By Nicole Davis
The South Side Turnverein, once a beloved piece of architecture that symbolizes Indianapolis’ German heritage and cultural influence, once made it to Indiana Landmarks’ 10 Most Endangered list.
The red brick building has undergone substantial renovation, preserving many of its historical characteristics to now serve as the headquarters for Point Comfort Underwriters.
The public has an opportunity to view this former gymnasium at 306 Prospect St. during the Landmark Look tour on March 2, 3 – 5 p.m. The event costs $10 per person (free for Indiana Landmark members).
“I would encourage people to come out and see it because it’s a fantastic example of a great piece of historic architecture that somebody has invested in and they’ve done it right,” said Mark Dollase, vice president of Preservation Services for Indiana Landmarks.
History of the Turnverein
A Turnverein is an association of gymnasts, a term also used for a place for physical exercise. The South Side Turnverein Hall was built in 1900, with members celebrating its dedication in January 1901. Through its peak, the South Side Turnverein maintained a membership of approximately 400 people.
A combination of German descendants dissociating from their German identity following WWII and construction projects such as the Madison Avenue Expressway, and later I-70, demolishing much of the surrounding neighborhood, led to a decline in the organization.
The club closed its doors in 1977. Since then, the building has had various uses, including, most recently, the main floor used as a gymnasium while the lower level hosted a hard rock-style bar.
When the building was put up for sale, Indiana Landmarks named it to its 10 Most Endangered Places list. Simultaneously, it had caught the attention of Bill Atkins and Betsy Brougher, who were looking for a new space to house the headquarters for their business, Point Comfort Underwriters.
The medical claims management organization and international travel insurance company had outgrown its space at The Stutz. At a Thanksgiving party in 2016, a friend told them about the Turnverein and a couple of days later they set up a walk-through.
“We fell in love with the building even when we went in,” Atkins said. “It’s one of those things, you just kind of know.”
Atkins and Brougher worked with Indiana Landmarks to pursue a historic tax credit, which will allow them to recover 20 percent of the cost of rehabilitating the property. Indiana Landmarks also connected them with architectural firms, leading to RATIO Architects handling the project.
The restoration included removing walls and dropped ceilings, which revealed its original features. The gymnasium was at the heart of what the South Side Turners used the space for, so it was important that Atkins and Brougher maintain that aspect.
The restoration process
“It’s a two-story space that feels like a 20th century gymnasium,” Dollase said. “They preserved the gymnasium floor. They preserved the height of the ceiling. There would have been a space on one end that would have been bleachers, a mezzanine level where you look down: they’ve restored those features.
“They didn’t replace the old windows. Everything was fully respected as part of this process. They inserted office cubicles into the gym. You can stand anywhere in the gym, look up and tell it was a gymnastics space, but they made it functional for them.”
Point Comfort Underwriters currently has 40 employees, who will work in that gymnasium space and will lease out the lower level with more than 5,000 square feet of space.
“I’m really pleased with where we are today,” Atkins said. “Our business has an amazing place to work. I love the building so much. My favorite place in the building depends on the time of day. It has these arched windows that get light at different times of the day. In the winter, we have the sun, which is really low and casts different kind of light. … The landing on the way upstairs, it doesn’t have any purpose other than at night when I’m going home and the sun is going down, what that makes the front hallway look like. I appreciate those things.”
The most difficult and exciting part of the project, Atkins said, was the restoration of a terra cotta sculpture originally designed by Austrian Rudolf Schwarz, the same artist who created limestone sculptural groups for Indianapolis’ Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument.
The sculpture depicts Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, the “father of gymnastics,” alongside other symbols that depict the Turners’ beliefs. The sculpture was crumbling and rusted beyond the point of restoration, although many pieces will be displayed inside the building. Ignition Arts, a creative fabrication group, replicated the piece out of fiberglass, making it lighter than the original. It is expected to be installed prior to the March 2 tour.
Landmark Look tour at the South Side Turnverein
March 2, 3-5 p.m.
306 Prospect St., Indianapolis
turnvereinlook.eventbrite.com, (317) 639-4534