Turner Hall blends history, music, wellness

The inside of Turner Hall ballroom plays host to many musical artists year-round. (Photo by Sarah Elms/sarah.elms@marquette.edu)

The four-story building was constructed in 1882 out of Milwaukee’s famous cream city brick. It houses a ballroom, restaurant and gym all in one structure, and it has survived two fires – one in 1933 and one in 1941. It is recognized as a national landmark, a local historical landmark and holds a spot on the National Registry of Historical Places. No other building in Milwaukee can lay claim to all three.

Marquette students walk by this historical venue all the time, and many don’t even realize it. Next time you’re standing in line outside the Bradley Center waiting to rush the stands, take a minute and look across Fourth Street at the beautiful brick building with the round, red sign.

That is Turner Hall.

History on Fourth Street

Turner Hall was designed by architect and German immigrant Henry H. Koch, also the architect for Milwaukee’s City Hall and the Pfister Hotel. It was originally built as a community center and gymnastics gym for the Milwaukee Turners, who were a central force in Milwaukee’s German civic, political and artistic culture.

There are dozens of American Turners societies across the country, all rooted in the German Turnverein associations of the early 1800s. These early groups were founded by German gymnastics educator and nationalist Frederick Ludwig Jahn to prepare youth for resistance to Napoleonic domination, both mentally and physically.

Soon, these societies spread to the United States through the work of German immigrants and exiles focused on spreading liberty and democratic reform. In Milwaukee, Turner Hall became a central meeting space for the Turners to practice their motto, “Sound Mind in a Sound Body.” In the early days, Turner Hall consisted of a gymnastics gym in the lower level and large gathering space above to house crowded meetings circled around political reform.

Although Turner Hall is no longer churning out Olympic gymnasts – one Turners gymnast represented the United States in the 1968 Mexico City games – or preaching political and social reform, it remains a staple of the Milwaukee community through its wealth of concerts, gymnastics, rock climbing, fencing, yoga and Brazilian martial art capoeira that bring people together every day of the week.

Encore, please?

On a typical weekend night at Turner Hall Ballroom, musicians are tuning their instruments, the sound crew is checking microphones, bartenders are opening beer cans and a crowd is steadily growing. No matter who the performer of the night is, Turner Hall guarantees a good time. Music-nuts love the intimate setting, college kids love the $4 tall boys, artists love the star treatment and employees love the sense of community.

The ballroom and balcony can house a total of 987 people, but even when the venue isn’t anywhere near its capacity, Turner Hall never feels empty. The staff often sets up arcs of tables and chairs for the smaller performances, providing the cozy, intimate feeling the venue is known for.

Michele Derdzinski, a senior in the College of Communication, has been doing promotional work for the Pabst Theater Foundation for approximately six months. Her job entails setting up for shows, distributing fliers around Marquette’s campus for upcoming concerts and welcoming people when they arrive. This also means she gets to see a lot of performances.

“The vibe at Turner Hall varies depending on the show’s set up and the type of music,” Derdzinski said in an email. “A night of quieter music, like Rachael Yamagata, may have all tables with candles and will be a relaxing atmosphere. Shows like Beirut or New Year’s Eve’s The Get Down can be more of a dance atmosphere with an open ballroom floor.”

Andy Nelson, public relations manager at Turner Hall, said aside from putting on a good show, the goal of Turner Hall is to make everyone feel at home, fans and artists alike.

Backstage, artists are offered whatever they desire to eat or drink, made by in-house baristas and chefs. While they enjoy their meal, they have a turntable and mix of records at their disposal, along with current issues of music magazines like Under the Radar.

The dressing rooms are just as laid back, decked out with arcade games and LoveSacs. They even have a shower; a simple thing invaluable to touring musicians.

“The artists are relaxed and having a good time back stage, so we think we see some of their best performances,” Nelson said.

Nelson attributed the practice of making everyone feel at home to Gary Witt, executive director of the Pabst Theater Foundation. When philanthropist Michael Cudahy bought the Pabst Theater from the city of Milwaukee ten years ago — Turner Hall and the Riverside Theater came under the Pabst’s management a few years later — he hired Witt on board even though he had no prior experience managing theaters. However, that is exactly why the three venues have been so successful.

“Because Gary didn’t grow up working in clubs, it offered a totally different perspective,” Nelson said. “We do things totally backwards from everyone else.”

It may be backwards, but it’s working.

“Between all staff, management and show attendees, the community at Turner Hall is unbelievably welcoming,” Derdzinski said. “At the venue and on the job, there is an excitement for sharing music with others.”

Physical, mental

In conjunction with the Turners motto of “Sound Mind in a Sound Body” the lower level of Turner Hall houses Turners Gymnasium. The space includes a gymnastics gym, weight room and climbing walls and offers yoga, fencing and capoeira as well.

The gym’s office is covered wall-to-wall in carabiners, chalk bags, rope and climbing shoes. The welcoming, relaxed staff wanders in and out to issue equipment and check on the patrons.

Pat Brehm, a Marquette graduate and marketing and public relations associate at Turner Hall, was already a climber before he moved to Milwaukee. His older brother Andy, also a Marquette graduate, introduced him to the growing community at Turners.

“That brought me in the door,” Brehm said. “Back then, there were only like 10 people who climbed here.”

Over the last few years, through a lot of outreach and public relations efforts, more and more people have been exploring what Turners has to offer, and many are becoming regulars at the multi-faceted gym.

Sam Michels-Boyce, a Marquette graduate, goes to Turners a couple times a week to climb. He said he started rock climbing at Turners because it was the only place the sport was available in the city.

“I like the sense of community here,” Michels-Boyce said. “I like that you can come here every day and you will see someone you know.”

Not only is the Turners gym a place for people to make friends and stay physically fit, but the gym does a lot of outreach programming as well. Turners has worked with children throughout the city, specifically with Milwaukee Public Schools, that do not have access to physical education classes.

Charles Dobbs, a junior in the College of Arts & Sciences, trains and teaches fencing with Turners. Dobbs and his co-instructor Sean Newton have held fencing demonstrations and exhibition bouts for audiences and school groups of all ages.

“It’s a great place to train and teach,” Dobbs said in an email. “Everyone who works there also plays there, and that really helps foster a very healthy environment for personal development together with friends.”

Another aspect of Turner Hall is the space for a restaurant or beer hall on the main floor; however, it is currently closed. The Historic Turner Restaurant occupied the space for 15 years, and plans for a replacement have been in the works since its closing in September 2010.