tenement buildings since 1860, other New York fixtures like row houses often went without them, sometimes with tragic consequences. Of those who died on Jan. 5, two fell from windows near the top of the building. Geweiler died instantly. A 16-year-old named Lewis Mayer watched Geweiler fall and told the New York Times, “He was in a hurry for the fire was coming on and the smoke was unbearable. He made a grab for the cornice, missed it, and fell. I heard him strike in the yard, 70 feet below. I felt sick and trembled, but I decided that it was better to fall and die suddenly than to be slowly suffocated or burned.” Mayer went out the same way, but successfully made it up and out of the building. Not so for Rose Lang, who, the New York Times said, fell from a window onto a railing, which ripped the flesh on her right arm from “the elbow to the wrist, laying bare the bone.” Among the material losses of the fire was that memorial tablet, the one with the names of all the New York Turners who had lost their lives in the Civil War.
In the aftermath of the fire, the Turners did what seemed natural. They appealed to their German friends for help. The society agreed to pay the funeral expenses of those victims whose families were poor, and then got right to the problem at hand: repairing the building. Luckily, the gymnastics hall suffered only water damage from the firemen’s efforts to put out the flames in the loft. But much of the rest of the building—the library, the school premises—had been destroyed. It’s impossible to know now how many volumes the library contained, but the 1876 catalogue somehow survived and made its way to the New York Public Library in 1904. That little volume lists over 800 books.
The Turn Verein held a weeks-long fair to raise funds, and with sympathy pouring in from New York’s German community, the society quickly got back on its feet. The 100th anniversary history reports that, in the aftermath of the fire, membership surged to its highest number ever at 676 voting male members along with its auxiliaries. However catastrophic, the fire probably did more to solidify a sense of German community than it did to wreck the Turn Verein. And by 1886, the society seems to have been flourishing once again. In a sign of recovery that will give bookworms that warm fuzzy feeling, the library catalogue had by then grown to almost 60 pages long.
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In the papers of Gustav Scholer, the prominent Turner whose election as coroner came in 1901 on the anti-Tammany “Fusion” ticket, there are two letters that testify to a turn-of-the-century political reality. In 1898, the Republican State Committee Chairman Benjamin Odell wrote to Scholer asking to “consult with you with reference to the matter of the supposed attitude of the German-Americans in this city and state.” Two years before that, Scholer received a thank you letter from an office in Canton, Ohio, signed by none other than William McKinley, future president of the United States. German-Americans won the attention of local and national politicians as Germans, as members of a distinct, vibrant minority.
Sigel’s generation cleaved to its German identity. They spoke German, ate German food, drank German lager and promulgated a variety of republicanism that reflected a distinctly German philosophy. At the same time they were wholly and enthusiastically American. Think of the German citizens who celebrated the Fourth of July in 1860, according to the New York Times, “their various places of amusement being crowded from morning till night, where they enjoyed their favorite lager and theatrical performances.” Sigel died in 1902.
Scholer, although born in Germany, was among the first German-Americans to be raised in the United States. Yet even this group, those who were children in the 1850s, the sons and daughters of Forty-Eighters, would not escape the enormous backlash again all things German that swept the States during the First World War. As Kurt Vonnegut, himself the scion of an important German family from Indianapolis, wrote in Palm Sunday:
One German-American friend of mine … says that it was a particular misfortune for this country that the German-Americans had achieved such eminence in the arts and education when it was their turn to be scorned from on high. To hate all that they did and stood for at that time, which included gymnastics, by the way, was to lobotomize not only the German-Americans but our culture.