The Cleveland East Side Turners

The Complicated History of a Simple Social Club

The small, two and half story, red brick building lying in the shadow of the long-abandoned Richmond Bros. complex on East 55th Street is not exactly welcoming. The building sits on a weed-filled lawn behind a small parking lot, surrounded by a barbed-wire-topped chain link fence. The windows are covered and the small sign above the doorway can barely be made out from the street. Security cameras are prominently placed and focused on the entrance of the building. An unassuming passerby may well wonder what sort of nefarious deeds are occurring there that warrant such secrecy and security. Well, none, actually—other than some rather aggressive digging, setting and spiking. It happens to be the hall of the Cleveland East Side Turners, Northeast Ohio’s most popular volleyball club.

Like its building, the history behind the East Side Turners would surprise many unknowing passersby. Turners is an Americanization of Turnverein, a gymnastics movement started in 1811 by Friedrich Ludwig Jahn in the Germanic lands of Central Europe. Jahn was a nationalist who wanted a united Germany, but, above all, he believed proper exercise would propel the Germanic people to preeminence in the region. Seen by some as an eccentric outcast with xenophobic, anti-Semitic, and militaristic tendencies bent on improving the Germanic race, it is not hard to understand why some historians have drawn parallels between Jahn and a later German with a similar worldview and mindset—Adolph Hitler. Jahn was exiled during Clemons von Metternich’s anti-liberalism crusade in 1819, becoming a mere figurehead as his Turnverein evolved into a more inclusive group. After the Germanic Revolutions of 1848 the organization was disbanded and its leaders arrested, which led many members to seek new lives with greater freedom and economic opportunity in the United States.

The Cleveland Turnverein was the fourth formed in the U.S. behind Cincinnati, Boston, and Philadelphia. Established in 1850, the members initially met at Welch & Frank’s—a local, German-run shop, while practicing their gymnastic exercises in Bellevue Garden on Central Avenue near what would later become the Gateway complex. Membership grew as Germans continued to flock to the Cleveland area in the mid-19th century, until the Civil War intervened. The Turnverein members tended to be staunch abolitionists and the entire Cleveland Turnverein joined the Union Army en masse in 1861. Their initial three-month enlistment created the 150-man, Company K of the 7th Ohio Volunteers—the first all-German unit from Cleveland. Most members immediately reenlisted in the same regiment after this first stint, and the unit fought bravely at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Chattanooga. One Turnverein member from the original Company K, Dr. Charles Hartmann, instead joined the illustrious 107th Ohio Infantry as the regimental surgeon. At Chancellorsville on May 2, 1863, he entered the fray in an attempt to rally the troops and prevent the regiment from being routed. However, he was gunned down by advancing Confederate troops, and became the only surgeon killed in battle during the war.

As German-American soldiers made their way home after the war and attempted to reunite the Turnverein, difficulties arose and the social club splintered. In 1867, a west side group began meeting at the Free German School auditorium on Mechanic Street (now West 38th). Another faction stationed on the near east side of downtown started calling themselves the Germania Turnverein in 1876, initially meeting at a hall on Woodland Avenue before building Germania Hall on Erie Street (East 9th) a dozen years later. Yet another group, calling themselves the Turnverein Vonvaerts, formed in 1890, and in 1893 they built the red-brick hall on the corner of Willson Avenue (East 55th) and Harlem Street. The Germania Turnverein merged with the Vonvaerts in 1908 and the combined clubs have since remained at that location in the shadow of the Richmond Bros. building.

The athletic emphasis of the Cleveland Turnverein was reestablished after World War I and they regularly held large, public gymnastic displays. Men and women would engage in elaborate demonstrations that showcased their agility and strength at public venues in front of enormous crowds—a kind of forerunner to today’s Cirque du Soleil. One prominent member, Dr. Karl Zapp, was an early and loud advocate for instituting physical education classes in school curricula. It is through his early efforts that American children have enjoyed the benefits, or torments, of gym classes since the 1920s. The Turnverein was also instrumental in popularizing bowling throughout the United States as a form of recreational exercise.

Aside from brave Civil War medics, various lithe gymnasts and physical education proponents, many illustrious Clevelanders have been members of the Cleveland Turnverein. Ernst Mueller was one of Cleveland’s most successful brewers, founding the very popular Cleveland Home Brewing Co, and serving as President of the enormous Cleveland-Sandusky Brewing Corp. The architect Theodore Schmitt was responsible for many public structures throughout Cleveland, including the Cuyahoga County Courthouse, the Joseph & Feiss Building, and the Euclid Avenue Temple, among many others. His father Jacob was Chief of Police for the city, and when he died in 1893, his obituary in the Cleveland Plain Dealer claimed that he was “better known than any other one man in the city.” Although the Turnverein concentrated on athletics, and gymnastics in particular, it also served as a German social club for the city’s large and influential German population, and many of its members were prominent citizens.

The World Wars brought certain prejudices, and German-Americans during this time sought to distance themselves from purely Germanic associations and better assimilate into American life. To this end, the Turnverein began referring to itself simply as the more acceptably American sounding--American Turners. By 1941, the Turnverein Vonvaerts had become the Cleveland East Side Turners.

As the enthusiasm waned for public displays of gymnastics, the East Side Turners eventually transformed into an organization running popular volleyball leagues and tournaments. The outlying structures of the property on East 55th Street, which once included a separate meeting hall and a large kitchen facility, eventually were lost until only the gymnasium remained. Although this lone building in a corner of the resurgent St. Clair-Superior neighborhood may look foreboding, volleyball enthusiasts of every nationality are warmly welcomed here. Like the convoluted history of its ancestral gymnastics club, the nondescript brick building that is home to today’s Cleveland East Side Turners is far more interesting, and less frightening, than it seems at first glance.

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1622 E. 55th St.