Big cities abound with thriving ethnic neighborhoods. New York City is home to one of America’s largest Chinese populations, in addition to many other ethnic neighborhoods. Chicago is famous for its Chinatown, Little Italy, and a thriving Polish community. Miami, Florida, has Little Havana.
In the late nineteenth century, Indianapolis was home to Germantown, a thriving ethnic neighborhood just northeast of downtown. Indianapolis’s German residents were a hard-working group, who desired to share their cultural heritage with their neighbors. At one time before the start of World War I, there were no less than 86 German cultural and social clubs in Indianapolis. Chief among them was the Indianapolis Socialer Turnervein (or Turners in English), who built one of the city’s most recognizable cultural landmarks, the Indianapolis Athenaeum.
The Indianapolis Turners were a German-American gymnastics association. The group was founded in 1851 by Clemens Vonnegut and several other prominent German residents. Vonnegut was a successful business owner (he operated a hardware store) and a civic leader. And yes, if the name sounds familiar, there was a family connection between Clemens famed author Kurt Vonnegut. Clemens was Kurt’s grandfather. Turners followed the teachings of German thinker Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, who advocated for a restoration of physical and mental power through the sport of gymnastics. His followers embraced the philosophy, “a sound mind in a sound body.”
Indianapolis’s German population had experienced an increase in numbers following Germany’s Revolution of 1848. The Turner societies in Germany tended to be liberally minded, and many took part in the failed revolution. Following their defeat, many of these Germans immigrated to the United States. To bring their traditions and culture to their new country, Turner societies modeled on their German counterparts popped up across the United States.
The association set up a gymnastics gymnasium in a building at the corner of Meridian and Maryland Streets in downtown Indianapolis. They also used the building for social activities and entertainment. Eventually, as the organization grew, a larger facility became necessary. In 1892, the group formed a stock association to raise money for construction. Within a year, enough money had been collected to begin construction on the building’s first wing.
The architectural firm chosen to design the building was Vonnegut and Bohn, a local company co-owned by Clemens Vonnegut’s son, Bernard. Bernard and his partner, Arthur Bohn, were both classically trained in Germany. During their association, they would design many Indianapolis landmarks. Some of their projects included the William H. Block Building, the Ayres Building, and Shortridge High School. For the Athenaeum, Bohn and Vonnegut chose to design the imposing brick structure in the German-Renaissance Revival style.
A location was chosen just a short distance from Germantown. The huge building was constructed in two phases between 1893 and 1898. The building, itself, was a work of art. On the exterior, sculpted terra cotta and limestone detailing was completed by local artist Alexander Sangernebo. Inside, a stunning fireplace surround depicted scenes from Dante’s Inferno. Gorgeous woodwork flourished in the building’s interior.
By the time both phases of construction ended in 1898, the building housed a huge gymnasium, meeting spaces, a restaurant, auditorium, bowling alleys, ballroom and concert hall, and outdoor beer garden complete with concert pavilion. Originally, the building was named Das Deutsche Haus, or “The German House.” It quickly became a local German cultural institution and a social gathering place.
In addition to being an important cultural center, the building soon became a respected educational facility as well. Medical classes were held there in the 1880s and 1890s. In 1907, the Normal College of the National Gymnastics Union moved from Milwaukee to Indianapolis and took up residence at the Athenaeum. The college attracted students from all over the country who wished to learn how to teach physical education. Many of the pioneers of physical education in America’s public schools were trained at the Normal College. In 1941, the college became affiliated with Indiana University, eventually moving to the campus of IUPUI in 1970.
For the first twenty years of its existence, Das Deutsche House operated in harmony with its neighbors. That changed overnight in 1917 when the United States declared war on Germany. Suddenly, suspicion surrounded the activities of German clubs and cultural associations in the United States. By January 1918, the Indianapolis Star was reporting that members of Das Deutsche House were considering a name change for their building. According to the Star, such a move was necessary “in order to have that society conform and take its place side by side with our other English-speaking societies in an English-speaking nation…”
The change was made official at a ceremony in honor of George Washington’s birthday on February 22, 1918. Members were reportedly filled with emotion as the change was announced. One member, Carl Lieber, was quoted in the Indianapolis Star explaining that “the change had been made to avoid the least chance of misunderstanding on the part of our neighbors as to a possible political or nationalistic significance…”
And so, Das Deutsche Haus became the Athenaeum—a nod to the culture of the ancient Greeks, Athenaeum roughly translates to “gathering place of culture.” Even with its new name, the building’s mission as a cultural and social institution remained largely unchanged. In the ensuing decades, it continued to operate as the home of the nationally acclaimed Normal College and as a meeting place for clubs and social organizations. German food and beer continued to be served in the building’s restaurant and beer garden.
Over 100 years later, the Athenaeum remains a local cultural institution. Its iconic Rathskeller restaurant continues to serve up the best German food in town. To date, the restaurant is Indianapolis’s oldest continually operating restaurant. An outdoor beer garden with live musical performances draws crowds of revelers each season. The old gymnasium is now home to a branch of the YMCA.
As with all old buildings, rumors of hauntings and unexplained events followed the Athenaeum. Some of the more famous sightings include a spirit purported to be Dr. Helene Knabe, a former instructor in the Normal College who was brutally murdered in 1911. Many visitors claim to have seen a ghostly couple dancing on the ballroom floor.
Such is the public’s interest in these ghostly sightings that The Athenaeum Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the building and its unique history, hosts a popular overnight ghost tour several times a year. For the faint of heart, daytime tours focused on the history and architecture of the building are available through Indiana Landmarks.